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ILB interview: Madeleine Thien

Canadian author Madeleine Thien read from her award-winning book "Do Not Say We Have Nothing" last night at the Berliner Festspiele. We chatted with her beforehand about Berlin, history and how one should not look at China.

Image for ILB interview: Madeleine Thien
Photo by Hartwig Klappert

Madeleine Thien made her appearance at the ILB last night to read from her award-winning book Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which she actually began writing in Berlin when she lived here for a year in 2011. We followed up our Author Spotlight with the Canadian author with a chat about her book, history, China and her love for the Hauptstadt.

You have an affinity with Berlin, why so?

My partner had a fellowship at the DAAD, the Berliner Künstlerprogramm so we lived here for a year and I’ve pretty much never been able to let go.

Berlin is a remarkable place. It’s a place where the history is visible in almost every space, and the way that difficult things are remembered here, or allowed not to be erased, is remarkable. As someone who often writes about history but is very much writing about the present, it’s a very powerful space to be in. In Canada there’s a lot of erasure of history. It’s a complicated place, both a young country of 150 years old but that has a history stretching back 1400 years or more. It’s a friction of how Canada thinks about itself; how it tries to frame itself.

History is a dominant theme in your writing.

The books are always about the fact that no history is walled-off from another history, histories exist inside people, in layers that are always shifting.

Of all the historic traumas to remember, why did you choose to focus on the Tiananmen Square protests specifically?

It’s a decisive moment in history, in Chinese history and otherwise. When the demonstrations started in 1989 I was 14. Of course we know now that 1989 was a pivotal year for many countries and communism across the world. But the first massive protests were in China [in April]. So much of what China is now is predicated on what happened in 1989, and that, itself, is predicated on so much that happened in the 1960s and 1970s.

In Do Not Say We Have Nothing, 1989 is the zero point of the book. In the book there’s a lot about mathematics and geometry, and the zero point is the point on which all other points depend. From Tiananmen the novel looks both forward and back.

You have Chinese heritage on both your mother and father’s side . Was it important to you to write about China?

I was always interested but I didn’t think I had the capacity or enough of the knowledge to write about it, because I was born in Canada and raised entirely in English. There are so many superficial, quickly written books about China by people who haven’t spent a lot of time in the country. China in the last few years has grown at an incredible rate, and shifted towards being even more controlling. As it grows there has also been a rise in fear of it, but it’s such an extraordinary place; complex, frustrating, humbling. And it’s a place of real debate. The idea that it’s a monolith of people thinking the same thing is probably the most ridiculous idea that one could have. How could anyone think a billion people could have one singular thought? I wish everyone could experience some of what I experienced being immersed there.

You said that having politics in books is “the only thing [you] stand by”

I don’t see how politics is removed from any of our lives. We are so shaped by the structures we grow up inside. With Do Not Say We Have Nothing and these large political moments that it traverses, the simple truth is that those political events touched every single person in China. Anyone who was born in 1949, 47, pick any date, they would have lived through all of these things. It’s not a construction. No one was left untouched; no one was left unmarked. So to write about that place means that’s always going to be there either in the foreground or background of it.