The 1989 uprising in Tiananmen Square has long gripped Madeleine Thien. “It’s something that’s always stayed with me from that time I was 14 turning 15,” she says. “I think in all these years since, 27 years now, it’s been a topic that I’ve returned again and again to in my interests. But it’s only in the last five or six years that I thought I was ready to write about it.”
Researching the 1989 democracy movement that culminated in massacre on June 3 and 4 in Beijing, she “started to think about those people—the parents, the workers, the high-school students—that weren’t the university students that we’d all been so focused on. And I started to think about those parents and what gave them the courage to come into the streets that night and in the weeks preceding.”
Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Thien’s newly released third novel, furthers the ambition of previous works including the 2006 book Certainty, which won the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award. (Thien, born in Vancouver and now living in Montreal, is also acclaimed for short stories. Her literary debut, the 2001 collection Simple Recipes, received the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize; last year, her story “The Wedding Cake” was a finalist for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award.)
Centred on the struggles of three musicians and their relatives, against China’s sociopolitical landscape in the mid to late 20th century, the current novel “is about creative expression, and art, and revolution. And how history has this force,” Thien says to the Straight from Beirut, where she’s appearing at a festival. “And what happens to the very fragile or tenuous lives that are caught up in these forces.”
After completing Dogs at the Perimeter, her 2011 novel about the Cambodian genocide, Thien found her questions on Communism still unresolved. Struck by recordings she heard in Phnom Penh of Cambodian psychedelic rock, and the fact that many of its performers were executed by the Khmer Rouge, she wanted to explore “musicians, and what it is about music that could be so threatening to any ideology”.
On these pages, Marie Jiang, a 30-something mathematician at Simon Fraser University, recalls a period decades earlier when Ai-ming, a Chinese dissident, sought harbour in the Jiangs’ Vancouver home. This followed the separation of Marie’s parents and the subsequent suicide of her father, Kai, in Hong Kong.
“The beginning was really thinking about this family that was hiding a young woman,” Thien says, noting that as a child she met an individual who was similarly sheltered. “Where it went from there took me by surprise.…I don’t think I knew at the beginning how deeply it was going to go into music in Shanghai. But it became the heart of the book in so many ways.”
Ai-ming’s father, Sparrow, “the through line from beginning to end”, was a brilliant composer who taught at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. “His students wanted revolutionary accessibility,” Thien writes, “and his superiors tried to educate him on the correct political line, but what line could this be? As soon as he contained it in his hand, it opened its wings and filled the sky. What musical idea stayed fixed for a year or a lifetime, let alone a revolutionary age?”
Until the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s ruptured their lives, Sparrow fostered the endeavours of his younger cousin, Zhuli, a dedicated violinist, and grew close to Kai, a gifted pianist with suspicious allegiances. “I was interested in the ways that Chinese musicians were using western classical music to express, on one hand, a national self—a modern Chinese self—and on the other hand a very personal, private self,” Thien says. “And then, later on, how the students in Tiananmen Square were using western models of political structures, under the very broad term democracy.”
Devising a means “to lay those two historical turning points side by side” was among the book’s primary challenges. By 1989, she remarks, China’s people had already grieved “privately, and mourned so many things, and lost so much. But there was something about seeing their children—those students, the hope of the whole nation [in Tiananmen Square]—under threat and willing to stand up to the government, that I think it made a flash point in Chinese society.”
Referenced throughout the novel is a metafictional document, The Book of Records, an evolving multivolume saga that deepens concepts on covert communication and the pursuit of autonomy. (“In all that time period,” Thien says, “you hear a lot about these books passed from person to person and hand-copied. That’s always been a very striking detail for me.”)
Marie’s narrative, twined with the novel’s other threads, conveys the reach of political furor. Here, Thien depicts how the stifled identities and aspirations of one generation become the shadow inheritance of the next.
An artist’s task “is to try to see what’s not immediately visible. And those things are not visible for many different reasons,” she says. “Sometimes they’re just marginal, sometimes they’re too quiet, sometimes it’s about time.
“It’s that we need to see resonances in a greater time scale than, say, yesterday or last month,” she continues. “It’s twofold: it’s on a personal level, the way we live our lives and what we’re capable of seeing. And on the craft and technique and art level, always pushing the boundaries of what we do so we can make it visible.”
The Vancouver launch of Do Not Say We Have Nothing takes place on Thursday (June 23) at SFU’s Segal Building (500 Granville Street).