Fresh from a Man-Booker Prize nomination for her latest novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Canadian-born Madeleine Thien’s successful career began in 2001. The Vancouver-native touches on themes of race, migration, femininity, class and how 20th-century history is still constantly affecting us today through re-telling key historical moments from Canadian and/or East Asian perspectives. She reads from her latest work, which recounts the Tiananmen Square massacre through the perspective of a young Chinese Family, on September 14, 9pm at Berliner Festspiele.
Describe your first memory of writing…
When I first learned to read, and imagined that reading and creating were the same.
The three Ws: Where, When, Why do you write?
Anyplace. Anytime, even if I can steal 10 or 15 minutes in the midst of other daily chores. Why? To know something of this world.
Describe the genesis of your books. How do you get started?
It’s never the same each time. But there’s this feeling of passing through something – a doorway, curtain, over a threshold, into a dream – and piecing together another way of existing. It’s maddening and addictive.
Worst praise/favourite criticism about your work?
My favourite criticism came 20 years ago, when I was a student, and a fellow writer said of my work, “I don’t know why I bothered to read this.” It was such a simple thing. To realize that someone was giving you a few minutes or many hours of their lives, time that they’ll never get back. It made me think about how I wanted to use the time given by a reader, and not to take it for granted. Quite beautifully, that story became the title piece of my first book.
Books and politics: what should the connection be? What makes writers good/bad activists?
There’s no “should,” I think that’s only thing I stand by. Writing is an act of freedom.
Your favourite literary character. Why?
There are so many. But I love the depth and interiority and mystery of Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov.
A book you wish you had written…
Cees Nooteboom’s All Souls Day.
Best recent read…
Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace and Rosemary Sullivan’s Stalin’s Daughter.
A question you wish we’d asked…
Care to have a glass of wine?
Berlin: first thing that comes to mind?