Author Tags: Chinese, Fiction
Madeleine Thien’s third novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Knopf), won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2016. It was also one of six works of fiction shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. This recognition represents an unprecedented triad for a B.C.-born author. Thien won as a resident of Montreal. The only previous Giller winner to have won while living in B.C. was Esi Edugyan of Victoria for Half-Blood Blues in 2011. She was born and raised in Calgary. Both their novels were published in Ontario.
The Giller Prize jury wrote: the jury wrote: "Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien entranced the jurors with its detailed, layered, complex drama of classical musicians and their loved ones trying to survive two monstrous insults to their humanity: Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution in mid-twentieth century China and the Tiananmen Square massacre of protestors in Beijing in 1989. Do Not Say We Have Nothing addresses some of the timeless questions of literature: who do we love, and how do the love of art, of others and ourselves sustain us individually and collectively in the face of genocide? A beautiful homage to music and to the human spirit, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is both sad and uplifting in its dramatization of human loss and resilience in China and in Canada."
Born in Vancouver, but since relocated to Quebec, Madeleine Thien, the daughter of Malaysian-Chinese immigrants, was taught to read at age three by her older sister. Shy and inarticulate, she retreated into literature while growing up in an immigrant family. Thien studied English literature and dance at Simon Fraser University prior to pursuing a Creative Writing degree at UBC. She completed her Masters degree in 2001 and relocated to Quebec City in 2005 after her Dutch-born husband, Willem Atsa, took a job there. She subsequently relocated to Montreal.
Madeleine Thien was first noticeable on the Vancouver literary landscape in 1996 when she became editor of Ricepaper Magazine, a publication of the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop. She went on to win the ACWW Emerging Writer Award based on the manuscript for her prospective short story collection, Simple Recipes, in 1998. The ACWW offered her manuscript to publishers and had bidding offers from four different interested publishers. She chose a two-book deal with McClelland and Stewart. After the debut collection was published in 2001, it received the Ethel Wilson Prize for best work of fiction by a B.C. author.
Madeleine Thien’s inter-generational novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing follows the lives of a group of musicians studying Western classical music at the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1960s and the resulting impact of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations. In 1991, ten-year-old Marie and her mother invite a guest into their Canadian home. Ai-Ming is a young woman from China who has fled following the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square incident. 9780345810427
The ‘triple threat’ prestige this novel has garnered is somewhat in keeping with her success for Simple Recipes (M&S). As well as receiving the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, that book also won the City of Vancouver Book Award for the best book about the city in 2001 as well as the VanCity Book Prize for best book pertaining to women’s issues .
Illustrated by Joe Chang, Thien’s juvenile fiction book The Chinese Violin (Whitecap 2001), based on a true story, recounts the life of eight-year-old girl Lin Lin and her father who emigrate from China. The gift of a Chinese violin helps to bridge the gap between old and new. Her story is the basis for an NFB animated short.
Chiefly in response to the release of Simple Recipes, Thien received a 2001 Canadian Authors Association Air Canada award for most promising writer under age 30. In the same year she was runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and she was nominated for the Commonwealth Book Prize–Best First Book–Caribbean and Canada Region.
Her first novel, Certainty (M&S, 2006), concerns a Vancouver producer of radio documentaries, Gail Lim, who unravels the mysteries of her parents’ lives in Japanese-occupied Sandakan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Specifically, her father was orphaned by brutal events in Borneo during World War II, at which time he formed a deep bond with a fellow orphan named Ani. Gail Lim travels to the Netherlands to visit Ani’s Dutch husband.
Thien told the Montreal Review of Books, “Well, I started with wanting to learn about the war in British North Borneo, and it soon became inevitable to me that it would be a novel about grieving. My Mom died while I was writing this book, so in a way I was already submerged in the idea. It’s strange to be talking about this. I wrote it because it was what I needed to do. I didn’t think about what it would really mean to other people.”
Certainty won the 2006 Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award and it was nominated for the 2007 Kiriyama Fiction Prize.
In 2010, Madeleine Thien received the Ovid Festival Prize, worth 5,000 Euros, presented annually by the Writers' Union of Romania and the Romanian Cultural Institute to a young writer of great promise.
In Quebec she wrote her second novel, Dogs at the Perimeter (M&S 2011), a finalist for the 2011 Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction as coordinated by the Quebec Writers Federation. It is another novel about connecting to family history in southeast Asia. According to publicity materials: “A Montreal woman searches for her friend, Hiroji, a neurologist, and the story of his and his brother’s past unlocks buried memories of Cambodia, of her separation from her family under the Khmer Rouge, and of her harrowing journey of escape from the “rehabilitation” camp where her mother and brother were taken with others.” The novel about the aftermath of the Cambodian genocide won the 2015 de:LiBeraturpreis, awarded by the Frankfurt Book Fair in recognition of fiction pertaining to Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.
Madeleine Thien’s work has been translated into 25 languages, and her essays have appeared in numerous publications including The Guardian, the Financial Times and Al Jazeera. Her career has been increasingly international in scope ever since she participated in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 2008, giving rist to an IWP State Department-funded 2010 study tour of the U.S. that resulted in her essay, "The Grand Tour: In the Shadow of James Baldwin." The tour was the subject for Sahar Sarshar's documentary film, Writing in Motion: A Nation Divided.
Madeleine Thien contributed an essay to The Guardian on the stifling of free speech in Hong Kong after her five-year association with the International Faculty in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at City University of Hong Kong from 2010 to 2015. Also in 2015 her story, "The Wedding Cake" was shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award, the richest prize in the world for a single short story.
Madeleine Thien returned to Vancouver in 2013 to serve as Simon Fraser University Writer-in-Residence and again in 2016 to participate in the Vancouver Writers Festival.
[2001 photo by Alan Twigg]
The Chinese Violin (Vancouver: Whitecap Books, 2001). Illustrations by Joe Chang.
Simple Recipes (Toronto: M&S, 2001; New York: Little, Brown, 2002)
Certainty (M&S, 2006)
Dogs at the Perimeter (M&S 2011)
Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Knopf 2016)
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2016] "Fiction" "VanCity"
Simple Recipes (M&S $22.99)
Misbehaving adults are sometimes just people looking for love, or suffering from a lack of it.
In Four Days from Oregon, Irene is having an extra-marital affair with a fellow employee. Upon being found out, she takes her three very young daughters away from their father and home in a dramatic getaway. The lover, mother, and girls make for a chaotic fivesome travelling down the Oregon coast, sleeping in tents.
In a society hell-bent on ‘commitment’ and ‘for better or worse,’ even the most liberal reader can’t help but feel Irene is wreaking havoc. This could be a reckless, selfish act—the kind of thing children just don’t recover from. In Simple Recipes (M&S $22.99) Madeleine Thien, 26, however, doesn’t write stories that fit neatly into standard expectations.
Prior to the camping trip, Irene’s children have tiptoed around pieces of glass broken in fits of rage. Irene has woken her girls in the middle of the night, to tell them all the ways she is unhappy. And she has joked about leaving when she turns thirty. “Almost there…better pack your bags.”
Years later, after leaving the husband that watched apathetically whenever she slumped to the floor in depression, Irene is still living with Tom, the man who helped her to escape.
The story is narrated by one of the children. “Tom did what my father had never done—he followed her, down the front steps, into the street. From inside, we could see the two of them standing together, heads touching, a moment of stillness, before they started back to the house.”
Their natural father writes rare, formal letters; Tom gives $500 to his 17-year-old stepdaughter so that she, too, can run away from the pain of her adolescent life.
Thien doesn’t let us cry ‘sinner’ only to pack up and move on in judgmental glory. Other mothers in this book make different choices. The sensitive and forgiving narrator in “House” sits with her older, 13-year-old sister, on the front lawn of their childhood home where they lived before foster care.
It’s been a year since their mother walked out the door and down the street with nothing but her purse. It is their mother’s birthday, and since she never drinks on her birthday the girls think she might remember to come home. The only one who comes is their father, the man who couldn’t take care of them alone. The three abandoned souls sit on the curb and wait, on the cherished day of sobriety.
“She never drank like other people, in celebration,” the narrator observes.
In Simple Recipes, the reader is compelled to consider why people inflict suffering they’ve known on others.
Thien is not averse to exploring dark territory. The father in “Bullet Train” makes his terrified son sit on the roof as punishment, above the room where his mother dies of cancer. Fed up with the degrading ritual, the boy tries to run away. His pleading father explains, “I know you hate it up there, but it will make you stronger. No matter what happens to you from now on, you’ll always have this well of strength to draw on.”
In “Alchemy” Paula is a curious and sexual teenager before becoming a bulimic cynic, begging her best friend to sleep over every night. The two girls try to free rabbits from a backyard hutch before Paula’s overworked mother can break the rabbits’ necks and drain the blood. “Be free or be stew,” Paula cries out.
But those rabbits won’t run away, even though the door is open. Because they haven’t known any freedom, they will become stew.
The real problem in this story is Paula’s father and what he keeps doing to her in the shed. “Alchemy” could be the story of many runaway women fighting for their lives on the street—first being unable to fight off their fathers.
Madeleine Thien attended UBC’s Creative Writing Department and has worked with the Press Gang collective. This is her first book. Racial tensions are evoked in two of the stories. In the longest and final story, “Map of the City,” immigrant parents break-up over their varying abilities to forget Indonesia and adapt to Canadian life. 0-7710-8511-7
Thien wins Giller
Press Release (2016)
November 7, 2016 (Toronto, Ontario) -
Madeleine Thien has been named the winner of the $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada. The announcement was made at a black-tie dinner and award ceremony hosted by Steve Patterson, attended by nearly 500 members of the publishing, media and arts communities. The gala awards were broadcast by CBC and live-streamed on CBCBooks.ca.
This year the prize celebrates its 23rd anniversary.
The shortlist of six authors and their books, announced on September 26, 2016, is:
Mona Awad for her novel 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, published by Penguin Canada
Gary Barwin for his novel Yiddish for Pirates, published by Random House Canada
Emma Donoghue for her novel The Wonder, published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd
Catherine Leroux for her novel The Party Wall, published by Biblioasis, translated by Lazer Lederhendler
Madeleine Thien for her novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing, published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada
Zoe Whittall for her novel The Best Kind of People, published by House of Anansi Press Inc.
The five-member jury panel made up of Lawrence Hill (jury chair), Samantha Harvey, Jeet Heer, Alan Warner and Kathleen Winter selected the shortlist and ultimate winner.
Of the winning book, the jury wrote:
"Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien entranced the jurors with its detailed, layered, complex drama of classical musicians and their loved ones trying to survive two monstrous insults to their humanity: Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution in mid-twentieth century China and the Tiananmen Square massacre of protestors in Beijing in 1989. Do Not Say We Have Nothing addresses some of the timeless questions of literature: who do we love, and how do the love of art, of others and ourselves sustain us individually and collectively in the face of genocide? A beautiful homage to music and to the human spirit, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is both sad and uplifting in its dramatization of human loss and resilience in China and in Canada."
MADELEINE THIEN is the author of the story collection Simple Recipes, which was a finalist for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, a Kiriyama Pacific Prize Notable Book, and won the BC Book Prize for Fiction; the novel Certainty, which won the Amazon.ca First Novel Award; and the novel Dogs at the Perimeter, which was shortlisted for Berlin's 2014 International Literature Award and won the Frankfurt Book Fair's 2015 Liberaturpreis. Her novels and stories have been translated into twenty-five languages, and her essays have appeared in Granta, The Guardian, the Financial Times, Five Dials, Brick and Al Jazeera. Her story "The Wedding Cake" was shortlisted for the prestigious 2015 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. Do Not Say We Have Nothing won the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award. The daughter of Malaysian-Chinese immigrants to Canada, she lives in Montreal.
During tonight's award ceremony, guests enjoyed a performance by Canadian R&B singer/songwriter Jully Black and a roster of celebrity presenters ? Catherine Reitman, Gordon Pinsent, Amanda Parris, Ins Choi, Tanya Tagaq and Annie Murphy ? introduced the shortlisted authors and presented video profiles highlighting the nominated books.
from Allan Cho
Madeleine Thien never showed her writing to anyone before she entered the MFA writing program at UBC.
Now she’s the only B.C.-born author ever shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Madeleine Thien’s third novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Knopf) has also won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize—an unprecedented feat for a B.C.-born author.
Madeleine thien first heard of ricepaper, Canada’s first Asian Canadian publication, when she was working for Press Gang Publishers, a feminist collective, in the late 1990s.
Ricepaper’s founder, Jim Wong-Chu, hired her in 1999, during the magazine’s fifth year of operation. He now recalls her as a very quiet, soft-spoken young woman with inquisitive and intelligent eyes.
“She was very passionate and enthusiastic about wanting to work for us,” he says.
Ricepaper had started as a newsletter for members of the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop (ACWW) to connect to writers from other parts of Canada. “This was the best way to do that before the Internet,” he says. “Up to that time we were lucky to even have a few journalism grads come through.”
It was a serendipitous match. Wong-Chu soon discovered she had a keen eye and innate talent for running a magazine but Thien needed mentorship. “I remember going to meet Jim,” she says, “and being amazed at all the knowledge at his fingertips, all the stories and memories he had.”
Having supervised a revolving door of editors, Wong-Chu considers Thien’s short tenure as editor as the most influential in the evolution of the publication. “Those three issues of Ricepaper with Maddie [Volumes 5.1 to 5.3] were the high point of our magazine in terms of an articulate, distinct editorial and literary quality. Flipping through those early copies, I recognize the fingerprints of Maddie’s intellectual curiosity in the types of articles she selected.”
Under Thien, Ricepaper began exploring the diversity of writers and artists who refused or could not be defined by cultural labels, marking a turning point in the tone and influence of the magazine.
“I wanted to learn, I wanted experience, and I was still asking myself many questions about race, identity, politics, and art,” she says. “I was in my twenties, living away from home for the first time, working almost 30 hours a week in addition to studying, and I had very little contact with my family.”
Thien profiled international artists like Shuibo Wang by examining his Oscar-nominated documentary, Sunrise over Tiananmen Square. Wong-Chu now believes her editorial themes were a precursor to her future writing, leading to Do Not Say We Have Nothing.
Another issue she edited featured Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia’s leading novelist who had been imprisoned 16 years without a trial. He was interviewed during a stopover in Vancouver, resulting in ‘The Mute’s Soliloquy: Pramoedya Ananta Toer and the literature of survival.’
“I was so hungry for everything, all the ideas that were coming towards me at full speed,” says Thien, “My own sense of identity was changing.” And so her overriding concern for justice and her opposition to intolerance were kindled by her editorial mindset.
If there was a turning point, it might have been when the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop launched its Emerging Writers Award. The first year the jury selected Rita Wong’s manuscript, Monkeypuzzle. In 2001, the jury unanimously selected Thien’s first fiction collection, Simple Recipes.
This award attracted interest from publishers, resulting in a bidding war won by McClelland & Stewart. Still a prestigious imprint at that time, M&S agreed to publish Simple Recipes, as well as her first novel, Certainty.
Simple Recipes won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, the City of Vancouver Book Book Award and the VanCity Book Prize for best book pertaining to women’s issues. This triple success resulted in her receiving the Canadian Authors Association Air Canada award for most promising writer under age 30.
Certainty won the 2006 Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award and it was nominated for the 2007 Kiriyama Fiction Prize.
And the rest is herstory.
Madeleine Thien was rejected the first time she applied to UBC’s Creative Writing MFA program, but she was neither upset nor angry.
“Maybe doors would open and maybe they wouldn’t,” she recalls, “but there were so many things that I needed to understand through writing, and those needs and desires weren’t going to go away.
“I am no longer convinced that a writing program or an MFA program is the way forward. A good reader is necessary, a library, and one’s own stubbornness, humility, and courage with the work.”
Madeleine Thien completed her Masters degree in 2001 and relocated to Quebec City in 2005 after her Dutch-born husband, Willem Atsa, took a job there.
Allan Cho is a librarian at UBC and festival administrator at LiterASIAN Festival, Canada’s first Pacific Rim Asian Canadian writers festival.