Novelist Madeleine Thien talks China and change

Canadian author Madeleine Thien recently touched down in Hong Kong to launch her critically acclaimed novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing.  Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, it traces the story of Marie, a ten-year-old girl living in 1990s Canada.  All is well until her mother invites the mysterious Ai-ming into the family home.

Ai-ming fled China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square riots in 1989. She tells Marie the story of her family, a microcosm of twentieth century Chinese history, covering the ascent of chairman Mao, the Shanghai Conservatory of the 1960s and the events leading to Beijing’s demonstrations of the 1980s.

Thien herself is the daughter of a Chinese Malaysian father and, like Marie, a Hong Kong Chinese mother. Asked whether she drew on personal experience when writing Marie’s story, she admitted that things were different back in the 1970s when she was growing up.

“Back then many immigrants hoped to assimilate, so I was raised speaking English. My parents spoke different Chinese dialects, but English to me.”

She says the novel took five years to research, although the seeds of the story were sown when she was a 14-year-old watching the events in Tiananmen unfold. “Over the five years, I spent a lot of time in China and particularly Shanghai.”

The novel revolves around The Shanghai Conservatory of Music – which was established in 1927 and was the first music institution of higher education in China – and three musicians studying and working there in the 1960s, one of whom is Marie’s father.

“I read a lot, engaged myself in Chinese literature, listened to music and made friendships. It was very much a multi-faceted process,” she says.

Her two previous novels, Certainty and Dogs At The Perimeter also tackle tumultuous periods of history – second world war Malaysia in Certainty and the Khmer Rouge in Dogs At The Perimeter. “I don’t think I consciously picked these events because they were dramatic – in Certainty it was more a desire to focus on the political structures in place in Malaysia at the time my parents left.

Dogs At The Perimeter was a very difficult book to write. I had spent a lot of time in Cambodia and it had left me with many unresolved questions about the revolution.”

Thien notes that the events of the Tiananmen Square covered in her third novel are the most sensitive in Chinese history and believes it is important that they remain in the collective memory. “Political change in China is a continuous movement, events that take place influence the series of directions it could take, and China is grappling with this right now.”

Of Hong Kong, she recognises that this is a complex time for the territory. “It’s changing much faster than I would have imagined,” she says. “Hong Kong is an important place in that China’s relations with the SAR are a microcosm of how it relates with the rest of the world. It’s a conversation that needs to be had.”

Thien is currently working on a fourth novel.