Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Music, Beauty and Freedom in Madeleine Thien's World

Madeleine Thien was surprised at the crowd that greeted her at Centretown United Church on Sunday evening. In her introduction, CBC’s Lucy van Oldenbarneveld told the inter-generational audience of close to 300 that Thien thought there might be “about 20 people” who would show up to discuss her book Do Not Say We Have Nothing. (It recently won the Governor General’s Literary Award, was a Man Booker Prize finalist, and has been shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, among others.)


Indeed, Thien seems reticent about her ascent to fame. She is petite and soft-spoken, yet her words display deep emotion and insight into the human condition. After reading two carefully selected passages from Do Not Say We Have Nothing, she sat down for a discussion with van Oldenbarneveld.


Van Oldenbarneveld was a superb host and demonstrated her skill in drawing out various themes in Thien’s writing. They talked about the role of music in the book as well as in Thien’s own life. Through their exchange, the audience learned that Thien’s inspiration for the book came during a vulnerable moment in her life, in 2011, when she was reflecting on her previous book, Dogs at the Perimeter (on the Cambodian genocide), and struggling with feelings of having “failed” to do the subject matter justice.  While walking in Berlin, Thien was listening to Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg variations, which led her through various emotional landscapes: “joy, sorrow and everything in between.” Through that experience, Thien came up with the structure of Do Not Say We Have Nothing: the key was to start simple, and then introduce a recurring theme in increasingly complex variations.


When probed further about what music represented for the book’s characters, Thien said that after writing for 20 years, she came to realize the failure of language to fully capture sentiments or emotions at times. For Thien’s characters, music “expresses a very private self” that is “in flux and cannot be pinned down.” In contrast, they live outwardly in Mao’s era, where the revolutionary dogma is loud and shrill, and the emphasis is on using the correct political slogans.


The audience was interested to know about Thien’s writing habits and how she sees herself as a writer. In Thien’s ideal world, she would sit at a coffee shop from 7am to noon, people-watch, listen to music, and write. She sees herself not so much as a “political writer,” but a writer who is “interested in how we live” and is not afraid of political themes.


Given that she is situated in Canada, Thien recognizes that she has a lot of freedom available to her. While commenting that it is “unpredictable” to gauge whether change is possible under the current Chinese government (which, according to Thien, has gone to extremes to censor words such as “today,” “tomorrow,” “yesterday” and “remember” during past Tiananmen anniversaries), she remains hopeful because there has always been a place in ancient Chinese tradition for the dissenting scholar/intellectual, whose self-appointed role is to critique the government.


Clearly, Thien sees herself as a mouthpiece for speaking truth to power. Her open letter to her alma mater, the University of British Columbia, regarding the allegations against Steven Galloway, was brought up by someone in the audience, who thanked her for her honesty and courage.


Van Oldenbarneveld’s last question was about the inscription that one of the book’s characters finds at the Conservatory, from a Bach cantata: “Ah, Lord, teach us to consider that we must die, so that we might become wise.” This prompted some soul-searching on Thien’s part, which ended with a few eloquent words on the current state we all find ourselves: “We all want this just society… but we’re not in agreement on what the cost is.”