Madeleine Thien – a triple threat
October 25th, 2016
Madeleine Thien’s third novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Knopf), has won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. Also shortlisted for the Giller Prize, it’s one of six works of fiction currently being considered for the Man Booker Prize–an unprecedented triad for a B.C.-born author.
Born in Vancouver, 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.
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 When the debut collection was published in 2002, 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 children’s book The Chinese Violin (Whitecap), based on a true story about an eight-year-old girl and her father who emigrate from China, is the basis for an NFB animated short. Thien received a 2001 Canadian Authors Association Air Canada award for most promising writer under age 30.
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.” This novel was nominated for the 2007 Kiriyama Fiction Prize.
Thien studed 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.
From Quebec she wrote her second novel, Dogs at the Perimeter (M&S 2011). 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.”