A conversation with Madeleine Thien

Benjamin Ramm talks to the author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2016.

Benjamin Ramm Madeleine Thien
26 October 2016
 Alastair Grant; AP/PA Images)

Madeleine Thien at the Man Booker Prize reading in London on 24 September 2016. (Credit: Alastair Grant; AP/PA Images)BR:     I’ve had in my mind the lines of the poet Adrienne Rich, who laments that her generation was shaped by events beyond its control: “The great dark birds of history screamed and plunged / into our personal weather”. That moulds your characters too, doesn’t it?

MT:     Yes, that’s a great line. I’m glad you thought of Adrienne Rich actually – I think there’s a conversation here about memory, social justice, the responsibility to bear witness, and also the impossibility almost of making art from that history, and the ethical dilemmas of doing so. This novel is like a pendulum that moves between two pivotal events: the Cultural Revolution and the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations. It looks at the echoes and parallels between those two events, as disparate as they may seem, but is trying to get to the heart of the aspirations of people about the kind of China they wanted to see come into existence, and the failure of the mechanisms to bring that into existence. 

BR:     Rich laments that “we lost track / of the meaning of ‘we’… we found ourselves / reduced to ‘I’”. In terms of the Cultural Revolution, there’s the Maoist slogan that one should be ‘without private property or selfish thoughts’, and the idea that it would be possible to remove spiritual desire along with material desire. Similarly, your characters are caught up in and bound up by the sloganeering of the period.

MT:     Yes, and they learn to mistrust the ‘I’ – in fact they even see the ‘I’ as something that has corrupted themselves and society as a whole. The totalitarian state purges individuals, but there’s also the purging of the self. In some ways, they’re symmetrical lines – the trajectory of history, and the trajectory of the individual – and they’re also in conflict. And so trying to work out where we are in resonance with the trajectory of history and where that trajectory leads to a disintegration of selfhood, which would then lead back again into the disintegration of society, is part of the tracking of the novel.

BR:     There’s a little-known Sichuanese poet called Bai Hua, who in the period immediately after Tiananmen, wrote of two lovers: “This is gentle, not the rhetoric of gentleness”. Even in the private life, the state will tell you what gentleness is – there’s no way to escape the totalitarian lexicon.

MT:     That’s a brilliant quote. All private forms of expression are co-opted for the public sphere, so you cannot even own what would be considered a private, intimate way of existing. Even desire itself – desire, ardour – these are all things for the state, for the revolutionary ideology.

BR:     And the Party itself said that desire should be channeled into revolutionary zeal.

MT:     Yes, because everything else would undermine that. It’s a very seductive argument in many ways.  And I think for anyone who is an idealist there is this desire for self-sacrifice – it goes part-and-parcel with it – you want to believe that the self is being sacrificed for the good, and where it gets dicey and painful is when it is actually being sacrificed for something else altogether. what seems to recur in history, and is certainly recurring now, is the use of the language of aspiration, of goodness, of social justice even, to pull out some of the worst instincts 

BR:     There’s a very interesting quote about the Cultural Revolution by one of the survivors, Zhu Xueqin – he says it was “an age ruled by both the poet and the executioner: the poet scattered roses everywhere, while the executioner cast a long shadow of terror”.

MT:     That is such a perfect summary of the forces in play at the time – because you needed the poet to persuade the people, for the seduction of the language. I’ve been thinking about it a lot: this sense that what seems to recur in history, and is certainly recurring now, is the use of the language of aspiration, of goodness, of social justice even, to pull out some of the worst instincts in people. So on one level we have language like ‘Make America Great Again’, which seems to call out your better self, but in fact is asking for your fearful self, which is going to set the borders and see the outsider as a threat.

BR:     That’s fascinating. In the novel, there’s a section called ‘Year Zero’, which brings us back initially to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, but of course alludes to the first Year Zero, initiated by the Committee of Public Safety during the French Revolution. And their great acts of terror come from great acts of political love.

MT:     That’s so true.

BR:     The Committee of Public Safety was not driven by cynicism – on the contrary, their obsession was with being pure. And the logic is terrible: Robespierre says of the citizens killed in Lyon that they are “cement for the revolution”, a sacrifice for the future happiness of generations. So that romanticism is not a counterpoint to the terror, but completely bound up in it.

MT:     And in that political love, the pure revolutionary also believes that they themselves are making the sacrifice – because the condition of society requires this violence of them. So in a strange way, even though those who are being ground to cement are the ‘cost’ of the revolution, the ones who enact the violence have convinced themselves that they are the ones paying the true price. It’s a very complex psychological ‘hall of mirrors’. In a weird way it calls to a strange victimhood in everyone – maybe that is the most heartbreaking part – that there’s something of the self that gets put above all else.

BR:     In the novel, I think it’s interesting that the characters who are more particular and less generalised in their passions are the ones who suffer; and that those who prosper are willing to adopt this ideological lexicon.

MT:     That’s a brilliant observation. I hadn’t distilled it in that way but I think that’s true – the more specific form of expression they choose, the more they don’t have the means to manipulate it to serve another God, to serve another purpose.

BR:     And I wondered to what extent you were enchanted by the language of the Cultural Revolution. One of the songs goes: “We can distinguish between fragrant flowers and poisonous weeds / And we can destroy all the ox-monsters and snake-demons”. It almost seems as if during this period that the consciousness of the nation is being inculcated in a daemonic sphere. I wondered to what extent you were teased or beguiled by some of that language – or were you horrified?

MT:     No, I did find it extremely powerful – it almost harkens back to a mythological state of things. There’s a kind of clarity to the categorisations: on the one hand, there’s a desire to liberate ourselves from this form of thinking, but the worldview is so black and white, so rigid. It’s a strange thing of calling to anarchy in a structure that cannot be changed, in a structure that is immutable.

BR:     And for Mao, “when one black line is eliminated, another appears” – at any one time, there is always 5% of the population that is guilty.

MT:     Yes, there’s a quota of counter-revolutionaries!

BR:     I think the greatest achievement of the novel is that rather than portraying characters merely as perpetrators or victims – as those visited by “the great dark birds of history” – the terrifying totalitarianism of the Cultural Revolution implicates everyone. There’s no ethical clarity: even the virtuous act in really problematic ways.

MT:     Yes, I think that’s true to the nature of the times. And in a way to our human limitations, in how we can respond to these conditions – which is a very scary thought – it almost premises that everyone will be compromised. I’m not sure that anyone escapes intact. if we look at the time in which Bach and Beethoven were living, and the series of wars and upheavals – who’s going to understand that better than revolutionary China?

BR:     Blake wrote that “He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars. General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer”. Isn’t that true of the Cultural Revolution? That the particular acts of love are meaningful, but the general statements of desire end up having terrible human consequences.

MT:     I think it might be the truth that the novel circles around, but in some ways is afraid to articulate explicitly. And I think it’s difficult, for someone like you or me, that we are drawn to the idea of the greater good, and we want a society that looks to the greater good, and how distressing it is that it can be a very dangerous idea; and yet we can’t, as a society, stop working towards it. Maybe it’s a meditation on how human nature pushes us in a different direction, and if we were more honest and straightforward and truthful about that, we might catch ourselves before it happens.

BR:     One of the things that upsets the Tiananmen protestors in your novel is the suggestion that they are like their parents generation, because they think they are the opposite of their parents generation. If we think of the young generation now – without comparing the ‘social justice warriors’ to the Red Guards – I wondered how you feel about the concept of ‘cultural appropriation’ in relation to your characters’ appreciation of Western classical music?

MT:     That’s a great question. It’s very interesting, because of course when it comes to appropriation what is at stake is history itself. What can be so distressing about watching something being appropriated is that there has been a wholesale dismissal of the culture itself, but parts of it are plucked to serve mainstream culture. And in many parts of the world, culture was brought in through processes of war and colonisation. So when it comes to Western classical music in China, I think for some people there is surprise that it would have taken root in any real way that’s not superficial, because there’s not a lot of knowledge that the instruments and music came in through Jesuit missionaries, through China’s long relationship with the West. And there’s also a forgetfulness of the long intermingling of language, culture, religious belief, philosophy, acts of writing, across Eurasia.

BR:     And they dismiss the Chinese as being fixated on imitation and mimicry. There’s a soft condemnation, that it’s not organic – the inference is that it’s not authentic.

MT:     Absolutely – that they don’t have the soul. And if you want to push it further, that they don’t have the humanity. There’s all these other ideas lurking inside our received ideas.

BR:     It’s the mechanistic image of China – the machine works perfectly, as you would expect: it’s the factory of the world – but in terms of the romantic essence, it’s absent.

MT:     And yet if we look at the time in which Bach and Beethoven were living, and the series of wars and upheavals – who’s going to understand that better than revolutionary China? They are actually experiencing that moment, which is a recurring historical moment, and one that we have distanced ourselves from. And now Western classical music seems almost an ornament – of course it isn’t, but to dismiss another’s profound appreciation of it is a sadness.

BR:     I’m sure you’re frequently asked about the transcendence of the art and the ephemerality of the politics. For Sparrow – if I can ask you to inhabit the life of one of your characters – to what extent is it a recourse for removing oneself from the volatility of the political moment?

MT:     Very much so – or it becomes that over the course of his life. When he first experiences it, it’s with the innocence of childhood, that deep listening we have ready access to when we’re smaller. And I think it’s also an exploration of how we turn to an outside language to understand our societies and ourselves. The language in which it’s steeped is not necessarily the best language to see its contours, or to see where it starts to break down, or where it becomes slogans, or where we no longer hear the friction. And sometimes an outside language gives you that framework, and I think that’s what Western classical music gives them – it’s another way of existing, another way of thinking, and a mirror back to their own society. All its threads, all its key changes, are still being reworked in the movement that we are in now; and it’s all of a piece. 

BR:     Lenin the revolutionary was deeply drawn to Beethoven. His friend Gorky recounts him saying: “I know of nothing better than the Appassionata and could listen to it every day. What astonishing, superhuman music! It always makes me proud, perhaps with a childish naiveté, to think that people can work such miracles! … But I can’t listen to music very often, it affects my nerves. I want to say sweet, silly things, and pat the little heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty”. According to Gorky, Lenin goes on to say that instead of patting them on the head, “you have to beat people’s little heads, beat mercilessly”. And that the danger of music is that its beauty – in a society of such dreadful injustice – takes us away from the task in hand.

MT:     And that was one of the arguments of the Cultural Revolution – that these were distractions, the playthings of the bourgeoisie, that they erased the hard sounds of society. And I think that’s part of Sparrow’s dilemma: he doesn’t know if he has the musical language to express the ungodly emotions – the disgust, the self-loathing, the ruptures, the dissonances. And that is a movement in music as well, towards dissonance, towards silence, towards letting in the sounds of the world, into the harmonious fabric of the Baroque or the Romantic.

BR:     That’s fascinating. ‘Erasing the hard sounds of society’ – one wonders what the music of everyday life is? In the modernist movement there was an attempt to capture some of it, but what would the music of everyday life in Maoist China sound like? 

MT:     During the Cultural Revolution, they tried to find a very pure language – with certain keys that were more optimistic, more powerful, more uplifting, spoke more to the people – it was a movement towards a much more simplified mode of expression than what the composers had been working towards. But in the Soviet Union, with Prokofiev for example, they tried to introduce the sound of the factory – and it’s done so artfully. It’s a fascinating thing where you bring the world in but you almost undermine it because of the smoothness – it’s a constant tussle.

BR:     Kundera says that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting”. It’s now the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution, an event that is not commemorated in China – there is no national memorial, and there’s only a very brief mention in the National Museum in Beijing. To what extent is this novel an attempt to memorialise those ten years?

MT:     I think it’s intended to say that those ten years are part of our ongoing moment right now. In some ways, the lack of commemoration is almost truer to the fact that it is an unresolved history, an unresolved moment that is still playing out in contemporary China. It’s just lying in wait. One of the most moving aspects of the attempt to remember the 1989 massacre is that it’s the lid on a very deep wound. It’s the emblematic deaths – the 1,000 deaths, maybe more or maybe less – that are sitting on the surface of 60 million deaths that have never been mourned; that’s the low estimate of those who died during Mao’s campaigns. And the grief got channeled into Tiananmen and the government’s hard line again the demonstrators, and the hard line against memory.

BR:     So I wonder whether we frame history incorrectly – rather than it being part of the past, wouldn’t it be more productive to understand it as being part of an earlier movement in the musical piece?

MT:     Exactly.

BR:     In other words, it’s part of the same sound – we are living that sound – but in a slightly different inflection.

MT:     That’s right, yes. We’re in a variation of that same motif – in terms of symphonic movements, it is simply an earlier movement. All its threads, all its key changes, are still being reworked in the movement that we are in now; and it’s all of a piece. That is the way to look at it, as I think that Chinese conceptual thinking naturally does – that it is never really concluded, and we continuously return: it only appears different on the surface.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is published by Granta (UK) & W.W. Norton (US)

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData