The Man Booker-shortlisted writer on a solitary childhood in Canada and daring to question the Chinese regime
At breakfast in Vancouver just before her adopted sister disappears forever from her life, 11-year-old Marie, AKA Ma-li, forlornly submits to being consoled with a wordgame. She discovers that the Chinese ideogram for the verb to arrive is made up of the radical for tree and the word not yet:Arrival is a tree that is still to come.
There are many translation games in Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thiens powerful Man Booker-shortlisted novel: the difference between a world that is settled and secure and one that is constantly imperilled is enshrined in such fine conceptual differences of written language. In Thiens China, the thing that should have arrived is always still to come, whether it involves a missing person, a secret message or a better future.
The games start with the title of the novel which is, Thien explains, the English transliteration of a line from the anthem of the Communist party of China, which was translated via Russian from the French socialist anthem The Internationale.
Thien is on her way to speak at the Edinburgh International book festival when we meet. The novel is just out and she is feeling befuddled and amazed by her appearance on the Man Booker list. Though virtually unknown in the UK, the 42-year-old writer has won awards in her native Canada for a small but scorching oeuvre dealing with some of the toughest history of the modern age. Before this latest novel described by Guardian reviewer Isabel Hilton as a moving and extraordinary evocation of the 20th-century tragedy of China came Dogs at the Perimeter, which dealt with another great tragedy, the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which is published by Granta, opens in 1990 in the home of Marie, who disarmingly informs us that her Chinese nickname means charming mineral. It was given to her by Ai-Ming, the daughter of mysteriously connected friends of her father, who has been adopted by her mother after fleeing the repercussions of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
Ai-Mings arrival in Canada opens the door on 60 years of catastrophic history involving the families of two talented Chinese musicians, one of whom Maries father defected to the west, while the other stayed in China. Both men are now dead, leaving their daughters to piece together their story.
Like Marie, Thien is a child of several cultures who grew up in Canada. Her mother was a Cantonese speaker from Hong Kong while her father is Hakka, ethnically Chinese but born in a part of Malaysia that was once the British protectorate of north Borneo.
Her parents met as students in Australia then settled in Malaysia until the region became dangerously unstable. They emigrated to Vancouver in 1974 with two small children and a plan to open a Chinese-Canadian diner, which would serve chop suey plus bacon and egg sandwiches. Thien was born two months later and the diner failed, which, she says, was just as well as she was diagnosed with a life-threatening kidney condition which kept her in hospital for six months, with her parents keeping vigil at her bedside.
After that, it was a very typical immigrant story in the sense that they struggled for a long time and my mum had three jobs. I remember not seeing her. My dad was the one who was at home with us, but we did, as kids, spend a lot of time alone, she says.
As the sole member of her family who was born in the west, Thien is the only one whose mother tongue is English. She has no Mandarin, but learned Cantonese as a child, and has the writing age of an eight-year-old. As for speaking: My mother used to say that my tones are all crooked: its like hearing a song sung out of tune.
The perspective of a child who is both insider and outsider is central to Do Not Say We Have Nothing. It makes Marie into a historical sleuth whose observations drill down through layer after layer of difference.
In an early scene, she watches her mother using a dictionary to decipher a letter announcing Ai-Mings imminent arrival, then responding by telephone, [speaking] in her mother tongue, Cantonese, with brief interjections of Mandarin. The reason Maries trilingual mother has to read with a dictionary is because she is not fluent in the simplified Chinese script imposed by Mao.
The novel takes us back from the 1989 generation who were caught up in Tiananmen Square to the 1966 generation, who went through the Cultural Revolution. It turns out that Maries father, Jiang Kai, was a concert pianist who was tutored at the Shanghai Conservatory by Ai-Mings father, Sparrow, a talented composer. The closure of the conservatory in 1966 drove the two musicians into different versions of artistic exile. While Jiang Kai flees first to Beijing and later to Canada, Sparrow is thrown into a no-mans land of creative silence.
One of the more bizarre facts of the Cultural Revolution was that while western music was being destroyed all over China, Mao had a symphony orchestra in Beijing. Thien builds this paradox into the fabric of the novel: it is structured as theme and variations, taking its cue from Sparrows obsession with Bachs Goldberg Variations, as performed over several decades by the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould.
Thien was an idealistic 14-year-old Vancouver schoolgirl when the 1989 demonstrations began. It was the first time I saw events outside unfolding in real time on CNN, and it was a parallel world. For a long time it looked as if it was going to turn out very differently: there was so much joy, as if people were finally going to have a say in what Chinese modernity would look like and in directing their country. Instead, a more authoritarian system became entrenched, and thats very shocking 27 years on. In the novel, Marie is too young to understand what is happening, but her incomprehension about her familys plight attaches itself to those chaotic, frightening images of people and tanks, and my mother in front of the screen.
Brusque but loving mothers recur through the novel. Thiens own was the eldest of 12 children. My parents are quite reserved in English but funny and boisterous in their mother tongues, she says. Some of my best memories are of my mum sitting with her sisters and laughing and talking all night: that light emanating from her.
As a solitary child, whose siblings were older and didnt necessarily want to talk to me, she spent long hours on her own, walking to and from school through quite rough neighbourhoods, clutching these magical things, books, that made an imaginative space other people could inhabit.
She was a talented dancer, winning a scholarship to study contemporary dance and ballet at university, which she lost after becoming distracted by words. I came from quite a poor neighbourhood and didnt have access to ideas, so I did this silly thing. I was taking all these fourth year philosophy courses and it was a leap too great.
Unable to support herself without the scholarship, she abandoned the course, and it was a while before she found a way of financing herself on the new journey of a literature degree. She emerged, aged 23, with a few short stories and took a clerical job at an academic press the perfect set of circumstances because the job was just the job and I could keep all that creative energy for trying to learn the art of short fiction.
Then came the offer of a scholarship to do a masters degree in creative writing, and that was life changing. Thrift was one of the habits she is grateful to have learned from her mother: I wouldnt have gone into debt. Having enough money is important to me. She spent the first year working on the seven stories that would become her first book, Simple Recipes, devising a writing system that involved repeatedly abandoning and rewriting whole drafts.
But a system that worked for a short stories caused problems when she set about her debut novel. The trouble with that process of throwing it all out is that you lose some of the propulsion of the first draft. I was always retreating and losing the underdrawing.
Her debut novel, Certainty, published in 2006, won two prizes in Canada but left her feeling dissatisfied. She had tried to tell the story of her fathers Malaysian background, and says now, I felt I knew more than I did. Its a daughters book: one I almost had to write so I could move on.
The place she moved on to was Pol Pots Cambodia, and a period of history from which few had emerged alive to tell the tale. Research for Dogs at the Perimeter involved travelling around the country for months. To her knowledge only the third novel ever to tackle the genocide of Year Zero, it carried a heavy burden of historical conscience, posing a question that has become central to her literary project: If a person erases him or herself in order to survive, how can they find that self again? Can survival bring them peace, or is it only madness to remember?
Do Not Say We Have Nothing makes the surprising suggestion that part of the solution might lie in the act of copying. The different generations of Marie and Ai-Mings families are connected by the manuscript of a novel, The Book of Records, chapters of which have been carefully copied out, hidden in walls and beneath floorboards, and passed from hand to hand.The Book of Records is precious because it represents a narrative that doesnt conform to the approved version of Chinese history, Thien explains. Its a book with no beginning, no middle and no end, in which the characters are seeing an alternative China where they recognise mirrors of themselves and which they write themselves into.
She is speaking literally as well as metaphorically. The act of copying is different in China because part of the art of calligraphy is that you learn to write as the masters did. Its a lot about breath and pressure and line. Youre almost learning to breathe in the same line as the masters, and when youve learned, you find your own expression. Its metaphorically powerful because its how we all learn. I have some of my mothers gestures. My handwriting is the same as hers.
Her mothers death, just after Thiens first book was published, was the spur to leave Vancouver. She married a Dutchman and briefly went to live in the Netherlands, before returning to set up home on the other side of Canada, in Montreal, where she now lives with the Lebanese novelist Rawi Hage.
But China continued to call to her: All my life Ive been thinking about it, circling it, though I never really thought Id write about it. Research for Do Not Say We Have Nothing has involved travelling widely on her own, from a base in Shanghai up through the northwestern territories to the area where the Great Wall ends and the land turns into desert. Its one of those places you can never quite see enough of it, its vast. For the Chinese its very odd for people to travel alone so I often get picked up by families and couples. You learn a lot from what people dont tell you.
She considers herself fortunate to have a foreigners immunity from political persecution Im not beholden to anyone who could be hurt even though she has been outspoken about what she sees as a new authoritarianism in China, publicly criticising the closure of an innovative, intercultural creative writing masters course on which she has taught at Hong Kong University since 2010. I hesitate to use the incendiary words of censorship, freedom of speech and intellectual freedom. However, it has become increasingly clear to me, as events have unfolded, that these are precisely the issues, she has written.
This latest crackdown is yet another variation on the long-running theme of suppression of the individual, making it highly unlikely that either of her mature novels will be published in mainland China, though she hopes they may yet be in Hong Kong. It doesnt seem too far-fetched to describe them as her own Books of Records, embodying the difficult business of remaining imaginatively free while honouring contested history.
Each took her five years to write and, she says, she hopes her next book will take her somewhere less exhausting, though my interests have always been political and historical so to some extent that will always find its way into my writing. In a new era of revolution and mass migration from punitive regimes, there can be few more pressing existential questions for fiction to tackle than Thiens: How do you write yourself back into the history that is officially erasing you?