For the latest in our interview series on the writing process, Madeleine Thien offers Chelsea Rozansky her honest and deeply felt responses about the possibilities and limitations of writing. Thien is the author of the award-winning novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing. She is also a contributor to Brick, and now member of our editorial board.
Brick: In your piece in Brick 100, you tell of an uncanny closeness you felt to Virginia Woolf while walking through the valley where she used to live and listening to Mrs. Dalloway on audiobook. And in Do Not Say We Have Nothing, touchstones to Chinese literature are woven throughout. It seems there is a literary canon alive in your work. Are you cognizant of your own writing’s placement in a literary history as you write? Why do you call upon tradition in your writing?
Madeleine Thien: I had been thinking a great deal about what literature can and, perhaps more painfully, cannot do. I imagined Do Not Say We Have Nothing as a book of books, existing during a time—in this case China during the Cultural Revolution—when history and memory are expected to serve the political orthodoxy. Believing otherwise, or expressing otherwise, becomes extremely dangerous.
In the novel’s book of books, life’s fragmentation and unorthodoxy are smuggled into fictional works. These hand-copied novels are like a hidden room, both as a text and within themselves. What does inner freedom look like? How do we live with it? Literature and art can’t save anyone, but they are a record of different attempts to see clearly, to remember and exist.
To answer the last part of the question, tradition does fascinate me, and also copying, newness, and originality—and their relation to politics. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia called its revolution Year Zero, and in China, Mao Zedong was willing to sacrifice tens of millions of lives for his vision of the revolutionary society. Both regimes believed their citizens had to be purged of unacceptable ideas. I was more idealistic when I was younger. The idea of entirely reimagining the world and human relations is, of course, powerful and persuasive and moving. But people are full of illusions and partialities. Our knowledge is precarious, and we are easily won over by rhetoric. Most revolutions do, in the end, replicate the familiar power structures. So I think we might ask ourselves more difficult questions and find a way to articulate more painful answers.
Brick: In that same Brick 100 piece, you write, “I turn to writing to piece together character and time, to see the world that gives rise to action, twists inward to thought, and breathes out as character.” Is writing, then, essentially about character and time?
Thien: I think it could be, perhaps in the sense of the flux of both those things. Writing is linear, contained in time, and the mental images it creates are static—yet, if all goes well, those images and people move and transform before our eyes. So maybe writing is partly about attempting to hold something still while having the truthful experience that nothing at all is still, that the characters and the time expand far beyond the boundaries of the language. Everything spills over.
Brick: How do character and time work with one another in Do Not Say We Have Nothing?
Thien: I was experimenting with musical time, with the variations and canons of a piece of music that recurs throughout the novel, Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Bach’s motif (taken from a phrase in the opening aria) is rearranged with so much playfulness and rigour through thirty variations and canons. Unexpectedly, they give the listener a feeling of incredible freedom: we experience euphoria, sorrow, melancholy, joy. So the music is both a structure for the novel and a way of trying to make space for the vast inner lives of the characters. They are trying to survive, and believe in, a revolution that holds that there is no inner life, only a public one that must uphold the revolution and its ideology.
Bach always seems to me to be creating time. He makes space where there seems to be none and makes something feel eternal in a finite space. I thought a novel, which is also a book of books, could imagine something similar.
Brick: Do you have a writing routine?
Thien: Only to have a routine, which for me is so important! The regularity of writing and thinking, every day, inside the novel.