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An Interview With Madeleine Thien, Author Of Do Not Say We Have Nothing


Tell us a little about yourself in 2022.

I love this question. In 2022, I’ll accept that I have reached middle-age (48) or even, depending on what the future holds, the 2/3 mark of my life or later.

Maybe I won’t feel the sadness I feel now at 45 – as if the world I was born into is fading, and even becoming archaic; mourning is useless yet I mourn the world my parents knew and which dissolves, more and more, each year they’re gone. It’s strange realising that the constellations of your memory are a kind of history, and that once you and those of your generation have passed away, the geopolitical events and beliefs that shaped your world will be intangible, even unreal, and also unloved, unseen.

I hope I’ll have finished the novel I’m working on; or, if not, I hope the novel and I have both survived to 2022.


What made you decide to write about each of periods of political upheaval that you have, like the Khmer Rouge in Dogs At The Perimeter, and the Cultural Revolution in Do Not Say We Have Nothing?

At first, it wasn’t a completely conscious decision. The places were part of my life, and the books came from ten years of writing and thinking, half in Cambodia and half in China, but very much joined together. One novel is very fragmented, broken and, I hope, alive in its myriad pieces; and one is an epic, continuous and, I hope, symphonic. Together they’re about revolution and social movement, idealism and action, totalitarianism and freedom.


In your work, it seems that you frequently return to the experience of people's lives being shaped by events completely out of their control — from family dynamics, to living in a period of political disorder. What brings you back to exploring this, time and time again?

In the end I think my main subject has been individual choice and the afterlife of these choices even in times of political anguish. Despite the overwhelming disorder, the lives of Sparrow, Zhuli, Kai, Big Mother Knife, Wen the Dreamer and Swirl – and the many other people who populate the pages of Do Not Say We Have Nothing – are also characterised decided by what they accept or refuse, accommodate, understand, by how they choose to speak or not speak. In times of denunciation, for instance, the refusal to partake – to dehumanise others in order to save oneself – is a courageous and important act. Also, I think each character brings their experience and life, their specific and personal angle on history, to revolutionary moments; this is part of the complexity and power of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations.


Do you think your work proposes an answer to how we should respond to these events? 

I think that wanting freedom for oneself is wanting freedom for everyone; I don’t believe in wanting freedom for oneself at the cost of subjugating others. Even the most illuminating ideals can be corrupted by authoritarian tendencies.


You've written with an intense sensory appeal to music in Do Not Say We Have Nothing, taste in Simple Recipes, and smell in your latest piece for Frieze. Where do you think this element of your writing comes from?

Maybe all the years I studied ballet and, later on, modern dance. And when I was a child, Chinese calligraphy and painting; and later on, drawing. Maybe I’m a writer by temperament but another kind of person or artist by the things I love.


Which writers have particularly influenced you, and made your work possible?

My partner Rawi Hage. He’s inspired me with every book and is one of my most ingenious readers. Also, Cees Nooteboom, Michael Ondaatje, Dionne Brand, Ma Jian, Alice Munro, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Mikhail Bakhtin. And so many more. I read continuously. Lately I’ve been reading a lot about lens grinding and 17th century bookshops.


What are you working on?

An impossible novel, set in Kowloon Walled City in the future; of course, in reality, the building is gone. But it becomes this space in which many times exist. I may never finish it, or it may just prove unwieldy, but living with it and researching and thinking has been liberating.


Photo credit: Rawi Hage

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