An Interview with Madeleine Thien

madeleine thien_photo credit Babak Salari

photo: Babak Salari

Madeleine Thien is the author of the story collection Simple Recipes (2001) and the novels Certainty (2006) and Dogs at the Perimeter (2012)which was shortlisted for Berlin’s 2014 International Literature Award and won the Frankfurt Book Fair’s 2015 Liberaturpreis. Her books and stories have been translated into 25 languages. Her essays have appeared in Granta, the Guardian, the Financial Times, Five DialsBrick, and elsewhere, and her story “The Wedding Cake” was shortlisted for the 2015 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. The daughter of Malaysian-Chinese immigrants to Canada, she lives in Montreal. A new novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, about the legacy of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations, will be published in 2016.

Laura Ritland: While reading Dogs at the Perimeter, I was struck by how precariously the protagonist, Janie, occupies time and place. The childhood she experienced in Cambodia both before and during the Khmer Rouge’s regime literally intervenes with her adult life in Montreal in the form of traumatic flashbacks and fragmented memories. While the intersection of multiple geographies and histories is central to both your short story collection Simple Recipes and your first novel Certainty, Dogs at the Perimeter seems to more fully collapse two countries and two time periods. How did you achieve such a deep immersion in the history and geography of another country? What were some of the challenges of writing about a country and history that you hadn’t experienced first-hand—and how did you bring those experiences to life?

Madeleine Thien: Ah, a universe of questions! Writing Dogs at the Perimeter was a long process and, I think, most importantly, one where I didn’t take anything for granted. I spent many months in Cambodia, over many years, returning again and again. It became my second home. The immersion is twofold. First, being in the place, letting go of pre-suppositions, being aware of the contradictory ways that the past will fragment the present. Second, immersing in the characters’ lives and perceptions and ways of thinking about the world. Not writing them into life, but really thinking and listening until they write themselves into existence.

The structure of the novel, where memory is sometimes vertical, with Cambodia and Montreal almost superimposed upon one another at times, is a reflection of Janie’s mind in these particular months. All the selves that don’t fit together are suddenly clamouring for space. They’re all parts of her self, her personhood, but they make different claims on the past and therefore on her future.

LR: What are some of the ethical concerns you encounter(ed) while writing about trauma and historical experiences that are not necessarily your own? At one point, while describing an attack on a boat of Cambodian refugees, Janie says: “I have no words for what was done.” Are there some historical experiences that cannot be written? I wonder if you might comment on how this process went for you, or how you navigated the silences in writing about trauma.

MT: I kept ethics at the forefront of my mind. I honestly believe there is no other way to write about a genocide, particularly one that happened in my lifetime.

For a long time, I didn’t think that I would write about Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge years, only the aftermath. But as time went by, I realized there had been so much amnesia about these events—about Cambodia as the “sideshow” to the Vietnam War; about the 2.7 million tonnes of bombs dropped on Cambodia, a neutral country, by the United States; about Western support for the Khmer Rouge all the way to the 1990s—that writing about the aftermath, without detailing the devastation at the centre, would only add to the wilful forgetting.

I tried to find a way to write about 1975 and the years of the Khmer Rouge, but in a way that would respect the characters in the novel. There are things Janie can and cannot tell us, things she can put into words, and things she can never speak. She tries to tell us. It’s up to us to hear between the lines, to know when we are ignorant of history, to fill in the pieces. The novel is created to make space for the reader, and for the reader to actually apprehend the silences, rather than to cover them up or pretend they don’t exist.

It’s an artistic and human dilemma, how to write about silence without camouflaging the silence.

LR: In pointing to but not filling these silences, do you worry that they may not be heard? Put another way, how much trust do you put in your readers to recognize and explore these unspoken (or unspeakable) pieces of this history?

MT: Yes, that’s exactly the risk, but it was a conscious choice. I see literature as a space of equality, a vast field of sound. The reader is not harnessed in. It’s true that some silences may be missed, that what I’ve tried to do will remain unheard and/or invisible to some readers. On the other hand, some readers will bring even more nuance to the work; they will add dimensionality that I, myself, may not be conscious of. The challenge for the artist is to bring as much as they can to this space, this field, to shape it with precise and provocative language and, in my opinion, rigorous thought and, at the same time, to celebrate the liberty of the reader. I believe in willingness on all sides. Reading is a powerful consensual act.

LR: I’m fascinated by how you have described your writing process as an act of translation; in your interview at the Adelaide Writers’ Week (Adelaide Festival 2013), you suggested that your experiences as a child of immigrant parents influenced your sense of writing as “an act of translation where you just want to express to the best of your ability something that is not yours.”  I’m also thinking about your upcoming novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing (forthcoming June 2016), which features students in 1960s Shanghai studying Western classical music. You have described it as being “about artistic expression and also about the movement of ideas, artistic and political, from west to east and vice versa, and through generations” (WordMothers). What kinds of opportunities—artistic, social, or otherwise—arise when we “translate” one kind of culture or tradition into another? 

MT: There are many kinds of translation and I think, in this case, I was thinking of a kind of simultaneous translation that is quite ubiquitous in immigrant families, where, for example, my grandmother might address me in Chinese and I would answer in English. We could have this ongoing conversation, in both languages, for extended periods of time, and the two language systems overlay one another—and, magically, we’re both able to speak in our mother tongues.

I actually think this is what’s happening in my mind most of the time, because I was brought up in a particular Malaysian-Chinese culture, but I lived it in English. I find there’s a real beauty, and subversiveness, in trying to stretch the English language to hold ways of thinking, and qualities of expression, and cadences, that are not native to it. So maybe translating isn’t the perfect metaphor; maybe it’s more about using the same paintbrush in a different way, and creating a new technique. In the end, I want the reader to inhabit the space, to both forget and remember themselves simultaneously. Like the best translations, the language can feel both utterly new and utterly eternal.

LR: As a writer, working in that created space and stretching the abilities of your craft, do you also feel you have simultaneously “forgotten and remembered” yourself in the act of writing? What happens to a writer’s “self”—their identity, sense of personal memory, and subjective experience—when it extends this way?

MT: Yes, extension is a beautiful way of putting it. Fiction is mysterious because we willingly journey very far away and, at the end, we may come to know ourselves (or we may not). But this knowledge is rarely obvious or clear; self-improvement and self-help aren’t the objectives of fiction. I think fiction allows us to perceive, imagine, and internalize states of being we do not yet have words for.

I don’t see a vast difference between trying to know the world and coming (perhaps) to know oneself. But I do see a vast difference between looking principally at oneself and assuming you can know the world. A work like this sometimes does the opposite, and erases most of the world from consciousness.

LR: Thinking of Canada and its own creative communities, do you see fruitful acts of translation currently happening in our literary culture? What kinds of literary or artistic interactions between cultures, histories, and nations are happening right now that make you excited?

MT: I love Dionne Brand’s work because it stretches form, and she finds the language that is poetry, philosophy, history, the political and personal, joyful, musical, devastating, present. Her thinking is rigorous and she makes language hers. I love Janet Cardiff and George Buros Miller, whose work brings together architecture, narrative, sight and sound, tactility; one of my favourites is “Ghost Machine”. These days, I’m drawn back to dance, which was the first art form I studied intensively (ballet and modern dance), and I’m thinking about movement, bodies, ageing, and the line, which in ballet, goes on forever. I love the choreography and works of James Kudelka.

LR: In your presentation at “CWILA and the Challenge of Counting for Race” (March 14, 2014), you described CWILA’s count as the use of “numbers to understand a system that we have created. The numbers help us see the ways in which our system is a meritocracy, a celebration of great literature, and the ways in which it is not.” CWILA seeks to provide an evidence-based description of who is receiving literary attention in Canada and who isn’t. And yet, as you voiced, “Why are people so afraid of numbers? Why are people so threatened by another way of looking?” Have you found any answers to that question since your presentation two years ago?

MT: No, I think it might be worse. I sense that views are becoming more entrenched, and I think that social media and certain news cycles lead to very combative positions, where ideas are expressed in absolutes. We mimic the slogans and the catchphrases, and sidestep the thinking.

In this particular case, the numbers are a tool, they’re a way to examine data. The data will not tell us why or how this happens. If we want to know why or how, all of us are going to have to ask ourselves some very hard questions about ingrained stereotypes, racial hierarchies, the ways literary/cultural credit and value are given and received, and the ways that we read.

LR: What “hard questions” have you recently been asking yourself or others?

MT: I’ve been asking myself about women’s lives, sexuality, and ownership of our desires—and how this intersects, in very painful ways, with race. I’ve also been thinking about privacy and the public domain, and about self-censorship. I’ve been thinking about the internet, a vast space of ideas, data, histories and knowledge, and why we use it in ways that make it small, and seem to force it to contract. I’ve been thinking that, here in North America, there seems to be an obsession with power, and thus victimhood; and when I’m in Asia, I sense an obsession with dignity, and thus its corollary, shame.

I’m thinking about expectation, and how powerful this is in the human psyche, and sometimes, unfortunately, when we read, we only perceive what we expect to find.

LR: “It is very difficult to speak about race,” you also noted in your presentation for CWILA. What kinds of fears and risks are involved in talking about race in Canada’s literary community today—and what kind of courage would it take to overcome those fears?

MT: To be entirely honest, I don’t know. Sometimes I listen to all the noise and what I feel, most overwhelmingly, is sorrow. Then I return to books, to long-form literature, to works where an artist and thinker has thought provocatively and deeply. I go to James Baldwin and Liao Yiwu and Dionne Brand, I go to Hannah Arendt, I read this extraordinary essay by Tash Aw, I go to Oliver Sacks and James Gleick and Rithy Panh and Tsitsi Dangarembga and Mahmoud Darwish. I go to Sven Lindqvist and Colin Thubron and Rosemary Sullivan and Rawi Hage and Ma Jian. I try to absorb the spectrum of their thinking about the world, art, science, philosophy, and the examined life. That’s the way I know how to talk about race, to just say, look at the world. Do you see the world reflected in the literature you read? Do you want to?

LR: In a sense, does reading widely and deeply compare with your earlier comment on how translation represents or feels like an act of stretching to “hold ways of thinking”? What would an ethics of reading look like, to you?

MT: I don’t know if there is an ethics of reading, though the idea of it moves me. I really do believe in the liberty I mentioned earlier, and I think I believe in this liberty for others because I know I need it for myself. It’s the only way for my mind, my thoughts and emotions to live, and to find space in this very complicated world—I need to have the freedom to pursue even the most difficult thoughts. I’m afraid of any regime, society, collective solidarity or marketplace that would endeavour to take ownership of, or dictate, our private lives and private thoughts. This space in the mind is one of the only things we’re truly given, and which is ours, in this world.

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