Do Not Say We Have Nothing won the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize, the 2016 Governor-General’s Literary Award for Fiction, and an Edward Stanford Prize; and was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, and The Folio Prize 2017. The novel was named a New York Times Critics’ Top Book of 2016 and longlisted for a Carnegie Medal.
INTERVIEW WITH MADELEINE THIEN
Q: A lot of your work appears to be inspired by the people you know or the places you passed through. For example, some of the stories in Simple Recipes draw on Vancouver while Dogs at the Perimeter and Do Not Say We Have Nothing are shaped by your experiences in Cambodia and China respectively. How important do you think it is to write from your own experiences?
A: I don’t know if I’m writing from my own experience in that way. This was certainly more true of Simple Recipes. However, Dogs at the Perimeter and Do Not Say were books in which I was writing far beyond my experience, as well as writing about contested histories, and in some cases, histories erased by authoritarian regimes from the public record. They are risky books, and particularly with Dogs at the Perimeter, I spent many years thinking about whether or not it should be published at all. I think it has been important for me to not dismiss, or pretend away, the lines that fiction crosses. Artists have always been very free to write about anything, to imagine anything—but there are failures in imagination. That is part of the artistic vocation, I think—noticing where one’s own imagination opens things, and where it closes them down.
Q: Your work has received tremendous acclaim and has brought you to the forefront of contemporary literature. How does it feel to be the centre of so much attention, and how do you manage this while writing and maintaining a personal life?
A: Perhaps I was strangely fortunate because the acclaim arrived after twenty years of writing and four books. And it came with a novel that was initially rejected by publishers as too ambitious, too difficult, and too detailed on a subject (China in the 20th century) they believed was of no interest to contemporary readers. The attention is fleeting, but the writing persists over decades, and if we are lucky, over a lifetime. These are labours of love, and I think that is just how it is for me. Writing is a vocation and a liberation.
Q: What do you miss most about Vancouver when you’re not here?
A: My loved ones. A very particular group of friends with whom I can walk beside and talk for hours. Where we can talk freely and honestly about the most difficult subjects, about art and life and family, about the loved ones we have lost, about the old age creeping up on many of us. It’s the city where I was born and grew up, and I know it intimately, in particular places that have change dramatically, where buildings have been demolished, and places vanished as if they never existed.