Madeleine Thien on Tiananmen Square and the power of storytelling
Madeleine Thien's latest novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, takes us back to China during two of the most significant moments in recent history — the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s, and the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. The book moves across generations and timelines, but at the centre are three best friends, all musicians who share a passion and talent for Western classical music. Their love for each other and the music that binds them proves to be threatening in revolutionary China. The story is told through the eyes of Marie, the daughter of one of these friends, who is struggling to live her life while also trying to understand why her father killed himself.
Madeleine Thien lives in Montreal, but she spoke to Shelagh Rogers from Vancouver.
ON WRITING ABOUT KEY MOMENTS IN CHINA'S HISTORY
When I started, I was really thinking that I was writing about 1989 and Tiananmen, which had made such a huge impact on me. I was 14 years old at the time the protest took place. There had been images of these six weeks of demonstrations and then this decisive moment in Chinese history which could have gone in so many directions. It stayed with me. As I was writing, though, I found that while I was drawn to the students, I was also very strongly drawn to their parents and the lives that their parents had lived. Because one of the things that has always struck me is that we remember the students who lost their lives on June 4, but we have largely forgotten that most of the deaths took place on the roads leading to Tiananmen Square, where parents, workers, high school students all came out into the streets to stop the tanks from reaching the students. And so I became drawn to that story, of what gave those people the courage to come out against the government.
KEEPING A RECORD OF THE PAST
I think of Marie as the keeper of the record. She's such an important part of the novel, but she's a voice on the side, in a way. The story she ends up telling is not her father's story, but the story of two people who her father loved. Can you tell the story of a person not through what they said or did — though that's part of it — but can you tell it through how they loved, and who they loved? And so it goes to Sparrow, who's an extraordinarily gifted composer, and to his cousin Julie who is a young prodigy on the violin. It goes into the lives they made and the lives they lost. So Marie is a keeper of the book of records. Stories can't always be told by the people living in their centre. It's an act of love to try to carry that story within ourselves or to carry it forward.
As a novelist, you are invested in every single word. Writing novels is about the act of listening even more than the act of speaking. One thing that always fascinated me is that in the Chinese language there is actually no word for silence. Silence is not actually a conceptual idea, because the silence doesn't depend on whether you or I are speaking, it depends on the world. And that, in that sense, is never quiet.
Madeleine Thien's comments have been edited and condensed.