‘There’s a whole world of philosophy and ideas that we simply don’t express with the American style of writing,’ says Canadian novelist Madeliene Thien in conversation with Sreedhevi Iyer, a student Thien mentored through City University Hong Kong’s unique Masters in Fine Arts program that focuses on Asian Writing in English.
Madeleine Thien was born in Vancouver, Canada, in the same year that her parents migrated from Malaysia. Her first book is a collection of short stories titled Simple Recipes (2001). It received the City of Vancouver Book Award, the VanCity Book Prize and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. Her novel, Certainty (2006) has been translated into 16 different languages and won the Ovid Festival Prize. Her most recent book, Dogs at the Perimeter (2011) was a finalist for the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, and has been translated into eight languages.
Madeleine, or Maddie, is a faculty member of City University Hong Kong’s Masters in Fine Arts Program specializing in Asian Writing in English. She is also a Writer-in-Residence with Canada’s Simon Fraser University.
During the 2014 Hong Kong summer writing residency at City University, Madeleine was vocal about how the students in her workshop had distinct evolutionary paths in their writing progress. She saw herself as someone facilitating originality rather than imposing her own sense of aesthetics on to her students. Her slight physique and soft-spoken voice give a deceptive sense of fragility. During this interview she remained thoughtful and chose her words carefully, but would also suddenly burst out laughing as if she had never considered such questions.
Sree: In your two novels, Certainty and Dogs at the Perimeter, the past is not just a temporal device to inform and shape the present. It exists as a thing of its own. Things from the past don’t really have to be resolved. Could talk about how you encounter and engage with this sense of the past in your narratives?
Maddie: When I wrote Certainty, and I think this shows in the structure, I thought of the past, especially the traumatic past, as an island of memory that was not necessarily connected to the person’s present state of mind. So sometimes the past exists in and of its own right, and its not necessarily being remembered in the moment by the character. I felt that for them this was how the traumatic memory existed, like a shard of glass inside the person, like a stone, like something hard, not necessarily something that could be connected to everything else. It was like a division or separation in time and there’s a rupture. The reason that it’s a rupture is because it is disconnected from everything else. How do convey that in fiction with a character remembering? My way of trying to reflect that is through the structure of the book.
Sree: Thinking of craft in the act of storytelling, I have an anecdote I’d like to put to you from another MFA member whom you also mentored. I was in Mumbai and she very bravely articulated something that I was never able to say in Brisbane, which was that she overwrites, using very flowery language, and now that she’s in redrafting her novel she’s cutting it back. But she feels that’s hard on her, and that she’s “faking it” to please the market. This is a market that already wants her. I feel that she hit on something very relevant and very deep, probably without realising it. I was wondering what your take was on this feeling that a writer might have; that they have to fake certain things, if they are from certain places, even if they’re writing in English.
Maddie: That’s an amazing question. What propelled her to do this? Was it internal?
Sree: I think its just from talking to other MFAers, and reading their work, and reading other people’s works, and you know, she didn’t actually say ‘to write like an American’ but there was that kinda, you know, she just really feels a little intimidated.
Maddie: That’s interesting because that’s what I so loved about her work, just how mad it is. I thought what she was doing was so amazing, even bizarre, but exhilarating. Her sentences took me places that only she could have done.
It’s always good to tighten, but not too much. If you feel you’re altering your voice, its a whole other thing, but not surprising in terms of the publishing landscape. She doesn’t have to, and I think that one of the hard things that maybe we don’t teach well enough in the MFA is confidence. You’ve gotta stick to your to your vision. The best editing, for me, has never been when I feel vulnerable about the work. The best editing comes when I’m strong. I come up against the strong (internal) editor and I use that to make the writing even stronger.
(Look at Lebanese Canadian author) Rawi Hage. I mean, his sentences are mad! His sentences are insane. His sentences come from a whole other language system. And that is what makes his work so extraordinary. Because there are certain ideas that can only be expressed that way, and there’s a whole world of philosophy and ideas that we simply don’t express with the American style of writing. So I’m just mostly sad to hear that actually. She’s very brave to be able to articulate it.
Sree: There’s a kind of originality and innovation that comes from being confident of your background and employing that in your craft?
Maddie: Yeah, I’d say distorting the language is really important. Breaking the language, pushing the language, making English own its colonial history. (She laughs.)
Sree: I’d like you to talk about certain things you’ve mentioned in public—namely the fundraiser for Rice Paper (a magazine of Asian Canadian Arts and Culture), and also an article you wrote called ‘On Transparency’ in National Post. ‘On Transparency’ was about the arbitrariness of literary prize juries and how it impacts literary discourse. At the fundraiser for Rice Paper you spoke about critics just not having the depth of knowledge to critique non-Western hyphenated writers, and that – and I love this, “an anomaly becomes structure when it happens too often.” Could elaborate on the lack of depth of the critics?
Maddie: I had like three minutes to speak and so I just spoke, without realising it would be recorded in any way whatsoever. Rice Paper was a way to expand the way we think about literature, to make space, at a really basic level for more than the centre. The closing down and amalgamation of newspapers has led to so much less space for reviews and essays. The review culture has shrunk so much and its very difficult to find people to review unless they’re willing to do it for (only) a $100 – which means that the whole literary discourse is centering on people who are young and trying to break into the publishing world. They are working on novels—which is great. It’s just that, it has become too much of the same, the same background and experience critiquing the wider literary culture, so we’ve a big problem.
I used to feel frustrated and sad by the misreadings of works by writers of colour, and that they don’t even know that they don’t know. They (the young critics) make such sweeping generalisations about a place, and what they think the literary culture is, when they possibly have not a single book about Vietnam, or whatever it is, you know, about Lebanon, about China, even. Most people (reviewing books) have not read a single novel set in China, and yet when they sit down to write that review there’s no conception that they are out of their depth. It’s the falseness of the authority that now, instead of making me sad, makes me angry.
I try to be vocal about it. But you have to choose your moment, to say what needs to be said, and I think the other end of that is that if you’re not happy with the literary culture then you better start doing some of the work, so…
Sree: Ah, so that’s where you’re…
Maddie: So I’ve been doing a lot more reviewing, in the past year and a half, so that’s been a big thing, and I feel that because I teach and make a certain income from my books, I can afford to take the time to do the review, and earn a small amount of money. It’s been very good for my writing, I think. But I don’t know if it would’ve been that way 15 years ago. I think it was right for me to focus on honing the craft of fiction, but right now I feel this muscle wants to be stretched.