Recording date:

Madeleine Thien in conversation with Professor Paul Hetherington, exploring this epic and resonant novel about the far-reaching effects of China's revolutionary history, told through the stories of two interlinked musical families, from the 1940s to the present day.

Transcript of ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing with Madeleine Thien’
Speakers: Cathy Pilgrim (CP), Charles Reeves (CR), Dr Paul Hetherington (PH), Madeleine Thien (MT)
Location: National Library of Australia
Date: 28/02/2017
CP: Good evening distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the National Library of Australia. I’m Cathy Pilgrim, Assistant Director General of the Executive and Public Programs at the National Library. As we begin tonight I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land that we are privileged to call home.
It’s wonderful to see so many of you here for our first event presented in partnership this year with the Canberra Writers’ Festival and with the Canadian High Commission. Tonight’s speaker is Canadian short story writer and novelist, Madeleine Thien. It gives me great pleasure first off however to invite the Deputy High Commissioner of Canada, Mr Charles Reeves, to start our evening. Welcome.
CR: Thank you so much. Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Bonsoir, Mesdames et Messieurs. First of all I’d like to acknowledge that we’re meeting on the land of the Ngunnawal people and give my respect to their elders past and present. Second, I’d like to say thank you to everyone for faring the Canberra rain and making it all the way to the Library on such a treacherous rainy evening. Compared to Ottawa standards you’d be about waist deep in snow right now so the rain’s a welcome change to any time of year. 
It’s my pleasure to welcome to this public talk with Canadian author, Madeleine Thien. When I heard that Madeleine was coming to South Australia this year I was really excited to see if we could get her here to Canberra. We wanted to share this fabulous and talented Montreal-based author who won last year’s Giller Prize, the most prestigious literary award in Canada. Madeleine won the Giller for her latest novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing which will be the focus of tonight’s talk. The novel which explores the far-reaching effects of China’s revolutionary history through the stories of two musical families also won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. Madeleine’s books and stories have been translated into more than 20 languages. As many of you know this year’s Canada’s 150th anniversary of confederation and to celebrate we’re working with arts festivals across Australia to showcase Canadian talent, fabulous talent like Madeleine and I’m so pleased that she’s able to join us tonight. Canada’s strength is in its diversity and it’s wonderful to see an appetite for Canadian talent on the world stage and especially an appetite for talent here in Canberra.
I encourage all of you to follow our Canada Down Under Facebook page and our Twitter account where we were posting photos from tonight’s event. It’s also a good way to keep up-to-date with Canada 150 events that we’re planning for Canberra and across Australia. One of those events will be a free film night at the National Film and Sound Archive on April 19th. We’ll be joining with Canadian High Commissions and embassies across the globe to screen Canadian films on what we’re calling Canadian Film Day. Here in Canberra we’ll be showing the award-winning 32 short films about Glenn Gould. I’d like to thank the Canberra Writers’ Festival and the National Library of Australia for co-presenting tonight’s talk. In particular, I would like to especially thank Vicky Cotter and Alan Harvey from the Canberra Writers’ Festival. I’d also like to thank the Adelaide Festival for helping to arrange Madeleine’s visit to Canberra.
Now I would like to introduce Dr Paul Hetherington, Associate Professor of Writing at the University of Canberra. Dr Hetherington has been a central figure in the literary life of Canberra over many years and is a widely published poet. Thank you once again. Merci beaucoup. Bonsoir, thank you so much for joining us this evening and now over to Madeleine and Dr Hetherington. Thank you.
PH: Hello, can everybody hear me? Yeah? Oh okay. Well look, today we’ve got the opportunity of chatting to Madeleine about her latest novel which is – for those of you who may not have read it it’s really wonderful and the questions that I’ll be asking and the conversation we’ll be having will be partly around what this book and what has inspired it. And we’re going to range fairly widely, I hope. Before we get underway I just wanted to mention that Madeleine has written a number of other books, Simple Recipes which won the City of Vancouver Book Award and some other prizes as well, a novel, Certainty, which is also a prizewinning book, and a novel, Dogs at The Perimeter, which was also a winner of significant awards and a finalist in a couple of important awards internationally. So this book, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, is the last instalment in a journey which has also seen her write a children’s book as well, a journey through various issues around immigration, travel, identity and so on and we’ll pick up some of those issues as we go. 
As a way into introducing the discussion I’d like to invite Madeleine to read for a few minutes from this book so that we can get impetus – the spirit of it and hear the wonderful voice that informs it. Madeleine.
MT: Thank you, Paul. First I just want to say what a pleasure it is to be here, thank you so much for hosting me and thank you for coming out in the rain which I have brought especially from Vancouver. Okay, Do Not Say We Have Nothing. I’m just going to read briefly, maybe three or four minutes. It’s 1940s, it’s a village called Bing Pi in China. A young man has been sent abroad to study in the United States, he comes back, he has loads and loads of books. He’s given a nickname, Old West and he dies too soon but he leaves a little girl named Little West. 
Little West grew up terrified of her father’s book as if they held a disease that could destroy a village. Little West packed the books into a container and buried the lot of them. Her only son born long after she’d given up hope of a child was the apple of her eye and she hoped he would grow up to be a proper landlord like his great-uncles. Instead the boy lost his head to poetry. The boy was a walking cartload of books. He sat at his desk, calligraphy brush in hand gazing up at the ceiling as if waiting for words to swallow him. His bedroom appeared to float disconnected above the solid world of transactions, commerce and land. She called him sometimes gently, sometimes roughly, Wen, the Dreamer. He was an observant and sensitive teenager and when the war came it broke him. 
In 1949 when the fighting ended Little West sent him to Shanghai, hoping it would restore his vigour. Books made all his pockets heavy. When acquaintances met him on the road Wen said he couldn’t stop to discuss the Communists or the nationalists, Stalin, Truman or the weather because he was composing a six-character, eight-line regulated verse in his head and any variation in his path would push the words out of order. It was a lie. In fact he was empty of poetry and afraid of words. During the war, Bing Pi had been ravaged by the worst famine in a century but he himself had never known hunger. He had sat in his study memorising ancient and modern verses while outside labourers ate nothing but tree bark, mothers sold their children and young boys died horrifying deaths on the front lines. Half of the village of Bing Pi starved to death but the gentry, inheritors of seemingly limitless resources, survived. 
Now the Shanghai literati were talking about a new kind of poetry, a revolutionary literature worthy of a reborn nation and the idea of it both moved and troubled him. Could the avant garde express the ideas that went unspoken? Could it confront the hypocrisy of lives like theirs? He did not know. When his poems came back from one of the revolutionary journals a thick brush had scrawled across the page, excellent calligraphy but your poems still sleep in their pastoral prison. Moon this, wind that and who cares about your bloody grandfather? Wake up. He knew they were right. Wen kept the rejection letter and threw the poems away. He remembered Bertolt Brecht, I would also like to be wise. In the old books it says what wisdom is, to shun the strife of the world and to live out your brief time without fear. All this I cannot do.
By chance he wandered into the New World Tea House. A young woman was singing and When, the Dreamer, perplexed and enchanted, listened to her for five straight hours. Afterwards he wanted to speak to her to commend the harsh beauty of her music but with what words? The young woman’s music contained poetry and the written word and yet it travelled far beyond them to a realm, a silence he had believed inexpressible. Wen wanted to call out to her but instead he watched her disappear alone up a flight of stairs. Nothing has shifted, the world was still the same and yet walking home Wen felt as if his life had snapped in two. He stood for a long time looking at the muddy sleepless river which in the darkness was only a sound, trying to understand what had changed.
Thank you.
PH: It’s a lovely passage – few pages to hear and that lovely lyrical voice that’s in the book is characteristic of so much of the writing in the 460 or so pages. And look, in terms of thinking about how you created such wonderful prose you said in an interview with Jade Cobourg about your previous novel, Dogs at The Perimeter, you were asked whether you were one of those writers who seemed to find out what the book is through the writing and you said that you were. Was that a similar process in terms of writing this book? Can you talk about how it came into focus for you?
MT: Mm-hmm. When I had finished the book that I was talking about in that interview – it’s a book called Dogs at The Perimeter and it’s a very thin, slender novel, a very fragmented novel about the Cambodian genocide and it was a book that had taken me five years and it was just a very painful book to write and also to bring into the world. And when I got to the end of that process I just felt exhausted and also I felt that I had lost faith in language in some ways, I felt there was so much that I wanted to express that was lost between the spaces of the book. And then I was listening to a lot of music, I was doing a lot of drawing and I thought I wanted to write about - I wanted to keep thinking about the unresolved questions of that book which were very much about revolution and aspiration and the violent mechanisms of a revolution that wants to remake the world in a better way. And I thought I would write about the 1989 student demonstrations in Tianamen Square in Beijing because they had affected me so greatly when I was a teenager and I think set a course for the way I was thinking about politics and art and expression. So that was where it started but it became something entirely different, yeah.
PH: So it was a kind of journey of discovery as you went. In terms of that difference clarifying did you have a key like was it a character that you found or was it just a process of working through ideas?
MT: Yes. The book starts with a 10-year-old girl and then a young woman comes into their lives so the 10-year-old girl has lost her father, she’s living with her mother, she’s in a kind of state of grieving without realising she’s grieving, really realising it and then as in so many works of literature a stranger comes to town and the stranger is an 18-year-old girl named Iming and she is fleeing Beijing in the aftermath of the Tiananmen demonstrations and the family shelters Iming who doesn’t have the right papers, who doesn’t have a passport, who doesn’t have a way to make herself legal. 
And I think what had pushed me in that direction was a memory that I hadn’t thought about in a long time. In the 1980s when my mother sheltered a young woman for different reasons but a young woman who also had no papers and didn’t have a path to citizenship and would eventually find that path in the United States where she couldn’t find it in Canada but I remember – because my parents were working all the time, they were sort of typical immigrant parents so – but the woman who was being hidden, she was always at home because she never left the apartment, her apartment and – which my mother had found for her. So after school I would just go and stay with her and it became this close, very special relationship and I think for a child it’s hard to underst – there’s this person in your life that you’re not allowed to talk about, that you’re not allowed to say their name. You don’t really know what they’re running from, you don’t even know why your parents are sheltering them but it becomes kind of a world inside a world.
PH: And in the novel the relationship between those two young women is really part of – a key to the broader mysteries of the novel, isn’t it?
MT: Yes, she’s like a doorway.
PH: So it’s a kind of – they try to unlock the past together and also unlock what they know of one another as well aren’t they?
MT: Yes and it’s all sort of done almost in subterfuge because the older girl’s telling the younger girl the story but the story turn – which seems so mythical at the beginning turns out to actually be the story of their two fathers. 
PH: Yeah. Yeah, that’s really interesting. On that note, given that you were born in Vancouver to a Malaysian Chinese mother and a Hong Kong Chinese father I think it is, does this novel in any way represent a coming to terms with your parents’ pasts or your own sense of yourself as a child?
MT: Mm-hmm. It’s reversed, my father is Malaysian Chinese, yeah but yeah. You know it’s a novel – as we were talking about it’s a novel very different from my own family’s history and it’s a really hard question in a way because in a way you’re always - as a novelist it’s hard to see what it is that you’re working out in your life that is being sort of refed into the novel which is actually kind of pulling things apart and rebuilding them together in a different way. And I had actually tried to write about my parents’ story in my first novel, Certainty, and I would say it is not a very good novel. For me it’s a failed novel and in some ways when I was young and writing it I wanted to know so much more about my parents and I wanted to understand things that seemed I couldn’t or they wouldn’t – they didn’t want me to understand in some sense. And I think that that novel is full of longing but not full of wisdom, you know? So I almost feel like the closer I try to figure out that thing about my own belonging or theirs the more it seems to slip away from me.
PH: Yeah, that’s interesting. It is interesting, I mean there is so much in this book about things which are slipping away or hard to grab hold of, really, that’s interesting.
MT: Yes.
PH: Speaking about family at the beginning of your novella, A Map of the City, which is an earlier work, one of your characters asks does my family have any hold on me? And you know this one is so centred on family and we’re just talking a little bit about family now. What is it about families that so intrigues you as a writer?
MT: Big question. I think my family is you know it’s particular but it also maybe is typical in certain ways. My parents speak different languages, my father Hakka and my mother, Cantonese so our common language growing up was English but it also meant that growing up I didn’t speak either of my parents’ mother tongues. So there’s this sort of distance in the family at the same time that there’s an intimacy and also in my family my siblings were all born in Malaysia and I was born in Canada so there was also this gap in some ways of citizenship and of my sense of belonging in Canada versus theirs which was always quite different. And yet despite all the things we couldn’t understand about each other and most because when my parents speak English they’re very different from how they speak their mother tongue so my mother is extremely funny and irreverent in Cantonese and she’s very reserved in English. Yeah so you almost see these different facets of the same person. So it’s that familiar alien thing that is always kind of in the family that moves me a lot and I think when I was writing about Cambodia and China it was very clear that the family unit was considered the greatest threat to the structures of a totalitarian state. So in Cambodia for instance it was – your loyalty was not to be to your parents or your siblings or your loved ones, it was to be to the centre, to the Khmer Rouge, to Angkor. And a very similar kind of mechanism especially during the time of the Red Guards and the cultural revolution in China.
PH: Yeah. So I mean both those countries, revolution - the people dedicated to revolution were trying to break down the familial and some of the other social institutions that they saw as preserving traditions and old ways of thinking and so on.
MT: Exactly and maybe in some senses preserving a kind of hereditary wealth, to somehow - it preserves a class system also and it’s – I think both regimes – and I think this has happened in many places in the world and has happened in Canada – the breaking apart of families. It’s a – extraordinary tool of power because it separates the children from the parents. You take over the responsibility for their education. You mould the world, you shape the world around them. At the same time in – the children feel as if they have been abandoned so it’s a very violent seizure of loyalty.
PH: Yeah, that’s fascinating. Well on that one and thinking about identity one of your character’s comments that what was misfortune but the quality of existing as something or someone else inside. And so in terms of some of these structures which are being challenged or broken or preserved or whatever it may be this novel documents the necessity of people living double and sometimes dislocated lives and often lives where their talents are only partly realised and expressed and sometimes partly expressed earlier then squashed later. So how much did that issue drive your conception of this novel at the beginning? Because it’s right through the book you know people who have got certain skills, abilities, talents, whatever they may be and how those things are so frequently thwarted or frustrated or postponed.
MT: Yes. It emerged to me as I was writing and I think - it was interesting thinking I was writing about 1989 and then realising that it was – that to write about 1989 was also to write about a continuous cycle of history where certain aspirations were coming to the fore again and again and then being squandered or displaced in different directions. So when I realised that the moral centre of the book is a character named Sparrow who’s a composer and that his life, his birth and life and death spans about 50 or 60 years of Chinese history and then suddenly what you’re talking about, the kinds of patterns, the friction between the private self and the public self especially as the revolutions become more pure in a sense, as it becomes more and more necessary to speak the language of the revolution and to create art in service of the revolution and to love in service of the revolution then that private self gets distorted or silenced or thrown away and is possibly recuperated later but in a different way.
PH: Yeah, that’s interesting indeed. Well in terms of some of the preoccupations and some of the particular talents that your characters have there’s a wonderful – the book is beautifully constructed, it’s actually rather symphonic in some ways and music is a real preoccupation of the book and in fact you wrote a children’s book called The Children’s Violin, didn’t you?
MT: Yes.
PH: Yeah which – so music is there in your work and your interest in dance also emerges in this book at various times, at key moments characters dance or move in dancelike ways.
MT: Oh I didn’t know that, really?
PH: They do.
MT: That’s good. That was probably unconscious.
PH: I absolutely love that part of the book.
MT: Oh wow, that’s amazing.
PH: Yeah, I thought that was deliberate. It’s there, it’s wonderful but you know these – this linking of art forms, how important is that to you because – I’ll talk a bit more about written you know literature and so on in a minute but you know these other art forms are there, they’re either quite upfront in the book and haunt – or they’re haunting the book in the background.
MT: That’s beautiful, that they’re haunting the book, I think that’s really true. What I came to think a lot about was official Chinese history so what it is possible to say about life under Mao, what it is possible to say about the cultural revolution, what is in the history books, what is in the narrative, the approved narrative and then what happens to all that beneficial history, what happens to all those names? What happens to all those lives that were pulled from one part of the country and set down in another or completely obliterated? And so the book became a way to in a way put those bits of unofficial history together so there’s a – something called the Book of Records which is a book within a book that gets passed from hand to hand then there’s all the music that gets performed and then also the music that doesn’t get played or that even doesn’t get written. And it’s sort of through the different art forms that together they construct that very fragile, very tenuous, always shifting unofficial history, yeah.
PH: Yeah, that’s really interesting so all the art forms, the cultural material that’s been produced, written, performed, composed, whatever it may be –
MT: Altered, copied –
PH: And altered, that’s almost like the private memory of the world of the book is it in a way?
MT: Yes, yeah.
PH: Yeah. And there’s a shifting uncertain memory at times isn’t there?
MT: Yes because the language is so codified you know the language is so strict, how you talk about Chairman Mao, how you – all the slogans that people have to use and then under that is this much more unacceptable questioning, contradictory, fearful, bold, everything underneath.
PH: And some really true deep things as well.
MT: Yes.
PH: Yeah, underneath, yeah. Speaking about music the composer, J S Bach, is given a lot of attention in this book, it’s – they’re almost like a – Bach’s name and music is almost like a motif or a series of motifs running through the novel and so I’d like you to say a little bit about the significance of Bach to this novel and particularly Glenn Gould’s recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations because they’re very famous recordings of those – of that wonderful work – it’s one of my favourite bits of music and I think a lot of people would share that sentiment and Gould’s recordings are kind of famous as performances of it so –
MT: Yes, that 1955 Glenn Gould’s first recording of the Goldberg’s Variations. It’s actually the piece of music that NASA sent into outer space as a sort of artefact of what humanity had accomplished at different points, it is a – exceptional piece of music. When I was in that sort of in-between state before I started writing this book I was walking in Berlin, I was very down. I was walking through a quite you know a very industrial area and for one reason or another I put on the Goldberg Variations and it’s about half an hour long. It starts with an aria, very, very simple aria and it has a theme that’s played by the left hand so you don’t even necessarily hear it, it doesn’t come to the fore necessarily. And then for the next - it’s then reworked into multiple variations, 30 variations and canons and – but those variations go from like profound sorrow to playfulness, joy, giddiness and a whole range, a whole spectrum of emotions that we don’t really have words for. And it you know traverses all this distance, almost like a universe and then it returns you to the same aria that you heard at the beginning but you’ve been transformed along the way.
So that was – and that’s what it felt – that’s how it felt to me when I listened to it on that particular day and then I had to work in a café because we had a very tiny apartment where – my partner’s also a writer and we both couldn’t work at home so I was going to a café which I had never really done, writing in a café before so I needed to block out the sound and the distractions so I put on the Goldberg Variations and it just became my habit that as soon as I sat down to work on this novel I would start this piece of music playing and it created its own soundscape, its own reality in a way and its own sort of elasticity of time you know and that structure I think seeped into the book. I think very much it is patterned on a seam and variations and I, I think for the first time, understood that I hadn’t understood in the book about Cambodia that for the reader to come with me through sometimes catastrophic events I needed to pull apart the emotions so that we could have an ebb and flow, so that we could see, we could feel not joy because we needed it at that point but really unexpected joy at particular moments, humour, comedy, yeah and sometimes coming to those emotions when – even when we weren’t prepared for them. I think that all came from the music, I actually don’t think I could have inhabited that structure through any other art form because it was just sort of – the music was repeating and repeating and it just takes root in you in some ways. And it – even if I listen to it 10,000 times even when I put it on now I still hear – it still moves me to tears, I mean it’s really shocking that a piece of art can do that but it’s because there are so many variations and they’re always in conversation, it’s always constantly pulling out something new.
PH: Yeah, it’s a deathless piece of music and –
MT: Deathless, yes.
PH: Yeah, every time you listen to it it tells you something else even though you think you know it absolutely perfectly –
MT: So simple on the surface, yeah.
PH: Just very quickly, I mean Shostakovich is – this symphony gets mentioned early in the book and other composers are mentioned, Debussy and so on and some of the material about the Conservatorium is actually partly historically based and some of the characters as well so you know this preoccupation with music and – I don’t want to give too much away about what happens in the book but it’s quite important you know the place of making music and individuals who make music and so on, is that – I mean Bach’s obviously really important but what about the rest of these western composers in a Chinese setting?
MT: Yes. This was one of the joys to write about because actually the history of western classical music in China is so fascinating and the first piano – which was a clavichord – was brought into China by a Jesuit missionary named Matteo Ricci and it’s a beautiful story that he wanted to tempt the Emperor into inviting him into the forbidden city and so he brings all these musical instruments and wonders and things and the Emperor accepts the gifts, doesn’t accept for Matteo Ricci to come into the forbidden palace but he sends eunuchs out to learn how to play the clavichord so that he can – but that’s the beginning and I think especially in Shanghai, Shanghai for some years during the second world war, you didn’t need a passport to enter there so it became a place - and perhaps earlier – where people sought refuge. So there were refugees from second world war and prior to that there were refugees from the Russian revolution and the Jewish and the Russian refugees often made a living by teaching music. So it has this fascinating history that also parallels what happens in Russia to the musicians to Shostakovich, Prokofiev as they - because they were denounced at different times in their careers and they were told that they had to write music to serve the revolution and that the music couldn’t be too abstract, that it was creating a muddle in people’s minds.
And Prokofiev at a certain point just stopped creating. Shostakovich has a very moving line that I’ve always remembered, when he was denounced publicly he just said I will try again and again. And when he - when the fifth symphony was performed it was after he had been very severely criticised you know people around him had disappeared in the purges, his life was very much in danger and he presented this piece of music that could be heard two ways so the Russian authorities chose to hear it as an artist’s criticism of himself and finding the correct path and the audience heard it as intense grief and sorrow for the losses of the purges. And that kind of dichotomy is possible with music because you just can’t guarantee its meaning and you can’t guarantee how a person is going to process it which is also what makes it so dangerous. Literature, we can kind of generally agree on what it means or what it’s saying or what its intentions are, we can have that kind of conversation. With music we’re on much more shaky ground, yeah.
PH: Yeah and it’s therefore totally appropriate to baulk where reality and rules and circumstances are so shifting and uncertain so much of the time –
MT: Yes.
PH: - and do have a number of different ways of being read.
MT: Yes, yes.
PH: Yeah, it’s true. Just in terms of texts your characters are often searching for knowledge of others and finding them in letters or fictional works. You’ve mentioned that within this text there is another novel which is the Book of Records which is sort of like a never finished sort of work which is there sort of sitting within the book and is a beautiful idea and lovely concept around which you create your own novel and there are also poems by classical Chinese writers including classical poets. What’s the significance of this profusion of texts within your own text?
MT: Mm-hmm. Initially I think the Book of Records which is a novel – the characters fall in love with – we heard about Wen the Dreamer, well as Wen the Dreamer tries to woo this singer that he’s fallen in love with he starts copying out a book that he’s – he has in his possession and he copies it out by hand and he has it delivered to her door chapter by chapter and in this way wins her over. But what he doesn’t realise when he started copying is that the book ends literally in midsentence and that he can’t find the rest of it. And then over the course of the novel, because this book is so beloved in the family they begin to use the notebooks to send coded messages to each other because with the Chinese language it’s quite possible to shift a word with the same sound and have a different meaning. So initially it was a way to hide truthful events and truthful feelings that could not be expressed in the official public record and the idea is that they’re fictional characters, they’re as intangible as ghosts and therefore no state or no power has any hold on them, they’re completely free. 
PH: Yeah.
MT: Yeah.
PH: That’s a lovely idea.
MT: Yeah.
PH: Well actually that leads me perhaps to ask you something else because more generally about fiction, what fiction can do, whether it’s the Book of Records or your novel or poetry or whatever it may be because the periods in China that you focus on in this book, the so-called great leap forward which was 1958 to ’62 and also the Chinese cultural revolution which happened not that long afterwards and then – and during this period many, many millions of Chinese died often from poverty or for other reasons as well and then you’ve mentioned the Tianamen Square event as well in 1989 so these periods and events have been written about by other people you know nonfiction accounts, histories, journalistic accounts, whatever, eyewitness accounts. What do you think - but you’re writing about them newly and differently and freshly – what do you think fiction like this book can do in addressing such historical periods and events that nonfiction can’t do?
MT: The biggest question of all. It’s - in a way - I might try to answer it upside down in a way –
PH: Do, yeah.
MT: - because I know what happened to me as I was writing it. And it’s – it was the intimacy with which these characters were living with me and in which I began to understand how they could betray each other or how they could silence themselves for many, many years and also how they could make - I don’t know, even how they could – what I wanted to understand was in 1989 you know we all saw the students in Tianamen Square and we thought that when the tanks came in and the gunfire started that the massacre was inside Tianamen Square and the Chinese government always said no massacre in the Square. And in fact they were correct, there was no massacre in the Square, the students were largely allowed to leave but there was a massacre that happened on the roads leading to Tianamen Square when all the ordinary Beijing people, workers, factory workers, parents, high school students came into the streets to try to stop the tanks from reaching the students and this is the majority of the deaths that has never really been fully understood because of that initial error.
And what I wanted to know was someone who was 50 years old, someone who has lived through an era that according to low estimates took the lives of 60 million Chinese people unnecessarily, how does that person who has been remade in so many ways find the courage to come out in the streets and face down the tanks? What is it about this particular moment, 1989, that caused such an extraordinary shift in people’s psyches that having accepted things for so long, having sacrificed so much for the religion, of having accepted the official history that was given, what made them say not anymore? And that is I think psychologically what the novel is trying to understand.
PH: Yeah and so the intimate relationships of various kinds are a kind of mapping of that kind of terrain, various different kinds of experience and ways of dealing with often great loss or sorrow or distance but finding ways to imagine a future?
MT: Yes and how they put it away sometimes for a long time and then it comes back when they least expect it. It often happens in China at funerals for senior political figures. If it’s a political figure that people have loved or has been a reformer, they will often use the funeral as a pretext to mourn the greater losses that have also been part of their lives.
PH: Yeah, okay, that’s great. Well look, I’m conscious that you may want to have time to ask Madeleine some questions of your own so I’ll just wrap up by I suppose, Madeleine, asking you you know you said in the acknowledgements at the back of this book that the novel was a book of records, an alternate memory of history and you - I think you said why that might be. But what’s in a sense the more personal connection to that? Is there something that really motivates you to – because for example your book about Cambodia is also about a book about very difficult circumstances, genocide and so on and you’re pursuing I think in a lot of your novels a kind of exploration of both loss and absence and those kinds of themes and sometimes characters who are facing kind of almost what seem to be impossible, intractable kind of territory. What is it in terms of what you want to know this is about?
MT: I actually think with the last two books it’s – they’ve been – the drive has been in a way about my own relationship with my idealism, my own idealism and I know as a young person I was extremely idealistic, I really – I think the kind of person that would welcome the chance to make sacrifices to make a better world and I think that is why in some ways looking at these two places, Cambodia and China, it is very much about looking at what it is about that aspiration that never quite disappears with each generation and also why in sometimes the willingness to sacrifice so much for this just society, why we create some of the - why we enact some of the most grave injustices. It’s sort of looking at the you know Italo Calvino’s invisible cities?
PH: Mm.
MT: He has a city called Berenice and it’s the just city that has in its seed the unjust city that is constantly growing and growing until it takes over but within it is also the seed of the just city which is also growing and growing and growing and it’s an endless sort of double helix. And why can’t we you know separate those things or is it the human condition that our goodness and our violence are so intertwined?
PH: So this book, while it’s to some extent about history is also asking some very contemporary questions from your point of view?
MT: Yeah. I think so or it could be that that question that has never gone away, it’s suddenly more visibly contemporary at a certain moment in time but was always there in the background.
PH: Absolutely, okay, wonderful. Well thank you very much, we’re going to open it up for questions now, thank you.
CP: Thank you so very much, both Madeleine and Paul, for sharing that conversation with us. I think as an audience we feel very privileged to have been part of that personal conversation that went on tonight so thank you. So now it’s over to you, I’m sure our audience have lots of questions for Madeleine tonight. We have a microphone on either side of the room. We ask that if you do have a question that you raise your hand and you do the use the microphone so that everyone can hear your question and we’ve got a few minutes, I think there’s – the lady just up the back here, can we get the microphone please? Thank you. And after that this gentleman there. Thank you.
A: Thank you, Madeleine. I’d like to know which was your favourite character and what did you admire about them the most?
MT: It’s so hard to choose. I think you know my hardest was Sparrow but in some ways my favourite is Big Mother Knife. Big Mother Knife is like this cranky – she’s old when she’s 15 you know and I admired her, her idea about the world remains consistent in a sense and that’s an idea of the world that is not constricted but – cranky but forgiving which is not a temperament that I have, yeah, I become more like Sparrow, quiet and withdrawn but Big Mother Knife never really turns her back on the world.
A: Thanks for that conversation, it was excellent. You said when you finished your previous novel that you were emotionally kind of fraught at the end of it and this is a double-barrelled question, how did you know you’d finished this one? Given that it’s a voyage of discovery I’m always intrigued as to how authors decide it’s done. And then what emotion did you feel when you thought you had finished?
MT: Mm-hmm. I’m trying to remember the moment when I finished it for the first time ‘cause you know when you're - you do tend to finish it multiple times. I remember the ending came upon me suddenly and I remember thinking I have carried them as far as I know how to carry them and the ending is the beginning and I’ve brought them full circle. And then I knew it was finished. But – which didn’t mean that – it’s unresolved at the end, yeah, there are things that we do not learn for sure. But that’s how I knew, that I had come around again. Was there another question there?
A: <inaudible> 48:37.
MT: Yeah, I felt thankful. On all the levels like thankful to be done, just – I mean I only write 160 page books and this one at that point was 500 pages. But thankful to this book, thankful to these characters. It was like nothing I experienced as a writer before, I just felt they had opened up a whole world to me which wasn’t my world and was very much theirs, yeah.
A: Madeleine, I’m not sure if I understood or misheard but early on in the conversation at the very beginning in fact when you were speaking about what I understood to be something which occurs in totalitarian systems where there’s a separation for the child or the individual from their family, from what’s familiar, from what is intrinsic to them and you mentioned also - as well as China and Cambodia, Canada and I must say that caught me out, I can’t imagine that in Canada so I just wondered did I hear it correctly or whether there’s something in your experience or your understanding that you could share with us?
MT: In Canada it’s the history of the residential schools and that was the government policy, was to take the children and there’s something else that’s coming out now called the Sixties Scoop in which children were taken for adoption and never learned even that they were adopted or never knew about their past. It’s - in Canada there’s been a lot, it’s quite at the centre of the conversation especially where we are at 150 years so it’s a time you know to celebrate really an extraordinary country but also a time of reckoning, of really looking at how the country was founded and what we’re still carrying from that history that is – left its levels of injustice in society. So that is – anyway I think it’s a – I don’t - I won’t say the number because I will get it wrong but the number of children who disappeared or missing because they tried to run away – sorry, I get emotional – and lost their lives when they were trying to run away from the residential schools.
A: Thank you.
A: Thank you, Paul and Madeleine, it’s been a lovely conversation, pleasure listening to you and my warmest congratulations, you’ve won so many awards, you could have destroyed a lesser talent but I feel you have so many more novels in you.
MT: Thank you.
A: I have two questions, one, in the last few years the Nobel Prize for Literature has gone to of course the Canadian short story writer, Denna Jenglis and this time a songwriter. I wonder how you see the novel developing in the future, say the next five or 10 years, what sort of people will get the Nobel Prizes by writing certain kinds of books? And my second question is when a lot of my friends from America are moving into Canada is there any possibility of persuading a very charming Prime Minister, Mr Trudeau, to build a Chinese wall?
MT: I think I haven’t gone anywhere in Australia without someone mentioning Prime Minister Trudeau to me, I get at least five or six times a day, it’s – I feel so proud even though I don’t know if I’m responsible. The Nobel Prize, I have to say that when Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize, she’s such a – I’m such – she’s shaped my writing in so many ways. It’s not obvious but I’ve loved her writing such a long time that when the morning that she won, my partner woke me up, it was like 5 in the morning or 4 in the morning, he woke me up and he – all he said was she won. And I just burst into tears, I was so happy and I knew immediately what it was. Yes. I suspect - and this is all just speculation you know like gossiping together – I suspect the Nobel Prize will get increasingly political just because of the times that we’re living in. I think it’s always been used to signal something and I’m sure that Dillon - the award to Dillon was meant to signal something that they felt needed to be said so yeah. A lot of people are really unhappy about that but of all the things for me to be upset about I just couldn’t summon – thank you.
A: Thank you very much indeed because I think the book is also a gift and reading it has just been joy, absolute, sheer, unadulterated joy. But I’d like to ask you about – I guess it’s something Paul alluded to in terms of the cross-disciplinary nature of writing and your language, I thought I heard you say earlier that you didn’t speak Hakka or Cantonese and yet one of the things that I loved was your calligraphy and your explanation of calligraphy and I’d love you to talk about that a little bit.
MT: Yes. In the novel there are a use of Chinese ideograms, Chinese characters and it’s partly from Marie who’s only 10 who’s lost her father. It’s almost like a code that she both is drawn to and that also pushes her away, it’s what she wants to understand and which seems to have closed its doors to her. So I also took Chinese lessons when I was a child but I was very resistant, maybe - again probably not uncommon with children of immigrants, sometimes you just want to fit in. And I felt such a – ease, such ease with the English language that I was a most - I didn’t want to be touched by the Chinese language. And my mother always said you’re going to regret it and she was completely right. I try all the time now to learn but interestingly we learned Chinese calligraphy even though we couldn’t necessarily read what we were writing, we learned the art. So I have all these bits and pieces of the culture and I don’t – I speak a bit of Cantonese but no Hakka and – but I would say something about having been surrounded by the Chinese languages growing up, it does inflect my English in some way that I – it’s subconscious to me. I’m pretty sure there’s a cadence and rhythm and way that I speak that somehow has absorbed something of the Chinese language.
CP: I think there’s time for one final question in the middle there.
A: Thank you very much for the talk and for writing the book and I have to honestly say I was moved to tears many times during the book. My question’s a little related to the last one, I you know you mentioned the soundscape and you know talked about the music in the book and now you – you know bringing in the Chinese languages, I’m just curious about your writing process ‘cause I can hear you know Big Mother Knife is just – I mean her voice, the timbre of voice, the tone, I can - I really hear it and I just wonder with the other characters because you’re rendering into English, into another language all these various other inflections, different dialects and the Chinese language and I just wonder when you’re writing through do you hear the voices of all your characters? Do they all have distinctive voices?
MT: With this book, yes, it hasn’t always happened before. But I think in the time leading up to writing this one I had been thinking a lot about the novel as a collision - the novel as a polyphonic work, as polyphony and that if you want to make multiple ways of experiencing the world come into contact you really have to – I was going to say democratise it in a way but that’s kind of what it is, you really have to know when it’s the character’s voice and when it’s yours and when you are actually closing off the character because you’ve surrounded it in your own voice. And so that actually is part of the art of writing is how do you hear this person’s voice which is then going to carry their whole conceptual framework for how they experience the world? It’s not just the little idioms of how they speak or little turns of phrase, it’s actually something much deeper, it’s about their angle on the world, their angle on reality and then if you can find that language then – I don’t know, some energy started to happen with all of them, mm-hmm.
CP: Thank you very much. Unfortunately we’ve run out of time this evening but I’d like to thank again both Paul and Madeleine, it’s been a genuine delight to have you both here tonight and for us as an audience to listen to you so please thank again Madeleine and Paul.
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