I kept seeing Madeline Thien’s book Do Not Say We Have Nothing seemingly everywhere I went (well, where I went online), so I felt that I had to read it. It was shortlisted for the Ban Booker Prize, and it won the Governor General’s Literary Award. It has to be good!
This novel is an epic saga. It looks at the lives of generations of a family during the cultural revolution in China. In high school, I did one of my major research projects in one of my History classes on the Chinese revolution and Chairman Mao. It fascinated me that a single idea could change the lives of millions of people in such a short amount of time. Also, that protecting culture and banning the influence of others, especially the West, was carried out. I knew the dates and names of the campaigns and leaders, but Thien’s novel made that time period come alive through the tragic stories of families torn apart, and innocent people’s lives being destroyed by judgmental neighbours. It’s one thing to read a textbook with facts, but it’s another thing to see how those facts influence people.
I read this book on a trip up to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. I carried this library book with me to the coffee shops in town, up to the Bush Pilot’s Monument, and to the picnic tables at Frame Lake. I was caught-up in the stories of Thien’s characters. I wanted to know what would happen to them and if they would reunite. I wanted to know if they would survive the re-education camps and the daring protests. At the same time, I was also caught-up in Yellowknife culture. Here is a place where communities and cultures live together and support one another. The Dene community, the Inuit community, the Metis community, the Filipino community, the mining community, the construction community, the crafting community. What a difference in culture! People fighting to stay alive and be seen to tow the party line, and that contrasted with a city that actively tries to bring cultures together to celebrate differences.
Truthfully, I feel like this book was a little too ambitious. There was a lot going on, yet Thien does well at connecting it all together. But sometimes the details were a bit overwhelming (and exhausting). It’s clear that either Thien is a musician or is interested in music because the characters in her novel love music. Several are composers, music professors, or performers. Like a good Canadian (and fan of Bach), she writes a lot about Glenn Gould’s recordings of Bach. In fact, Gould’s name shows up throughout the novel, not just once or twice. I’m curious as to why she chose this eccentric Canadian performer. Bach’s music is so structured, which is why I think Gould loves Bach. One of my cousins loves Gould and often sends me YouTube videos of Gould. These are a few of my favourites:
Overall I enjoyed Thien’s novel. I was on vacation and was able to linger on the story and find time to read it. And the stunning views helped for sure.
Thien reminds us of the importance of hearing stories. Not just facts, but stories. I think stories are the success behind the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada. And I hope that the stories of families and friends makes the inquiry into Canada’s murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls just as healing. We need to listen to each others’ stories in order to find justice, healing, and a way forward. In the novel, the characters find each other through a novel written chapter-by-chapter and through the story in music. There is power in a story. May we have the patience and the heart to hear.