Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016) by Madeleine Thien is a book of records (historical, mathematical, and musical) that was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, longlisted for the 2016 Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction, and won the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize, the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award, and the 2017 Edward Stanton Travel Writing Awards for “Writing with a Sense of Place.”
A “Book of Records” (or shī shū, the Book of Songs and the Book of History, see p 187) sounds odd to call Madeleine Thien’s long awaited criticism on her family history, on her culture, and on her heritage, but Do Not Say We Have Nothing incorporates a bit of everything from Madeleine’s life: she was born in Canada while her mother is a Hong Kong Chinese and her father is a Malaysian Chinese. In the book, Canada, Hong Kong, and China are the main settings while time crosses several generations in a story where two young girls must deal with tragedy and loss.
The two girls, however, come from two very different worlds: the narrator (who acts as a funnel for the story to be told, much like Ishmael in Moby–Dick (1851) telling the story of Captain Ahab’s obsession with the White Whale) is Jiang Li-ling (Marie), who is Chinese-Canadian (like the author Madeleine Thien); Marie meets Ai-ming, who is from China. Ai-ming has dropped out of university and fled, in 1989, from the Tiananmen Square protests to Canada.
Ai-ming is also the daughter to Sparrow, who was once friends with Marie’s father, Jiang Kai. Some of the criticisms of Do Not Say We Have Nothing include too many characters populating the foreground of the book (which is typical of Asian and Chinese literature — see Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin in 1791) and also that there’s no real protagonist to steer the plot forward in a smooth and fluid manner. Gradually, however, a full story does finally emerge.
Before the story begins, we learn that Marie’s father Kai has committed suicide in Hong Kong (or he’s been thrown from a high building because of gambling debts in Macau — we never learn the truth behind the unexpected death and, therefore, must call it a “suicide”).
Marie’s story as an orphan, at best, is brief, a bit flimsy, and strained; she’s often there only to act as a narrator at times to convey Sparrow’s story through Ai-ming:
“When Sparrow looked dizzily up, all he saw was the pianist’s earnest face against the white sky, and then, panicking and holding on for dear life, he was hoisted up beside Kai. The students on the roof made space for the bewitching Kai, who naturally took centre stage. The pianist could speak with both the quickstep of the city and the balladry of the countryside, he was a one-man Book of Songs and Book of History. Kai told a sly joke that made the boys howl and the girls smile knowingly…
“The afternoon passed and twilight descended, slowly at first, then ever more quickly. Along the motorway, towns jumbled out into smaller and smaller buildings until finally the land won out, ever vast and golden and infinite. Now and then, a handful of passengers would leap off and someone else would climb up. In the fading light, he saw Kai watching him, and he felt the pianist’s hand on his shoulder, then the back of his neck, then along the thinness of his spine. The girl was pressed against Sparrow’s other arm and the clean sweetness of her hair radiated up a pensive fragrance, hopeful as a bouquet of winter flowers. The Party said that desire, like intellect and skill, was a tool for struggle. But love, if it served the smaller self before the greater one, the individual before the People, was a betrayal of revolutionary ideals, of love itself” (p 154-155).
Sparrow and Kai’s homosexuality seep into the second-hand narrative (basically the above two scenes) and the reader has to trust that Ai-ming (who told the story to Marie) knew without doubt the emotions and desires of her father and Kai (that the story is not one of complete fabrication and speculation) and the two men’s sexual feelings for one another have some vital message to the book as a whole (if it does, the message is miniscule and insignificant in comparison with the events of the Cultural Revolution). History and memory, in Do Not Say We Have Nothing, are often mingled, betrayed, and misguided; it is left up to the reader to determine the truth behind the narrative and the narrative’s intentions.
“At some point they fell asleep on the floor. He woke to the heaviness of Kai’s arm over him. It was hot, and sometime in the night, Kai had taken off his shirt and now lay, half undressed, beside him. How thin he had grown. Kai held him tightly, his mouth against Sparrow’s neck, his breathing calm and undisturbed, but he was not asleep. Sparrow lay on his back and let his hand drift down to cover Kai’s. The pianist caressed him, tentatively at first and then with greater confidence. Sparrow’s hand followed Kai’s hand and an unbearable heat settled deep into his body. They lay together, frightened, half wishing sleep would come and take them, and release them from this aching, intolerable yearning. They drifted and woke and held one another, and in the fitfulness of Kai’s touch, he felt as loved as he had ever felt. The first wash of dawn arrived without his noticing” (p 226).
The homoerotic scenes involving Sparrow and Kai are rare and often feel fabricated when weighed against the great sum of the book, as though the copyeditors at the publishing house wanted more themes to relate to more audiences (a common practice in the publishing industry).
After all, themes representing minorities reign supreme in this book: immigration (e.g., Marie confronting her past in Canada and in Hong Kong), the issue of immigrants entering countries illegally (e.g., Ai-ming flees Canada to America illegally and hopes she will one day be granted immunity), and the Cultural Revolution in China and the plight of musicians across the country at that time (e.g., Sparrow and Zhuli).
Adding a touch of homosexuality would help book sales but at times the connection between Sparrow and Kai, brief and often nonexistent, feels contrived (Kai at one point chases after Zhuli; but, male Asians in Asia do have a tendency to express sexual desires for one another, especially at a young age: in South Korea, for example, young boys often wear pink and hold hands walking down the street with other young boys; it is simply a part of their culture and their homosexual inclinations are deemed culturally acceptable in their society; after all, “boys will be boys”).
The problem, however, is when a writer attempts to create a book that appeals to multiple minorities without having a fundamental and creative reason for doing so.
Sparrow and Kai share relatively few scenes with one another and never openly or visibly (that is to the reader) act out or act on their homosexuality. Nothing ever comes of their desires (so what’s the point?).
The scenes feel jutted into a story much larger than issues established for minorities. The book attempts to reach into the heavens and pull down the moon so that people can see true beauty; readers hope, however, to listen to real human issues greater than desire and sex, but scenes like the ones above detract from the message of humanity as a whole and singles out minorities for the sole purpose of growing the book’s audience (i.e., to sell more books for a profit). What could have been a legendary message for all of humanity (a story about persecuted musicians) bends down into a beautiful, simplistic tale of a select few (i.e., gay men snuggling, and illegal immigrants crossing borders). Choices, by the writer, make or break a book.
In other words, when a book is written in such a way that the author forces things in hopes of including everyone, the book becomes something for no one. When a book becomes something for no one, the book becomes something of nothing.
Even the character “Sparrow,” one of many side characters, takes the role as “driving or motivating force” away from the protagonist Marie (whose only function in the book is to listen to Ai-ming speak about the secondhand accounts of the Cultural Revolution in China and to retrieve a box from the Hong Kong police and mourn the mystery behind her father’s death — which leaves the reader without justification for Sparrow’s narrative, other than to distance the author from the subtle claims she makes in the book that Sparrow and Kai had once been lovers — but if you are going to hint at it, why not just go ahead and make it a central theme to the book?).
Sparrow, in the end, is nothing of rare importance to the events he finds himself compelled to watch and he, along the way, simply decides to “go with the flow” (another Asian attribute: to go along with things one knows to be wrong and, at times, evil). One could say he is a flat, boring, sad, misguided character: a pathetic character who does not act to change or be changed or to make change. He becomes, by the book’s end, what he was named for as a babe:
“The peaceful sparrow was weightless because he had no baggage to carry and no messages to deliver” (p 29).
John Cheever would agree that Madeleine Thien, the author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing, makes some, otherwise, poor decisions in building her world around these characters.
In his short story collection, The Stories of John Cheever (1978), which won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1979, John Cheever writes in “A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear”:
(5): “Out they go, male and female, all the lushes; they throw so little true light on the way we live.
“(6) And while we are about it, out go all those homosexuals who have taken such a dominating position in recent fiction. Isn’t it time that we embraced the indiscretion and inconstancy of the flesh and moved on” (p 469).
In any decade, as a writer, one can agree with Cheever’s advice. What matters is the “true light” and not “the indiscretion and inconstancy of the flesh.” Who cares if someone is an immigrant? Who cares if someone is a homosexual? Who cares? Such things rarely make for captivating literature.
What matters is fiction as art. Art, as well, is not political, but apolitical. Remember that, writers. Readers want to read, to be entertained. Readers do not wish to hear a writer’s politics. Fiction is, and has always been, art.
“Fiction is art and art is the triumph over chaos (no less),” writes John Cheever in his short story “The Death of Justina,” “and we can accomplish this only by the most vigilant exercise of choice, but in a world that changes more swiftly than we can perceive there is always the danger that our powers of selection will be mistaken and that the vision we serve will come to nothing” (p 429).
The issue is one of “choice” and “selection” by the writer and the aim of the writer’s vision, which will come to nothing if one is not careful.
Take Marie, as an example (who is also too similar to characters found in books by Amy Tan; the trend is becoming old). Marie’s parents are immigrants and Marie, at a young age, is dealing with fitting into a new culture (one can either take Canada or America as an example) that does not mesh with her family’s culture (in this case, Chinese):
“That summer, as if in a dream, I continued my calligraphy lessons at the nearby cultural centre, using brush and ink to copy line after line of Chinese poetry…
“My father spoke Mandarin and my mother Cantonese, but I was fluent only in English. At first, the puzzle of the Chinese language had seemed a game, a pleasure, but my inability to understand began to trouble me. Over and over again, I wrote characters I couldn’t read, making them bigger and bigger until excess ink soaked the flimsy paper and tore it. I didn’t care. I stopped going…
“Lying in bed, I considered several facts.
“First, that in my grade five class, I was an entirely different person. I was so good-natured and well-adjusted there, so high-achieving, I wondered if my brain and soul were separating.
“Second, that in poorer countries, people like Ma and me would not be so lonely. On television, poor countries were crowded places, overloaded elevators trying to rise to the sky. People slept six to a bed, a dozen to a room. There you could always speak your thoughts out loud, assured that someone would hear you even if they didn’t want to. In fact, the way to punish someone might be to remove them from their circle of family and friends, isolate them in a cold country, and shatter them with loneliness” (p 5-9).
As you can tell, this passage does not describe a primarily Western culture, which thrives on isolation (separation from family and friends can be an advantage) and protectionism (instead of cutting off rogue nation states, heavily tax them).
The author, however, is easing the reader into a story set in a culture, a land, and a time most people would be foreign to — even modern day Chinese. Even Marie is foreign to such a culture, and she is a fatherless and cultural orphan. But throughout the book, Marie’s character is as contrived as the sexual relationship between her father and Sparrow — and in this way much of the book feels contrived and far less organic than what the book should have been to the reader.
Lawrence Hill, one of the jurors for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, said the book was “told in an unusual way — without a single protagonist, without a single struggle. It’s a challenging book, and you have to work to read it” (meaning: Lawrence Hill probably didn’t read the book — it’s not that challenging, but it is quite long at 463 pages, and for half the book the story does meander a bit without purpose or a clear sense of direction).
The reason there are many protagonists with multiple struggles is because the book is a mismatch of many shorter drafts the writer decided to stitch together. Because of this mangling of storytelling, the book fails to achieve the author’s desired vision — much like Icarus soaring to new heights only to fail in the final execution. One can feel what the author intends, what she desires, with the messages and themes (of culture, of family, of nationalism, of heritage) sprinkled heavily throughout the book, but time and time again the attempt fails to live up to the grandiosity one would find in one of Amy Tan’s books or one of Gabriel García Márquez’s books.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing actually begins on page 28 with the birth of Sparrow, and one can easily discern that Madeleine Thien simply created Marie (and Marie’s side story) as a way to handle the strains of storytelling (meaning: finding a method to tell Sparrow’s story in the present sense), because the writer needs a way for the story to be told to the reader by the narrator when the story has nothing to do with the narrator, the one doing the telling. This is a classic technique which has also grown old, tired, and unimaginative.
In this book, the reader is led to believe that Marie is telling the reader a story she heard from Ai-ming, who heard Sparrow’s story once upon a time in China. First-person narratives, as in this case, has developed into a tired trend that unfortunately snaps the tension of believability between the writer and the reader and this break causes the tricks to come spilling out of the bag (which should never happen for a writer, or for the reader).
Even the names (Big Mother Knife, Swirl, Ba Lute, Sparrow, Old Cat, Wen the Dreamer, Flying Bear, and Big Mountain) are unnecessary, foolish, simple, do not convey culture, and come off as childish to any twenty-first-century reader of any culture. The actual Chinese names, and not the loose English translations, would (and should) suffice. English speakers do not need to know the meanings of the names because the Chinese do not go around calling one another “Knife” or “Cat” or “Swirl” or “Sparrow,” and to do so would be insulting, disrespectful, and demeaning. The names would be names. The names are names.
How would Chinese readers feel if American characters suddenly began calling one another by the meanings of names: Helper, Golden Ring, Warrior, Garden of Oak Trees, Adam’s Child, Exalted, Strong Wolf, Cave? Would they be bemused? Repulsed? Amused? The American writer would be forced by the American copyeditor to have the names changed into the actual names (no questions asked—or the book would not be published). So why is this silliness still allowed in Asian literature written and published in English? Because it makes the novel (and story) more exotic and strange and clever. After a hundred years of this, however, the cheap trick of using “meanings” in place of “names” has grown crude, archaic, and dull in this age of globalization (a Chinese woman would slap any American who calls her “Fish” instead of her real name “Yu”).
The book, a masterful work despite its inherent flaws and misguided authorial selections, has been painstakingly designed and reworked to the point of exhaustion. The author chose to craft and organize the chapters in the following manner:
Part One: Chapters 1 – 8; Part Zero: Chapters 7 – 1; and, Coda. The numbered chapters look thus: (P1) 18.104.22.168.22.214.171.124 (PZ) 126.96.36.199.3.2.1 (C). Part One totals 292 pages, Part Zero (which is the second part of the book) totals 156 pages, and the Coda (the third and final part of the book) totals a mere 13 pages. The construction even reads a bit lopsided.
Mathematics and music, however, do play an important (and integral) role in the book, but there seems to be more significance to the cleverness of design than any significance (overtly) to the story as a whole. Even the countdown from seven to one (which marks the final moments of the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989) come to the reader as flat, mawkish, and unemotional when the students in the square begin to sing from the Internationale:
“Arise, slaves, arise!
“Do not say that we have nothing.
“We shall be the masters of the world” (p 438).
He-Man, anyone? (Word choice really does matter in the English language.)
The book, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, wants so desperately to be The Joy Luck Club (by Amy Tan) or Les Misérables (by Victor Hugo) or Love in the Time of Cholera (by Gabriel García Márquez) or For Whom the Bell Tolls (by Ernest Hemingway), but there’s a magic to the latter books that comes up short in the former.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing, nevertheless, remains to be a remarkable work of fiction (in the Acknowledgements, Madeleine Thien calls it a “book of records and an alternate memory of history,” p 466).
The book, in its totality, is deserving of the awards, regardless of the above criticisms. Criticism is meant to be openly honest and forthright to the shortcomings found in a piece of art. And one can be proud to call Do Not Say We Have Nothing as a highly imaginative deconstruction of (mis)remembered history and a splendid work of beautiful fiction.
The American novelist CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, & he’s a been member of the Hemingway Society, Americans for the Arts, PEN America, Club Med, & the Royal Society of Literature. He’s also a been Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based in London.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), The Mystic’s Smile ~ A Play in 3 Acts (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), Little Hometown, America (2020); A Time to Forget in East Berlin (2022), and Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being (2023).
He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
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