Madeleine Thien shortlisted for Man Booker Prize
Madeleine Thien, author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing, was short-listed for the 2016 Man Booker Prize and Scotiabank Giller Prize. We caught up with Thien, former writer-in-residence at Simon Fraser University from 2013 to 2014 to ask her about the honour and what she’s working on next.
Q: You have been lauded in reviews and won many awards for your work. What does it mean to you to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize?
Everything still feels very new for me. Things are unfolding slowly in my mind, so I’m a bit out of sync with all that’s happened. The Booker is special. I’m truly overjoyed and, at the same time, there’s something distant and almost outer space about it. I feel that I’m being given the space to create stronger work.
Q: What were some sources of inspiration for Do Not Say We Have Nothing? When a particular idea strikes you, how do you research and incorporate it into your work?
I was thinking a lot about multiple forms of language—music and musical notation, language and writing and copying, ideograms and visual images, mathematical equations, sound and silence. These languages shape and reshape the people in Do Not Say We Have Nothing, and the languages are used with sometimes conflicting personal and political desires. I was thinking about the ways we speak without language, and how to express this in a medium that is created from language.
Writing, for me, is a way of thinking. I have to work out the ideas on the page, and then I have to do the work to let the ideas go so that the characters live. And if there is a balance of freedom and artistic control, I hope that both will come together and exist and feel alive, bold and unresolved.
Q: Did your residence here at SFU from 2013 to 2014 influence how you wrote the book?
I loved my time at SFU. I studied literature and contemporary dance there as an undergraduate, and it was beautiful to come home as Writer-in-Residence. I love the Academic Quadrangle, and the everyday crossing of paths of professors and researchers, all distracted by very different ideas. I love the fog of Burnaby Mountain. I used to have early morning contemporary dance classes in what were, back then, the dance trailers, and sometimes I’d be walking across campus, above the mist. I’ve always felt at home at SFU, and the idea of the mountain, of this reclusive place to think and challenge oneself, moves me very much.
Q: You're currently touring for Do Not Say We Have Nothing but do you have plans for another novel currently?
Yes, a very different novel. I’m a bit frightened of it, but I feel hopeful and excited.
Q: What advice would you give to current SFU students studying English, writing or the arts?
Understand that language is never neutral. All language is inflected by its time and place, by forms of address, power, desire, hierarchy and hidden assumptions. Language can be diminishing, but it can also be a place to seek freedom, or at least to move towards another complex idea of freedom.