Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Tomorrow begins from another dawn,
when we will be fast asleep.
Remember what I say: not everything will pass.

I like the saying “this too shall pass”, it’s a way of being in the difficult moment, of realising that it will be replaced by something else, it represents a sliver of hope, a reminder of gratitude, that thoughts are not reality, they can be changed. So this quote that “not everything will pass” evokes a kind of heartfelt stab for me, for it pierces that hope and reminds us that some things stay, that they are not seeds of hope, they are reminders of a sadness that endures.

‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ felt to me like a novel of ancestral DNA and how living through Chairman Mao’s and the subsequent communist regime imprinted its effect onto people behaviours forcing them to change, leaving its trace in their DNA which was passed on to subsequent generations, who despite living far from where those events took place, continue to live with a feeling they can’t explain, but which affects the way they live, or half-live, as something crucial to living a fulfilled life is missing. This reminds me of what Yaa Gyasi achieves so successfully in her extraordinary novel Homegoing, spanning an even longer historical trajectory of 300 years.

The novel is presented through dual narratives, in Canada today Marie lives alone with her mother, her father Ba, died in Hong Kong far from them both in circumstances they don’t understand, a kind of double abandonment. The alternate narrative is set in her father’s time, with his extended family during the time of and following China’s Cultural Revolution.

We will come to understand that mystery as the daughter of one of her father’s friends Ai-Ming, comes to stay with them and recognises the calligraphy of her father in a box of books under the kitchen table, the first encounter we have with a manuscript called ‘The Book of Records’ a narrative by an unknown author, one that has been added to and copied and left as a message for various characters who became lost over the years.

The title of the manuscript is an allusion to China’s most celebrated work of history, Sima Qian’s Historical Records, completed in 91BCE but kept hidden for fear of the wrath of an emperor who had its author castrated. The telling of history in China was always a dangerous occupation.

We are taken back to China to the home of Ai Ming’s father who is referred to as Sparrow, a composer at the music conservatory, one of his students Kai and his young cousin Zhuli, whose parents are the first to come under the harsh judgement of Mao’s philosophy, because they were landlords, denounced, beaten, thrown from their homes, accused and sent to labour camps for unsubstantiated crimes. The young daughter is deposited with her Aunt and Uncle miles away in the city, under the protection of her Uncle who works for the regime.

He Luting, Composer (1903 – 1999) China

The story follows these three musicians who are passionate about music (which will become the wrong kind of music) and to survive they must suppress their desires, their passion and compromise, the three of them each make different choices, that will affect those around them.

The narrative around the musicians and some of the characters closely mirrors actual events that occurred in the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, the main concert hall now renamed He Luting Concert Hall, after the Director who “in 1968, after two years of violence and humiliation, was dragged before television cameras by Red Guards to be threatened and physically abused”

In the following quote, Ai-ming listens to what she learns is her father’s music for the first time, music that was destroyed before it could ever be played, recalled from the recesses of the mind of the composer, after 20 years of silence.

“Ai-ming sat on a chair in the corner as her father played the piano, she had never heard him do so before, had not quite realised he was even capable. His entire body, the way he moved, changed. Most of the pieces she recognised from the records (Bach’s Partita No. 6, Couperin, Shostakovich) but there was another piece, a complex figure that seemed to disassemble as she listened, a rope of music,  a spool of wire. It seemed to rise even as it was falling, to lift in volume even as it diminished, a polyphony so unfathomably beautiful it made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. When it stopped tears came abruptly to her eyes.”

This is a tragic novel whose characters spirits are oppressed by a philosophical regime, which mutates into something equally oppressive after the death of Chairman Mao, for a while the younger generation without the memory of the era their parents generation suffered under (and somewhat judging of their inability to challenge the circumstances forced upon them), appear to revolt against the lack of freedom to choose their paths, until they too are brutally crushed in the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989, ensuring the new generation understand the power and reach of an authoritarian regime, that no-one is immune to.

Madeleine Thien had originally intended to write a novel about the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, events she vividly remembered watching unfold on television during her teenage years, however over time she began to ask herself more about what had motivated the one million Beijing citizens to come out onto the streets, especially the older generation.

“What gave them the courage to stand up to the government? And, what made them come into the streets to want to protect, in many ways, their children, and another generation? So I think that’s why it ended up going backwards into the Cultural Revolution. I’d been writing about Cambodia before that – the Cambodian genocide – and one thing I’d been thinking a lot about were the musicians. I started thinking about what was it about music that could be so threatening. We often know about the writers who are targeted by totalitarian regimes but looking at musicians is another way in to thinking about what’s threatening to this consolidation of power.” Madeleine Thien, Granta Conversation

Madeleine Thien

This is a must read novel if you wish to reflect on how recent Chinese history affects the present generations, how regimes affect generations of their populations and how even though subsequent generations may not have experienced the past, they continue to feel its effect in their lives today.

It was short listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2017.


Further Reading:

Article by Madeleine Thien: After the Cultural Revolution: what western classical music means in China, The Guardian, 8 July 2016

Madeleine Thien Interview : on a solitary childhood in Canada and daring to question the Chinese regime, ‘In China, you learn a lot from what people don’t tell you’, The Guardian, 8 Oct 2016

Conversation with Madeleine Thien: On translating the sensation of music for a reader, the importance of writing about women of colour, and the Chinese conceptual framework of time, Granta Magazine, 3 Oct 2106

Buy a copy of ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ here

 

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Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo

 Cereus Blooms at Night is the partially told story of one woman’s life, beginning when she is admitted to an alms house, suspected of having murdered her father and slowly unravelling back to the turning points, the highs and lows which brought her to be in the state she is in on arrival.

cereusIt is a novel narrated in parts, each part focusing on a character(s) who were influential in her life, including the young man who never knew her until this day, the one who became her confidant, perhaps the first man she ever trusted, after all that had passed beforehand. Much of it is told as Mala slips into memories of herself as child, reliving it.

It is set on the fictional Caribbean island of Lantanacamara, in a town called Paradise, the Ramchandin patriarch arriving there from India, trading a life of indentured servitude for little more than the promise of a karmic upgrade for his son, Chandin, who would be taken under the wing of the Reverend in the hope of improving the family prospects.

The young male nurse, Tyler accepted his first job in the alms house and although well-trained and qualified, his employers had yet to extend their generosity towards giving him actual nursing duties. The arrival of the controversial patient Mala Ramchandin, provided him with the first opportunity to exercise his skills.

I hardly had opened my mouth to explain that Miss Ramchandin was too frail to inflict even a bad thought when Sister screamed at me for being insolent and blatantly disregarding her authority.

No one else wanted to go near her, she was bound and believed to be mad and dangerous. Tyler was delighted to be given the opportunity and responsibility and treated his patient with the same compassion he might have offered any patient given the chance. Sensing her distress, he acted to alleviate it regardless of instructions to do otherwise.

cereusAs Tyler gained her trust, Mala’s story is revealed to us through him and through the two visitors she received, who on her first day there, unable to see her, left a pot with a cutting of the fragrant night-blooming cereus plant, a gift that clearly delighted her, a symbol of fragrant, nurturing oblivion.

The novel is full of contrasts, moments of delight and anticipation alongside the growing recognition of impending horrors, abuse and neglect. It taunts the reader into a state of hope, as the potential for things to have been otherwise is so close at times, only for the illusion of escape to become shattered by the reality of a situation that holds tight to those who are caught in its web.

The novel is unique in its portrayal of characters whose sexual identity is unclear, exploring hybridity and sexual minorities within a cultural context, in an intriguing, accepting way.

By the time Ambrosia was five, her parents were embroiled in their marital problems to the exclusion of all else, including their child. They hardly noticed that their daughter was slowly transforming herself into their son.  Ambrose slept right through the month, undisturbed until the first Saturday of the next, and Elsie, hungry for a male in the house, went along with his (her) strong belief that he (she) was really and truly meant to be a boy. Else fully expected that he (she) would outgrow the foolishness soon enough.  But the child walked and ran and dressed and talked and tumbled and all but relieved himself so much like an authentic boy that Elsie soon apparently forgot she had ever given birth to a girl. And the father, in his few waking episodes, seemed not to remember that he had once fathered one.

Despite the harrowing nature of Mala’s experiences, the luminous storytelling and unique characters bring light to otherwise dark places, and show that perseverance and allowing space for love, can overcome all manner of tragedy.

I came across the author Shani Mootoo in my search for other women authors, writing in the Caribbean tradition, authors who may have lived and been educated elsewhere, but whose writing evokes a clear connection to roots from elsewhere. Mootoo was born in Ireland, raised in Trinidad and moved to Canada as a young adult.

Trinidad and Tobago literature is rooted in the oral storytelling of African slaves, the European literary roots of the French creoles and the religious and folk tales of the Indian indentured immigrants.

February by Lisa Moore

FebruaryFebruary is a novel constructed around a real and tragic historical event that occurred in Newfoundland, Canada just over thirty years ago, a tragedy that remains deeply felt in the area today. All Newfoundlanders of a certain age, remember where they were on the night the Ocean Ranger sank, a technological wonder that was supposed to be unsinkable, one that if safety procedures had been followed, indeed, may not have done so.

The book was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2010. The cover doesn’t tell us much about the scope of this novel, I expect it represents the protagonist Helen, at about the age she must have been, in her 30’s when she learned she had lost her husband at sea.

From Wikipedia:

Ocean Ranger was a semi-submersible mobile offshore drilling unit that sank in Canadian waters on 15 February 1982. It was drilling an exploration well on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, 267 kilometres (166 mi) east of St. John’s, Newfoundland, for Mobil Oil of Canada, Ltd. with 84 crew members on board when it disappeared. There were no survivors.

OceanRanger

‘Ocean Ranger Oil Rig’ – Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

It was the day after Valentine’s Day, Helen, received a card from her husband Cal, a day or so later. Cal’s mother phoned the Coast guard and shouted at them, saying they’d got it wrong. If the men were dead the company would have informed the families.

Helen knows in her heart it is true, but she needs the body of her husband. Her father-in-law convinces her that she doesn’t want to remember him that way.

‘There were people who went on hoping for months. They said there must be some island out there, and that’s where the survivors were. There was no island. Everybody knew there was no island. It was impossible. People who knew the coast like the back of their hand. But they thought an island might exist that they hadn’t noticed before.’

At night she dreams of him and believes he wishes her to join him.

‘How awful. Death has made him selfish.

Forget the children. This is what he means. Forget yourself. Come with me. Don’t you want to know what happened?

She feels as though she is betraying him by staying. It is relentless and exhausting, every time she says no him, she forgets him a little more.

The novel moves between the 1970’s when she and Cal were married to October, November 2008, the present, when Helen awaits the arrival of her son John, who has called from Tasmania, Australia to tell her he is going to become a father.

Helen is kept busy running her own dressmaking business and at the insistence of her sister Louise, is having her floors replaced by Barry. She doesn’t want the job to end, she becomes used to his presence, his ignorance of her. It makes her desire him.

John’s story also moves between 2008 and the mid 90’s when he makes a career change, becoming an engineer for the same industry that took the life of his father. He has had a high risk job and never wanted to become a father. The novel gives more space to John and the mother of his soon to be born child, Jane, while giving little space to the two daughters, who appear on the fringes, are not close to their mother, nor developed with much depth.

‘John has avoided being a father all his adult life. It has taken stealth and some underhandedness. It has taken clarity of purpose when the moment called for dreamy abandon. He has practised withdrawal. He has kept what he wants, what he actually wants for his life, in the centre of his thoughts, even while in the throes of orgasm. He’s kept a tight fist on the reins of himself.’

February is a brilliantly constructed  and thought-provoking vision of one woman’s grief in the wake of her husband’s death, leaving her pregnant and with three children to raise. It illustrates the way this event and the memories it triggers, return in waves from that point forward, that death is not really death, it is a form of ever-present, albeit fading memory.

While never overly melancholic, Helen’s recollections and reconstructions of what may have happened to her husband in those last minutes, her studying of the manuals to understand how to resolve the problem that caused the sinking, reminded me of Joan Didion’s study and reliving of her own husband’s death in The Year of Magical Thinking (2005).

However life continues on and around Helen and those quotidian narratives reminded me of the work of Anne Tyler as we see-saw between the practical elements of daily life and the introspection of a death that stays with someone their entire life and in those still moments, returns as potently, as if it were yesterday.

Moore lost her father a few years before the Ocean Ranger sank, she was 16 and her sister 12, giving her first hand experience of how grief works it way through a family, how it makes and shapes the lives of those left behind, an experience that enriches the novel and brings it alive, makes it feel authentic.

Quietly compelling, highly recommended.

‘I think the most important thing I’ve learned about grief – and coming through it – is that you don’t forget the person you’ve lost. Rather, the memories become sharper, gather new meaning, and are richer over time. The absent become more present, not less so, as time goes on.’ Lisa Moore, extract from an interview with Bookgroup.info

 

Ru by Kim Thúy

RuReading Ru by Kim Thúy is like taking a long overland journey while looking up regularly to witness that which passes in front of our eyes. Sometimes the view is stunning, sometimes it elicits sadness, it can be moving, nostalgic, perhaps an odour transports us back to a scene from childhood, a person we see reminds us of someone we once knew.

Reading it in French imbues it with a drifting, lyrical resonance, sometimes I drifted off as the excess of descriptive words were beyond my reach and I was too lazy to look them up, not wanting to interrupt the flow. Until the next day, when I would happily read with the two dictionaries beside me and remember how much more fulfilling it is to venture further into unknown linguistic territory, enriching one’s vocabulary in another language.

blue dragon tattooMost of the pages read like short vignettes, experiences that provoke a memory, the man at the petrol station who sees a scar and recognises a childhood vaccination from Vietnam, his own hidden beneath a tattoo of a blue dragon, he shares a few memories, he touches her scar and places her finger in the middle of the blue dragon.

Reflections of times gone by, the journey of a woman with her family leaving the south of Vietnam for Canada via a refugee camp in Malaysia, she is a woman connected with another culture and the past, who intends to and does embrace ‘the dream’, whose own children will grow up in that modern culture with different references. Uprooted and yet connected at the same time.

A short but powerful read, that is incredibly moving without being sentimental. A rare and authentic talent, Kim Thúy channels her experience into this fictional tribute, which makes me remember reading Vadney Ratner’s In The Shadow of the Banyan, a tribute to another author’s human experience, struggle and survival despite the horrors lived through.

Ru in French means a small stream or a flow – of water, blood, tears or liquid. In Vietnamese, Ru is a lullaby.

Also Reviewed By

Nancy at Ifsofactodotme 

Jennifer D at LiteralLife

I read the book in French, but it is available in English, under the same title.

Ru English