Do Not Say We Have Nothing Book Review

April 3rd UPDATE: Do Not Say We Have Nothing shortlisted for the Baileys Prize.


First the Booker, then the Giller and the GG, and now longlisted for Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, this voice must be heard. I thank Asian American Press for allowing me to post my review here in full, and Penguin Random House Canada for my reviewer’s copy.


Just a few months after it was published in May, 2016, Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing was shortlisted for a Booker Prize and had won the top two Canadian literary awards, the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award for fiction. That is extraordinary achievements for the Vancouver born, Montreal based writer.

Thien creates her third novel on a large canvas, spanning from the decades leading to Mao’s Cultural Revolution in 1960’s China and onward to the Tiananmen Square protests and government crackdown in 1989. Even though her novel does not stem directly from a personal experience like others’ such as Dai Sijie’s semi-autobiographical Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, or the eye-witness account of journalist Jan Wong’s Red China Blues, Thien’s outsider’s stance is far compensated by her extensive and detailed research, not just 20th Century history of China but down to the streets and local teahouses. Further, the absence of a first-person experience is replaced by an exuberance of imaginary characters and storytelling, all intricately woven with actual accounts of historical figures and events.

While not being an eye-witness, Thien’s cultural lineage could have brought her into a kind of insider’s realm. Born to Malaysian-Chinese immigrant parents in Canada, Thien’s previous writing had depicted the unique perspective framed by her upbringing. The stories in her collection Simple Recipes (2001) have revealed poignantly the cultural and generational conflicts that could exist in a North American Asian family. Further, Thien’s previous novel Dogs at the Perimeter (2011) had prepared her well to venture into the abyss of human atrocity, with the backdrop of Khmer Rouge’s infamous killing fields in Cambodia. Do Not Say We Have Nothing presents a larger landscape and a more ambitious undertaking than her previous works.

Madeleine Thien

This is how the book opens, simple yet powerful:

“In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life.”

Here we hear a voice, seemingly nonchalant, but still lucid and sad. This is the voice of the protagonist, Marie. She was ten years-old and living with her mother in Vancouver when she learned of her father’s suicide in Hong Kong. The year was 1989. Not long after this news, Marie’s mother took in nineteen-year-old Ai-ming from China, alien and undocumented, escaped out of the country during the Tiananmen crackdown.

Ai-ming’s short refuge in Marie’s home bonded the two like sisters. As well, she opened the eyes of young Marie to life inside a totalitarian regime. The radio played only eighteen pieces of approved music. Her father, Sparrow, would listen to illegal music secretly and hum the melody of his own composition when he thought no one was around. Ai-ming’s interactions with Marie have prodded her—now twenty years later and a professor of mathematics at Simon Fraser University—to search for the truth about her father Kai and his mentor, Ai-ming’s father Sparrow, as well the tragic personal and national history that had consumed their lives.

With Ai-ming’s help, Marie and her mother began to decipher a secret hand-copied manuscript Kai had kept, “The Book of Records”, passed on to him from Sparrow, an allegorical account of their life in China, outward journey and clandestine dreams, “things we never say aloud”. As a young child, Marie was overwhelmed. Now as an adult, she is driven all the more to pursue the truth of her own family history.

It is not easy to follow Thien’s story in the first few chapters as there are many characters introduced with their own backstory. Time frame switches back and forth, spanning two continents. As I entered Chapter 4, I had to draw up a character chart, as I was looking into a kaleidoscope of three generations and other colourful figures against tumultuous events. If the book had included such a chart at the beginning, it would be most helpful for readers.

We follow Marie’s discovery as she comes to learn that her father Kai used to be a gifted piano student at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, and Sparrow, a prominent composer, was his teacher there. Together with Sparrow’s young cousin Zhuli, a prodigious violin student, the three forged an unspeakable bond. They cherished each other’s dreams with youthful fervors, which all were altered if not extinguished when Mao ignited his Cultural Revolution.

When she was small, Zhuli discovered by accident her parents’ secret storage where they hid their treasures of western classical music records and books. This led to her parents, Swirl and Wren the Dreamer, to be charged as counter-revolutionary. They were publically criticised and humiliated, then sent to separate labour camps in the remote northwest of China in the name of ‘re-education’. Zhuli was taken secretly to her aunt, Big Mother’s Knife, Sparrow’s mother, and there she grew up. The woman who brought her there had met her aunt only once while on the train. As she ate a lot of the White Rabbit brand candies, we know her by that name. The White Rabbit told Zhuli about her parents’ situation matter-of-factly:

“They’ve been sent for re-education, that’s all… Since you’ve never been educated at all, it seemed pointless to send you along with them.”

This is just one incident where Thien deftly dispenses humour amidst somber events. This is what makes the book enjoyable to read. The subtle humour often is the wrapping of the resilience of human spirit hidden among tragic happenings.

Thien’s story is embedded in historical facts. The prestigious Shanghai Conservatory of Music was shut down in 1966 during the Cultural Revolution, its five hundred pianos destroyed, denouncement and physical battering of the professors and students had resulted in deaths and suicides. Bearing the brunt of the persecution was the unyielding Conservatory President He Luting, beaten but not bent.

Due to their political affiliation, Sparrow’s parents Big Mother Knife and Ba Lute are spared, but what remains in Sparrow is a compromising existence, being sent to work as a factory work for twenty years after the shutdown of the Conservatory. Kai the pragmatist chooses to follow the mainstream and becomes a Red Guard. Young Zhuli sets foot on a tragic path.

With such a setting, it is only natural that Thien would use classical music as the leitmotif of her composition. Shostakovich, Beethoven and Bach are like witnesses to the unfolding of human atrocity, their melodies the fuel that sustains whatever internal fervour that remains. Shostakovich, himself a composer treading a precarious line between authenticity and self-preservation under Stalin’s rule, is an apt metaphor of the situation the trio have to face. The different choices made by Sparrow, Kai and Zhuli well represent the paths that are opened to an artist facing political persecutions.

On another note, and true to her Canadian root, Thein lets pianist Glenn Gould and his two recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations be a recurring motif in her story. Bach’s ethereal and invigorating theme and variations belong to Sparrow, the sustenance for his inner life despite deadening circumstances outside.

As the canvas is huge, Thien’s subject matters are numerous. The details and complexity may be a hindrance to readers’ enjoyment. Yet Thien’s voice is close and personal. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, the title taken from the workers anthem the ‘Internationale’, deserves our listening ears. As an instructor of the then newly established MFA Program in Creative Writing at City University of Hong Kong from 2010, Thien experienced first-hand the abrupt cancellation of the program in 2015 “as a result of internal and external politics” as stated in her Acknowledgement at the back of the book. In her article in The Guardian (May 18, 2015), she notes that students from the Program had published essays in support of the Occupy Central student-led democracy movement, the ‘Umbrella Revolution’, that brought Hong Kong to a standstill. That personal experience could well have informed and given her the potent, insider’s voice in her novel writing.


~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples



Books and the Gender Issue

My review of Girl With A Pearl Earring has recently been linked to a book list. While I appreciate the link, I must admit it has stirred up in me some unintended ripples.  It’s the title of the list:  ‘101 Books Every Woman Should Read’.

Now I’m always wary about books that are labeled and geared towards one gender.  Like recently I came across a book entitled 100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go… makes you wonder what exactly they’re luring you into. Imagine a book called 100 Places Every Man Should Go…

Anyway, back to the list of books every woman should read.  The range is eclectic with the titles neatly categorized.

Just let me list a sample from each of the categories:

The Classics: Frankenstein by Mary Shelly, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, Howards End by E. M. Forster, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, Middlemarch by George Eliot, Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf…

Children’s Literature:  Pippi Longstockings by Astrid Lindgren, The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll…

Books into Movies:  The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen…

Books Featuring Familial Relationships:  The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingslover, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, Away by Jane Urquhart…

Books Celebrating the Strength of Women:  Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorn, Babette’s Feast by Isak Dinesen…

Current Literature:  Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen…

Books about Finding Oneself:  Bee Season by Myla Goldberg, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers…

Stories of Real Women: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou,  Amelia: A Life of the Aviation Legend by Donald M. Goldstein and Katherine V. Dillon, Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, The Story of My Life by Helen Keller, Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe by Laurie Lisle…

Banned or Challenged Books:  Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, Of Mice and Men by John Steinback, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

Non-Fiction: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey, On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross,  A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

You get my point.  Sounds like any typical high school and college reading list, but why specify women?

Yes, they’re mostly written by women authors, and many with strong female protagonists.  They depict the journey of self-discovery, of overcoming odds, of seeking meaningful relationships and ideals in a hostile world.  In the non-fiction section there are influential books that have achieved significance in the area of writing, psychology, environmentalism, social justice.

But my query is:  If these books depict the inner journey of women, or portray the poignant reality of their struggles, if they have shed any light on the human race in terms of equality, justice, or existential meaning, are these not all the more reasons for men, or anyone, to read them?

Of course, for the sake of argument, one could point out that the statement “books every woman should read” doesn’t preclude that men should not.  But that’s just being contentious.

Books for women, books for men, why can’t books be just books?  Maybe it has to do with the writing of books, or, step back further, society’s view on male and female authors.

Posting on the Guardian blog, writer and editor Harriet Evans vehemently declares that:

“I’m fed up with seeing some of our best novelists written off as ‘chick lit’ — you don’t see the same belittling line taken with male writers…

It winds me up that books about young women are seen as frivolous and silly, while books about young men’s lives that cover the same topics, are reviewed and debated, seen as valid and interesting contributions to the current social and media scene.

And regarding the reading public, it has been noted that women read more than men, both in the U.S. and the U.K.  With that in mind, Evans goes on to state that:

The truth is, women happily read books (and watch films and TV) aimed primarily at men…. They read thrillers, travel books, biographies – and yet the majority of these books are marketed for men… But men rarely try women’s fiction, because they’ve been conditioned to think they can’t pick up a book with a pink cover.”

Indeed, worthy literature written by women authors are sometimes reduced to ‘romance’ or ‘chick lit’.  Jane Austen is a prime example.  Her incisive social satires, eloquent writing and sense of humor have often been swept aside while the romantic union of the protagonists at the end is given the main focus.  In this way, her work is conveniently labeled as ‘chick lit’, dreaded by male readers, until some brave souls dare to take up the challenge and are floored by her relevance and intelligence.

Virginia Woolf sharply observes in her Cambridge lecture series compiled in A Room Of One’s Own that historically, social norm has always been one that coops up women in the domestic while offering men the world.

Taking her view further, I can understand why the dichotomy, however arbitrary, in male and female writing, their difference in subject matters, subsequently, books for men and books for women.

I have a feeling that if the protagonist of The Catcher In The Rye is called Helen Caulfield, the book could well be dismissed as another trivial version of teen angst, schoolgirl blues, fussing over boys and growing up.  And likely we won’t see it on any reading list.

In Praise of Austen: Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own

 A Room of One’s Own is based on a series of lecture Woolf delivered at the two women’s colleges in Cambridge University on the topic of “Women and Fiction”.  It was published in 1929.

Woolf lamented the disparities women in a patriarchal society had to face throughout history.  The stream of consciousness flowed into torrents of incisive social observations and satirical commentaries.

She noted that women had long been deprived of equitable opportunities in education and employment. Men were rich, women were poor; men got to roam the country and travel the world, women had to be satisfied with the domestic.  Men were great writers, poets, playwrights, women had to concede to find fulfillment in “making puddings and knitting stockings”. Men had rooms to work, to rest, to create…women, the average, middle class women, seldom had a room of their own.

…to have a room of her own, let alone a quiet room or a sound-proof room, was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble, even up to the beginning of the nineteenth century.

And sadly, Woolf had to utter this statement:

Yet genius of a sort must have existed among women as it must have existed among the working classes.

Isn’t it true, Jane spent her most prolific years writing in a very public room in Chawton House.  In the midst of family activities, at a small and spartan desk, she revised Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, wrote Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion, and began Sanditon:

Jane's writing desk in Chawton

And isn’t it true that only in movies do we see the idyllic desk against a clear window, with soft light diffusing in, gently illuminating a lady dressed in elegant regency gown, writing on expansive papers and stationary, contemplating in solitude:

Room or no room, recognized or not, something happened towards the end of the eighteenth century that, according to Virginia Woolf, deserved much more mention in history than the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses:  The middle-class woman began to write.

Woolf pointed out that not only did Jane Austen lack a room of her own, having had to write her novels in the very public sitting-room, she had to hide her manuscripts or cover them with a piece of blotting-paper, as observed by her nephew James Edward Austen Leigh in his Memoir of Jane Austen.

Ironically, there lay the genius of Austen, and the few woman writers around her time such as Bronte and George Eliot.  Woolf wrote:

…and we must accept the fact that all those good novels, Villette, Emma, Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch, were written by women without more experience of life than could enter the house of a respectable clergyman; written too in the common sitting-room of that respectable house and by women so poor that they could not afford to buy more than a few quires of paper at a time upon which to write.

Little did they know, it was in such a room that they were trained in the prerequisites of novel writing:

…all the literary training that a woman had in the early nineteenth century was training in the observation of character, in the analysis of emotion.  Her sensibility had been educated for centuries by the influences of the common sitting-room.  People’s feelings were impressed on her; personal relations were always before her eyes.  Therefore, when the middle-class woman took to writing, she naturally wrote novels…

Not only that, they wrote good novels.  With reference to Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf concluded:

Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching.  That was how Shakespeare wrote.

High praise indeed.