Madeleine Thien’s ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’

Tiananmen Square, 1989

Writing about – and teaching a class on – Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing wasn’t easy. It was hard enough to read. This novel is intricately put together in several senses: structurally, linguistically, thematically. While at first, I felt Thien was working her way through a cynical ‘literary prize’ checklist, I soon decided her ambitions were much higher. This is a novel with a lot to say, about music, politics, philosophy, time, language, love, the self, duty, loss, censorship… And all of it, through a madcap structure which serves to elevate those themes, and through a cast of characters sprawling enough to rival Elena Ferrante. There is so much to learn about Chinese culture here: its joys and limitations. What it means to be a Chinese emigrant, compared to a national. This book is like a Rubik’s Cube. The more you twist it around, the more the pieces make sense, and come together as a beautiful whole.

I am not Chinese. Nor have I ever been to China, so it would be arrogant to suggest that this book has allowed me to even scratch the surface of understanding what it means to be Chinese. But I had to teach a lesson on it. Two, actually. So I’ve had a pop. If you are Chinese and happen to have stumbled across my blog, I’d be more than grateful to hear your thoughts on the book – or anything that I’ve written about it – in the comments below.

Emily x


Although this book, like our last, contains a male character who dreams of fleeing to Canada in order to escape his own oppressive culture and be with the man he loves, you could be forgiven for missing the connection. Sparrow’s yearnings for Kai, once they have both (like Harry Cane) committed to conventional married life and fathered daughters, are just a single note in the epic symphony of Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing. The scale and ambition of the novel – both in terms of its sprawling cast of characters and its portrait of modern Chinese history – is dazzling. The novel’s narrator, Marie, like Thien herself, has lived in Vancouver all her life. But it is the question of what it means to be Chinese – the culture that both Marie and her creator have inherited – that Thien seems compelled to explore.

Time, Music and Language

In terms of its presentation of time, the novel’s structure is playful to the point of being disorientating. The first section, Part One, contains chapters numbered from one to eight, while the second section, Part Zero, counts backwards from seven to one. Within those chapters, we jump back and forth between the lives of three generations, leaping between Big Mother and Swirl’s youth in the forties, Zhuli, Sparrow and Kai’s childhood in the sixties, and Marie and Ai Ming’s early lives, from the eighties to the present day. Besides the family ties, the narrative threads are linked by The Book of Records, the love of which seems to bind together the generations.

It is notable that both the structure of the novel and the characters within it resist the idea that time is linear. In one storyline, Swirl claims that it is “foolhardy to think that a story ends. There are as many possible endings as beginnings.” In another, Marie states that “the past was never dead but only reverberated.” The link between these ideas is that Swirl’s statement arises from a reading of The Book of Records, while Marie’s is prompted by listening to a recording of her father playing Beethoven. Thus – as we concluded in our discussion last year of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Thien seems to suggest that the passing of art from generation to generation is an essential part of humanity. The idea is expanded on through a monologue from the Old Cat to Zhuli: “The things you experience are written on your cells as memories and patterns, which are reprinted again to the next generation. And even if you never lift a shovel or plant a cabbage, every day of your life, something is written upon you. And when you die, the entirety of that written record returns to the earth. All we have on this earth – all we are – is a record; copies of things. The original has long since passed away from this universe, and on and on we copy.”

In light of this statement, Thien’s use of a circular narrative (which begins and ends at Chapter One, and with the voice of Marie) seems pointed. So too does the theme of classical music, which places emphasis on repetition and recurring motifs. But more importantly, the tragic implications of Mao’s cultural cleansing –the destruction and banning of art and artists – are brought into sharp relief. How much of that cultural heritage – so essential to our humanity – was lost?

It is also interesting to consider time in terms of how it pertains to Chinese language. Quite early on, Marie states that: “in English, consciousness and unconsciousness are part of a vertical plane, so that we wake up and we fall asleep and we sink into a coma. Chinese uses the horizontal line, so that to wake is to cross a border towards consciousness and to faint is to go back. Meanwhile, time itself is vertical so that last year is the year above and next year is the year below. […] This means that future generations are not the generations ahead but the ones behind.”

Not only does this concept of the order of generations link to the Old Cat’s discussion of originals and copies, it also sheds light on another interesting point: that the construction of our language can shape the way we think about the world. Perhaps the most interesting example of this is the lack of tenses in Mandarin, which limits the ability to discuss – and think about – how things were, and how things might or could be. While in the English language, we are encouraged to think of time as a straight line, Mandarin Chinese expresses all events – past, present and future – as occurring simultaneously.

Suicide, Confucianism and Shame Culture

From the first page, suicide plays a key role in Thien’s novel. Both major and minor characters – across generations – take their lives. It is perhaps unsurprising then, to learn that China’s suicide rates rank amongst the highest in the world, particularly for women: while globally, suicide is three times more common in men than women, in China, female suicides outnumber male suicides by a ratio of 3:1. What’s more, studies have suggested that relatively few of these suicides are linked to psychiatric disorders or depression.[1]

A possible root of this high suicide rate is China’s ‘shame culture’. By contrast, most Western cultures are, due to the prevalence of Christianity, guilt cultures. The New York Times defines the terms thusly: “In a guilt culture you know you are good or bad by what your conscience feels. In a shame culture you know you are good or bad by what your community says about you, by whether it honors or excludes you. In a guilt culture people sometimes feel they do bad things; in a shame culture social exclusion makes people feel they are bad.” This definition – as it pertains to suicide – certainly seems to ring true in the novel. Many of the professors at Zhuli’s university take their own lives when the students rise up in an effort to violently “trample every bit of their prestige into dust”. Zhuli, whose role as a musician morphs from prestigious to shameful overnight, reflects on her decision to commit suicide thusly: “she still knew who she was, before they broke her down again, she wished to choose a future and to leave.”

Zhuli’s rationale is interesting for a few reasons: among them, the idea that suicide is a ‘future’ that can allow an individual to preserve a sort of fidelity of character. This attitude is perhaps better understood in light of Confucianism, which fosters a shame culture by placing great emphasis on accepting one’s role and living in line with that role, while striving for harmony with other people and one’s self. Crucially, there is a place for suicide within Confucianism. The Confucian scholar Mencius wrote: “Though life is what I want, there is something I want more than life. That is why I do not cling to life at all cost.”

Thus it seems that Zhuli, in seeing a sudden conflict between her true self and the expectations of her society, sees suicide as a more viable future than life. In her words, it is not “fear” she is running from, but “discontinuity.”

When Zhuli’s spirit haunts her cousin Sparrow, as he lies in bed with his lover, Kai, she asks him: “haven’t you understood yet Sparrow? The only life that matters is in your mind.” This philosophy – as well as the Confucian rationale behind Zhuli’s suicide – recurs when Zhuli’s niece Ai Ming (who, notably, is described as looking identical to her aunt) ponders: “what was fortune? She had come to believe it was being exactly the same on the inside as on the outside.”

It is ironic that Sparrow, unlike his beloved cousin and daughter, spends the majority of his life suppressing his inner self – both his musicality and sexuality. He eventually decides to travel to Hong Kong and commit to living an authentic life with Kai, but dies before he can make it. Kai – racked by grief regarding Sparrow’s death as well as shame for having abandoned his familial role – jumps from a window. Thus, another suicide in the story finds its roots in China’s shame culture, amplified by the damage caused by an oppressive regime which sought to oppress individuality and freedom of expression. It seems fitting that – for the majority of the novel – this suicide is framed not from Kai’s perspective but in terms of the people he let down, and the ramifications his death has on their lives. Indeed, on the novel’s first page, Marie describes her father as having “left” them.

[1] Law, Samuel & Liu, Pozi (February 2008), “Suicide in China: Unique demographic patterns and relationship to depressive disorder”, Current Psychiatry Reports, Current Psychiatry Reports

Colonialisation VS Assimilation: explorations of culture in Patrick Gale’s ‘A Place Called Winter’


Modern Montreal, which is actually about equidistant between England and Winter, because Canada is bloody massive, but that’s the only part of Canada I’ve been to so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

On the approach to my late twenties, I came to accept something about myself that I had spent a quarter of a century resisting: I bore easily. While it worked for my parents, who thrive on structure, the idea of staying in one organisation for the duration of my working life doesn’t suit my magpie-like temperament. I am fickle and attracted to shiny things, but is an attribute which can be embraced. Consequently, over the past couple of years, I have begun to develop a ‘portfolio career’.

In less wanky terms, that means I do ‘a bit of this, a bit of that’. On Mondays, I write. (Yes I’m still writing, yes I know I said I would use this blog to be accountable for my progress, yes I know I failed). On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, I home school some students, tutor some others and run an adult literature class through the WEA. On Thursdays and Fridays, I work in a college now, helping young adults to pass their English GCSE if they failed it the first time. Here and there, I ghostwrite biographies, mark exam papers and sell teaching resources online. I rent out my spare room on AirBnB, too.

As things stand, it’s great. I don’t have the time or energy to get bored. Before any of these jobs have a chance to get repetitive, I’ve stopped doing them and moved onto something else. The repetitive thing is gone for another six or seven days. It suits me down to the ground. Maybe it’d suit you too. Portfolio career: think about it.

Anyway, as part of the WEA literature class, I write blog posts summarising my ideas. They’re sort of part book review, part literary essay. This year, our theme is ‘Migration and the Migrant,’ and the first book of the year is Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter. This is not a book I would’ve picked up if the group hadn’t selected it. The title didn’t intrigue me, and I judged the cover. Hard.

patrick winter

Looks lame, doesn’t it? But trust me: this is the avocado of the literary world. It feels so good that you’re sure it must be trash, but it leaves you feeling cleaner and richer. Go read it.

So, the point of this is to say that I’m including my blog posts here, in the hopes that they reach a wider audience and perhaps inspire people to read some of the wonderful books my class and I discover.

Emily x

Colonialisation VS Assimilation: explorations of culture in Patrick Gale’s ‘A Place Called Winter’

“The question of what constitutes civilised behaviour is at the heart of the plot. Is civilisation just about populating an area or is it more complicated? The Cree, the Native tribe Harry encounters, had an old, complicated civilisation which settlers wiped off the map. The inequities in Canadian society are every bit as bad as those in Australia, in terms of the bitter legacy of colonisation.”- Patrick Gale


We open our exploration of this year’s theme – Migration and the Migrant – with an examination of the ways in which a culture can both liberate and constrain the individual. Gale’s 16th novel (and his first foray into historical fiction) takes the diaries and letters of his own great grandmother – wife to the real life Harry Cane – and attempts to make sense of his great grandfather’s sudden and inexplicable journey into the wilderness of the Canadian Prairies. Why, Gale wonders, would an Edwardian gentleman of leisure – settled with a wife and an infant daughter – opt for the uncertainty and discomfort of a labourer’s life, thousands of miles from the land and culture to which he was accustomed? Gale’s conclusions seem logical: his great grandfather was homosexual, and living in a world where homosexuality was not only socially unacceptable but punishable by law. Gale’s further conclusion – that the constraints of Edwardian culture could suffocate an individual to the point of corrupting their sanity – is not hard to believe either.

And so it is that A Place Called Winter begins in an asylum, telling us in no uncertain terms – in the form of a flash forward – that Harry’s destiny is not a good one. When Chapter Two pulls us backwards into the protagonist’s life as a young gentleman of leisure – pottering through a civilised routine of steam baths, newspapers and contented luxury – we have the unsettling knowledge that this peace and comfort will not last. The introduction of Browning – who at once provides Harry with the knowledge of who he truly is as well as the realisation that he can no longer live the life to which he is accustomed – acts as the ‘hero’s call’ in the adventure element of the narrative. Gale wastes no time in uprooting Cane from his somnambulant existence in Edwardian London and dropping him into the vast, hoar-frosted landscapes of unchartered Canada – give or take a boat or train ride along the way.

Plundering and Opportunism: Troels Munck

It is on these boat and train journeys that we are first introduced to Troels Munck – a character so borne of the realms of fairy tale that it imbues his very name (his nickname is troll), and that Gale (through Harry) concedes the hyperbolic nature of Troels’ “evil like in a fairy tale” in the narrative itself. But in terms of our theme, it seems most relevant to consider Troels as an emblem of Viking invasion. In his sexual abuse of both Harry and Petra; his aggressive approach to everything from recruiting soldiers to eating breakfast; his Danish origins and even the “violent pleasure” he takes in standing on the bow of a ship and looking out to sea, Troels seems to embody every element of his ‘raping and pillaging’ Scandinavian ancestors. From the upper class “puppies” he exploits financially to the prostitutes he frequents; from the farmers he cows into conscription to his treatment of Harry himself, Troels takes no interest in respecting or learning from others: his modus operandi is to take what he can from others through aggressive means and without remorse. Through the trail of destruction Troels leaves in his wake, Gale uses Munck to leave us wondering about the damage that has been done, historically, by this violent and unsentimental approach to migration. What cultures may have been trampled under the feet of men like Troels, beyond the realms of fairy tales?

Assimilation and Understanding: Petra Slaymaker

Providing a neat counterpoint to Troels’ attitude to other cultures, Gale offers us the formidable, practical and always respectful Petra Slaymaker. It is hard to imagine that Gale plucked a name like ‘Petra Slaymaker’ out of thin air. Petra derives from the Greek for ‘rock’, while ‘slaymaker’ translates from middle German to mean ‘maker of shawls or veils’. Petra Slaymaker is an aptronym indeed, then: Petra is a rock to Harry, offering him unwavering emotional and practical support, but she also provides him with a ‘veil’, acknowledging but not condemning his relationship with Paul, and gladly helping him to conceal their romance in exchange for a mutually beneficial ‘marriage of convenience’. Petra is the first character to accept and understand Harry as he is. And this attitude – as unremarkable as it may seem to the modern reader – is the radically defining characteristic which underpins Petra’s approach to culture, too. Unlike the majority of Winter’s residents, Petra accepts and understands the values of the Cree: the indigenous culture of her patch of Canada. While other English emigrants view the Cree as savage and inferior – a culture to be trampled over in the march of Edwardian progress – Petra views them as equals. She teaches the Cree English but learns their language too; she gives them homemade jam, but respects their wisdom, and knowledge of local flora (an attitude that Gideon dismisses as “self-aggrandising shamanism”, and which even Harry – when he meets Lily Thunder – is suspicious of).

Petra’s own reluctance to conform to the stereotypes her culture demands of her (as a westerner and a woman) also allows her to appreciate Harry’s own claustrophobia – as a heterosexual and an upper class gentleman. Through Petra, we see the reverse of Harry’s comment on his own repressed homosexuality: “When a thing has always been forbidden and must live in darkness and silence, it’s hard to know how it might be, if allowed to thrive.” Petra – as a nurse, a teacher and the source of Harry’s eventual self-acceptance – exemplifies how an ambitious woman may thrive, if she is able to escape the limitations her culture imposes on her. In the small community in which Petra exists, Gale constructs a microcosmic utopia which values assimilation and understanding: within it, women are allowed to be independent; homosexual men are allowed to express their  true selves and different cultures are able to learn from and enrich one another. Again, through Petra, we are left to ponder over how much has been lost through the ages – in terms of individual freedom and cultural diversity – through the wiping out of past civilisations.

Gender and roots: Gale’s presentation of the Cree

The third character worthy of consideration in terms of our theme is Ursula, Gale’s most well fleshed out Cree character. While the Slaymakers provide an environment in which Harry may escape the weight of heteronormative expectations, it is only Ursula that suggests to him that his difference may be a positive thing: “you are a two-souls Harry”, she tells him. “It’s a blessing and a curse. It can make you strong in [your mind].”

Harry, in turn, acknowledges and admires the blurred boundaries of Ursula’s gender:

“The further they walked from Bethel, the less she resembled the nun-like Ursula of mealtimes, so refined and modest. Nor was she like the young athlete who had so expertly driven the cart to town and back. Rather, she became an energised combination of the two: her true self, perhaps.”

Thus, through Ursula, Harry begins to imagine that his truest self may emerge as a consequence of embracing both the masculine and feminine elements of his personality, as opposed to struggling to live up to the prescriptive image of stoic masculinity that Edwardian culture has encouraged him to live up to. But this is not the first time that Harry has noted the less defined gender boundaries of Cree culture. When visiting the Cree encampment with Petra, he muses:

“[Harry] was not always sure if he was faced with a man or a woman. The men were beardless, and men and women alike wore their hair long. Over a certain age they were uniformly wrinkled, the women’s features often just as powerful and craggily angular as the men’s. To his untrained eye, the traditional clothes of one gender seemed confusingly like those of the other, a matter not helped by women electing to wear the most practical of Western garments, which were male, of course. Compared to Western women, for whom femininity often seemed a complex and time-consuming game they were obliged to play, Cree women struck him as unconstrained, as assertive, as powerful, even, as their menfolk. He suspected this was one of the things that had attracted Petra to their culture.”

            With this insight in mind, Ursula’s apparent “religious mania” and “compulsive transvestism” seems in fact to be another example of individuality stifled by culture. But while Harry has struggled since childhood to fit into the Edwardian culture into which he was born, Ursula struggles instead to adapt to it, having been “taken from his tribe when he was barely twelve.” To Gideon and the staff of Bethel, Ursula’s “equilibrium” is broken by Harry’s encouragement to “dabble in the teachings of his youth”. But it is apparent to the reader that the damage is in fact done by the repression and rejection of those teachings. This idea is represented most neatly in Harry’s description of Ursula’s hair, as he sees her for the last time:

            “With what seemed like unnecessary cruelty, someone had cut his hair to collar length so that, instead of cascading down his back, it sprang out irregularly from his face, making him look the very type of lunacy.”

Since Harry has already learned that neither male nor female Cree wear their hair short, this image can suggest only one thing: it is not “compulsive transvestism” that Gideon is seeking to eradicate here, but every trace of the Cree culture which forms the heart of Ursula’s identity.

In a sense, Gideon’s unquestioning belief in the superiority of his own ideas seems representative of Winston Churchill, his faith in the British Empire and his treatment of Indians, for instance, as “savages” who stood only to gain from colonialisation. Churchill himself claimed to “hate Indians”, accusing them of “breeding like rabbits” and therefore causing the Bengal famine (which led to three million deaths, and was largely caused by the export of Indian produce to Britain). Similarly, Gideon makes no attempt to understand Ursula’s history, and dismisses her at the novel’s close without reflecting on his own failure, stating instead that he will “have no more Indian patients”. The ironic misuse of the term ‘Indian’ here only serves to compound our sense of the ignorance of the ‘good doctor’.


Gale seems to be making a liberal argument here, and a realisation which seems to land in the lap of every wide-eyed backpacker, as their passport fills with new stamps: we stand to gain much more through acknowledging, respecting and learning from one another’s cultures than by eclipsing one with another. Just as the genetic pool is made healthier and richer by diversity, so is our cultural landscape. This is a book in which migration offers an escape route for some, but a strait jacket for others. And alongside his fairy tale characters, Gale gives us a slice of fairy tale morality: how much more beautiful and liberating might our world be, if we migrated to understand, instead of to conquer?


Further Reading