Madeleine Thien Interview
By: Joanna Hioe
"Writing is my way of thinking. All the different forms take up a different kind of space, they have their particular shape. Each shape has its possibilities and limitations, and I think that writers are constantly pushing the boundaries of the shape. It’s a bit like water in a glass: the container has its own rationale and history, but what the writer brings comes from another source entirely."
Surviving the Khmer Rogue and starting a new life in Canada, Madeleine Thien’s artistic vision is much like her writing talent - borderless. In her interview with BW she talks about juggling her multiple forms of writing and how she breaks, expands, and re-imagines words
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh.
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
A lighter and something to desalinate the water.
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
I really can’t.
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
Many novelists. The beauty is in the many.
A is for… appetite. What is your favourite banana themed food?
The banana itself.
You've managed to excel in reviews, short stories and novels -- could you share your method or key influences that enabled your mastery of the various forms?
Writing is my way of thinking. All the different forms take up a different kind of space, they have their particular shape. Each shape has its possibilities and limitations, and I think that writers are constantly pushing the boundaries of the shape. It’s a bit like water in a glass: the container has its own rationale and history, but what the writer brings comes from another source entirely.
Although I’ve taught a great deal, in Hong Kong, the United States, Canada and elsewhere, I try to create a space for freedom rather than method, playfulness rather than form – while at the same time exploring how these concepts are inextricable from one another. I love Yasunari Kawabata’s palm of the hands stories, medical case studies, mathematical equations, musical counterpoint, memory theatres, etc. We live in a world rich in forms.
How far is a multi-cultural Canada expressed in language, and what is the nature of its distribution?
A difficult question, which I’m not entirely sure how to answer.
North America is multi-racial and multicultural, and has been since before nation building. One thing that we, as Canadians, rarely study in school is the deep history of our First Nations peoples, and the diversity of languages and peoples in existence pre-Confederation.
To try to answer your question, Canada is officially bilingual (French and English). The 2011 census recorded 200 languages being spoken in homes across the country, and 21% reported a mother tongue other than French or English. Canada is a country of official and unofficial languages and is, by nature, a microcosm that reflects shifting immigration patterns in time.
The concepts and lives within Canadian literature, though primarily expressed in English or French, are borderless.
“The immigrants in Canada, they don’t dream in Canadian.” You wrote this in your presentation The Shattered Mirror: On the Migrant in Literature and Politics. Could you share more on your experience of navigating the nuances and directness of Asian and Canadian cultures through language?
If you read the essay, you’ll see that this quote was spoken to me by a shopkeeper in the Netherlands (where I used to live) — and is a line I disagree with entirely. He believed that an immigrant, refugee or migrant could never be part of the fabric of the adopted home, and never share its aspirations. The shopkeeper believed that identity and culture are fixed. My own life has taught me otherwise, that ideas, art, expression and belief are never created in a vacuum.
How far does new media or self-publishing enable authors to put their work out there for public consumption?
I tend to focus on the creation of art rather than the dissemination, which is a failing of mine. I say it’s a failing, but maybe in my case, it’s also an acknowledgment of my strengths and weaknesses. I want to make things. I hope they’ll be part of the world. My medium is books. That said, I find the internet, as a public space, powerful. I wrote about this conflict between the private self and the public space in an essay for The Rusty Toque.
How does literature "write back" to history, particularly in the Asian context where the voice of the collective is valued, over the individual?
History is multifaceted. I’m not sure if literature “writes back” to it, or if literature is engaged with it, because history and literature are simply part of the world.
Is the voice of the individual devalued in the Asian context? I find this a very blanket statement. Family is a powerful unit of society in Asian cultures; most people are bound to the family rather than to a larger collective, or to the idea of society. The individual has a role to play, a place in the order of things, and a responsibility. In this sense, one could argue that the individual is in fact deeply valued. It makes me think that the nature of desire — personal, societal, familial — is at the heart of these relationships, and the conflicting choices that arise.
What are the challenges you face in engaging (Asian) audiences through writing?
I think the challenge is in making the work, in following one’s own artistic vision, and breaking/expanding/re-imagining the given forms.
I've enjoyed experiencing your memory theatre Tumblr, and how you've curated your sketches and key reference points in writing. How has this virtual space helped you connect with audiences? (or not?)
The website for Dogs at the Perimeter is a very personal site, deeply connected to the five years I spent thinking about the Cambodian civil war and genocide.
Most people younger than me have no recollection of that time, no images in their minds of Phnom Penh before or after the Khmer Rouge, nor any knowledge of the illegal US bombing of Cambodia, when 2.7 million tonnes of bombs were dropped on a neutral country. The website, which is a kind of labyrinth of images and words, was a way to set down things I encountered, and to work against historical amnesia. It was a way to think about where a novel comes from, the limitations of fiction, and also how storytelling is part of an ongoing act of remembering and forgetting. When I give talks about Dogs at the Perimeter, I have to remind audiences that we’re not talking about History. The genocide happened in my lifetime, and to my generation. When I published the novel, I was only 36 years old.
I understand you were part of the founding faculty for the MFA at City University, Hong Kong. Could you share more about the essays and literature that emerged from Occupy Central?
Perhaps the most well known and cited piece is Keane Shum’s essay in The Atlantic Why I Won't Give Up My Dream For Hong Kong
I wrote about the impending closure of the MFA Program in The Guardian. Despite the fact that the program was highly successful and made money for City University of Hong Kong, the decision was not reversed. The last MFA students will likely graduate this year. It’s a great loss, but a very small part of a larger pattern of extremely troubling events in Hong Kong.
What is your experience as a writer-in-residence in Singapore's Nanyang Technological University (NTU) - of the students, their aspirations, and their voices?
I loved my students at NTU and the time in Singapore was a great learning experience.
The writers I worked with were bold and also deeply thoughtful, they took risks I didn’t expect them to take, they were generous with one another, and they were also attentive, critical readers.
I think it’s a wonderful thing that Boey Kim Cheng is returning to Singapore to take charge of this program. It has a great future. I tried to make our classroom into a space of freedom and experimentation, a place where we could think about what it means, for ourselves and for our societies, to make challenging literature.
The difficulty of publishing in HK and writing from Asia: "the students know full well that a programme like ours cannot ease their path to publication. Hong Kong is not New York; powerful agents and editors do not visit us...Writing in English in Asia – a fraught choice as well as a liberating one – means these writers are inevitably working from the periphery."
What does a path to publication (and its roadblocks) look like in Asia?
Perhaps I’m not the best person to answer this question as my path to publication has been through Canada, first, and then the UK and the United States. My work has been translated in 25 languages but aside from Chinese and Vietnamese, the translations are primarily into European languages.
I’ve been incredibly fortunate. There is no easy route to publishing, and a great deal depends on timing and luck, and on someone deciding to take a risk on you.
I think this is why I continually return to the one thing we can usefully confront as artists: craft, vision, artistic risk.
And then we have to believe in the work, and have confidence that it can, and should, stand on its own. I have critiqued the blind spots of the publishing industry, and I think that established writers should do so when/if they can. But the vocation is writing itself.
What project do you see yourself taking on next?
I have a new novel in the back of my mind, but I’m just leaving it alone for the moment to put down roots.BW