Tag Archives: Revolution

“Do Not Say We Have Nothing”: importance of storytelling

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!

Source: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/book-reviews/review-do-not-say-we-have-nothing-cements-madeleine-thien-as-one-of-canadas-most-talented-novelists/article30385361/

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:
The Chair
Piano skills

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.



“Something Fierce”: emotional evolution

I’ve had Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter by Carmen Aguirre on my bookshelf for a while. I love Canada Reads on the CBC and I love Shad, so of course I had to buy the book that Shad defended in the 2012 CBC Canada Reads debate. I bought it, then shelved it . . . until now.
Source: http://arts.nationalpost.com/2012/02/09/carmen-aguirres-something-fierce-wins-canada-reads/

I know next to nothing about the politics of South America. I know that the US liked to interfere with coups. I know that there is a lot of corruption. I know that the drug trade is huge. I know that there is a huge gap between the rich and the poor. Next to nothing. Yet my sad knowledge of South America did not stop me from devouring Aguirre’s memoir. Aguirre writes about her experiences of the underground revolutionaries in Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, and Brazil from the time she is a young 12 year-old girl until she is an adult. The politics of these countries and the horrors that revolutionaries experienced are seen from a personal perspective.

At the beginning of the memoir, I couldn’t help but think that Carmen and Mindy, from the TV show The Mindy Project, are very similar. Carmen is a boy-crazy young teenager. In a hilarious description of herself just after moving from Vancouver down to the South and on the Inca Trail, Carmen writes:

There was a full moon lighting our passage, and my knees were wobbly from excitement as we clambered down the steep stone stairs: one of the boys from the Indian family had been peering at me across the fires . . . Halfway down the steps made by his ancestors, I looked back, and sure enough, there he was, standing at the top, hands in his pockets. When his eyes met mine, I smiled and leaned into one of my hips, just as Olivia Newton-John had done after John Travolta collapsed at the sight of her in Grease. But I’d leaned too far, because now I was rolling down the stairs . . . [I] resumed my Sandy stance. I looked for the boy, but he was no longer at the top (pg 25-26).

Throughout her memoirs, Aguirre includes several stories about her teenage awkwardness and her boy-crazy antics. At one point, she becomes known in the neighbourhood for kissing all the boys. So much so that the mothers on her street gather, write a letter to her parents, and deliver the letter about Carmen’s behaviour.

So for those of you who have seen The Mindy Project, you can see the similarities!
Sources: http://www.cbc.ca/books/canadareads/2012/01/carmen-aguirre-on-her-publishing-journey.html and

Yet what I love about Aguirre’s memoir is that as Carmen grows in years and matures, she also grows in her passion for the underground revolutionary movement to bring change to Chile. Aguirre was born in Chile, yet moved with her parents to Vancouver when they were exiled from Chile. Even though she was young, Aguirre developed a strong love for and bond with her home country. In a scene where she describes her Chilean grandparents visiting Vancouver, she writes: “They’d brought Chile with them in their pockets, their suitcases, their eyes and voices. I’d smelled a country on them when we greeted them at the airport, a country that still clung to my own skin and hair. It was something fierce, that country” (pg 63).

Aguirre’s love and passion for Chile is part of who she is as a person. Although she witnesses horrible events in her streets, hears about the torture of revolutionaries, has absentee revolutionary parents, and risks her life as a teenager, her love for Chile and the people of Chile inspires her to act courageously in order to better the lives of the people living in Chile. As a adult, her life is devoted to the underground revolution and to bringing equality and hope to the country she loves.

Her love for Chile comes at a cost. Throughout the memoir she describes her fear as a rat crawling up her spine. She realizes that if she is to continue the freedom-fighting work, she will have to compartmentalize herself: soul, heart, work. The state of living in constant fear and terror of being caught and tortured was too much for those in the underground to shoulder. Aguirre’s experiences with fear and the face of courage she put on in the midst of that fear reminds me of Farley Mowat’s reaction to being in WWII in his novel And No Birds Sang. In his novel, Mowat describes his experiences as a solider in Italy. In a particularly grisly battle scene, Mowat describes his fear as a worm growing in his gut and taking over:

The scouts were brewing tea in a nearby cow byre. They watched me without expression as I briefed George Langstaff and two other men. They knew I had at least glimpsed the valley in daylight and so was the logical one to lead the patrol. What they did not know was that the mere prospect of descending into that ominously shrouded valley was paralyzing me. I was convinced that death or ghastly mutilation awaited me there. The certainty was absolute! The Worm that was growing in my gut had told me so. (pg 220)

Source: http://markwestman.blogspot.ca/2010/09/book-review-and-no-birds-sang.html

Both Aguirre and Mowat are extremely brave. Not only did they experience horrible, unimaginable things, but they also had the courage to relive their experiences as they wrote about them. In her afterword, Aguirre thanks some of the people in her life. The one that stood out to me was this one:
“Thank you to one of the founding members of the resistance, who, on his deathbed, made me promise to tell this story, because it has not been told enough, because it is a story that must not die with the people who lived it” (pg 277).

Carmen Aguirre is an amazing, courageous, humble, devoted, and passionate person. As she closes her memoir she writes, “And my grateful thanks to all those who came before, those who are fighting now and those who will continue to fight for a better future for all. I am awed, inspired and humbled by your dedication to the struggle, whether you are in the Gaza Strip, in India, in Mexico or in Bolivia, continuing to support Evo. I stand in solidarity with you” (pg 277).

From a hormone-charged teenager trying to live a double life to an adult who has the courage to share her story of resistance and terror, Aguirre, as described through her memoir, will stay with me as an example of a woman who worked hard to give a voice to the marginalized.

“I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will overcome this gray and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail. Keep in mind that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open again and free men will walk through them to construct a better society. Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!” (Salvador Allende, 1973)
God shows no partiality. (Romans 2:11)

Source: http://fabeetle.com/che-guevara-quotes/che-guevara-quotes-2/