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#195 Madeleine Thien

November 09th, 2016

LOCATION 245 East Broadway, Vancouver

Before Ricepaper went digital-only in 2016, this was the main editorial address of the publication for which Madeleine Thien briefly served as editor during the outset of her literary career.

Many of today’s acclaimed Asian-Canadian writers were first published in Ricepaper, the literary periodical founded in B.C. by Jim Wong-Chu and the Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop (ACWW). A West Coast-centric anthology, AlliterAsian: Twenty Years of Ricepaper Magazine (Arsenal Pulp) was produced to mark the 20th anniversary of Ricepaper, co-edited by Allan Cho, Julia Lin and Jim Wong-Chu, before it became an e-zine.

Among those interviewed was former Ricepaper editor Madeleine Thien, whose third novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, won both the $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award for Fiction in 2016. It was also one of six works of fiction shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. This recognition represented an unprecedented triad for a B.C.-born author. The only previous Giller recipient to have won while living in B.C. was Calgary-born Esi Edugyan of Victoria for Half-Blood Blues in 2011. Both their novels were published in Ontario.

thien-madelaine-book-jacketIn 2016, the Giller Prize jury wrote: “Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien entranced the jurors with its detailed, layered, complex drama of classical musicians and their loved ones trying to survive two monstrous insults to their humanity: Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in mid-twentieth century China and the Tiananmen Square massacre of protestors in Beijing in 1989. Do Not Say We Have Nothing addresses some of the timeless questions of literature: who do we love, and how do the love of art, of others and ourselves sustain us individually and collectively in the face of genocide? A beautiful homage to music and to the human spirit, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is both sad and uplifting in its dramatization of human loss and resilience in China and in Canada.”

Born in Vancouver, but later relocated to Quebec, 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. Thien studied 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. She subsequently relocated to Montreal.

MONTREAL, QUE.: JUNE 20, 2016 -- Madeleine Thien, in Montreal Monday, June 20, 2016. She has a new novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, a epic story that deals in part with the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. (John Kenney / MONTREAL GAZETTE) ORG XMIT: 56476

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 juvenile fiction book The Chinese Violin (Whitecap 2001), based on a true story, recounts the life of eight-year-old girl Lin Lin and her father who emigrate from China. The gift of a Chinese violin helps to bridge the gap between old and new. Her story is the basis for an NFB animated short.

Chiefly in response to the release of Simple Recipes, Thien received a 2001 Canadian Authors Association Air Canada award for most promising writer under age 30. In the same year she was runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award and she was nominated for the Commonwealth Book Prize–Best First Book–Caribbean and Canada Region.

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.”

Certainty won the 2006 in Canada First Novel Award and it was nominated for the 2007 Kiriyama Fiction Prize.

In 2010, Madeleine Thien received the Ovid Festival Prize, worth 5,000 Euros, presented annually by the Writers’ Union of Romania and the Romanian Cultural Institute to a young writer of great promise.

thien-madeleine-wooden-benchIn Quebec she wrote her second novel, Dogs at the Perimeter (M&S 2011), a finalist for the 2011 Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction as coordinated by the Quebec Writers Federation. It is another novel about connecting to family history in southeast Asia. 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.” The novel about the aftermath of the Cambodian genocide won the 2015 de:LiBeraturpreis, awarded by the Frankfurt Book Fair in recognition of fiction pertaining to Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

Madeleine Thien’s work has been translated into 25 languages, and her essays have appeared in numerous publications including The Guardian, the Financial Times and Al Jazeera. Her career has been increasingly international in scope ever since she participated in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 2008, giving rist to an IWP State Department-funded 2010 study tour of the U.S. that resulted in her essay, “The Grand Tour: In the Shadow of James Baldwin.” The tour was the subject for Sahar Sarshar’s documentary film, Writing in Motion: A Nation Divided.

Madeleine Thien contributed an essay to The Guardian on the stifling of free speech in Hong Kong after her five-year association with the International Faculty in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at City University of Hong Kong from 2010 to 2015. Also in 2015 her story, “The Wedding Cake” was shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award, the richest prize in the world for a single short story.

Madeleine Thien returned to Vancouver in 2013 to serve as Simon Fraser University Writer-in-Residence and again in 2016 to participate in the Vancouver Writers Festival.


The Chinese Violin (Vancouver: Whitecap Books, 2001). Illustrations by Joe Chang.

Simple Recipes (Toronto: M&S, 2001; New York: Little, Brown, 2002)

Certainty (M&S, 2006)

Dogs at the Perimeter (M&S 2011)

Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Knopf 2016)

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