Categories: Arts & Culture

STARFest presents Madeleine Thien

When Madeleine Thien and Marina Endicott meet tonight (March 29) on the Arden Theatre stage, they may talk about their novels. That seems logical as both are acclaimed writers. In 2016 Thien was awarded the Governor General’s Medal for Literature and the Scotiabank Giller Prize for her book Do Not Say We Have Nothing, while Endicott’s novel Good to a Fault was a Giller Prize finalist in 2009.

But if the attending audience is lucky at this event hosted by the St. Albert Library’s STARFest, the women will talk about how they are able to put their readers into another place and another time, with their words. Hopefully they will talk about the craft of writing.

“I think we’ll touch on writing but I suspect our conversation will be far-reaching and we will talk about politics and language. And yes! About the craft of writing,” said Madeleine Thien, during a telephone interview Monday from her home in Toronto.

Here’s an example of some of that time and place writing by Endicott, who in the opening paragraphs of her Good to a Fault, describes being in a car crash and the immediate aftermath as the people from the other car pour out in various stages of hurt: “The doors opened like milk boiling over on the stove, bursting to the boil, they all frothed out onto the pavement.”

Here are the opening sentences in Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing: “In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life.”

Those two cryptic entries to two fine novels may well be a topic for discussion.

During Monday’s conversation, Thien talked about how she developed the characters for this most recent novel, and in her other books, including Dogs at the Perimeter, which was awarded the 2015 Frankfurt Book Prize.

“That novel is about Cambodia. In each book the characters have different aspirations and realities and I try to form the language that is their own. In Cambodia the action is fragmented and because the main character must reinvent herself and has multiple selves, her language is also fragmented,” Thien explained.

It took Thien five years to write Do Not Say We Have Nothing. The novel takes place in three locations as the main character, a 10-year-old girl of Chinese parents in Vancouver, tries to learn about her father and his family and friends during the years of the Mao marches and later in 1989 at the Tiananmen Square protests.

Thien’s inspiration for this novel went back to the June day in 1989, when she was 15, and watched the newscasts about what was happening in Tiananmen Square.

“That was the beginning of the 24-hour newscasts of world news on CNN. I was so taken by the idealism of the students and their bravery. It wasn’t a world I even imagined,” she said.

At first Thien thought her novel would be about the students but her research helped her to understand that most of those killed were on the periphery, away from the inside of the square.

“That led me to a different realism. The actual massacre happened on the boulevards, where there were others, including the elderly, who were watching what was taking place,” she said.

If the style of writing in her other novel suits the disjointed reality of Cambodia, this story about family and anguish and love is lyrical and multi-layered. As her 10-year-old main character learns to write Chinese characters, we realize the descriptive nature of the language she is learning. Each brushstroke adds a different dimension and meaning, and in that same way, Thien transports us first to a little girl’s study room and finally to the site of a terrible ideological clash led by killing tanks.

“I tried to make all the characters come alive in their own world. That’s why it took me five years. If you write too quickly, I think you just project yourself onto them,” Thien said.

The St. Albert Library’s STARFest presentation featuring Madeleine Thien and host Marina Endicott takes place tonight at the Arden Theatre, beginning at 7 p.m. Tickets are $5.

Susan Jones: Susan Jones has been a freelance writer for the St. Albert Gazette since 2009, following a 20-year career at the St. Albert Gazette. Susan writes about homes, gardens, community events and people.