Giller Prize-winner Madeleine Thien visits Queen’s

Union Gallery

Canadian author reads from award winning novel at the Agnes

Thien reading at the Agnes.

Madeleine Thien is mesmerizing both on and off the page. 

On Monday, a crowd of English students, professors, and the odd community member was ushered into the front atrium of the Agnes Etherington Art Centre to hear the author speak. 

As the recipient of the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize for her novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Thien follows in a Queen’s tradition of inviting the preceding year’s winner to lecture at the school. With $25,000 in award money, the Giller Prize is the richest purse awarded to a work of Canadian fiction and is instrumental to the esteem of the Canadian literary scene and its authors. 

After an introduction from English Professor Petra Fachinger, the assembled crowd enthusiastically welcomed Thien. 

The small, serene, smiling and soft-spoken Thien immediately pulled out water, Kleenex and cough-drops from under the podium and excused herself for being sick. Nevertheless, all eyes and ears were drawn to her and kept attentive by her ensuing stories of memory, loss, and identity.

As Thien read from her book, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, her voice smoothed out, glancing up periodically to the reverent crowd. Her expansive tome covers the lives of multiple, interweaving generations leading to and following the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 in China. It’s a challenging novel to work through, that posits the significance of music and love in the survival of violence. 

Thien’s work reflects a cyclical idea of time by blurring together the past and present through the interconnectedness of her characters’ lives. Her adoption of music as an unadorned language counters the regimented and politicized public language used during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. 

Her novel deals with the nuances of silence; the value in existing in silences and often the need to break apart silences. Her story questions how we attempt to know the people around us, through words spoken and unspoken.

Thien then answered audience questions, posed first by professors in an attempt to alleviate the shyness of the students in the room. 

On her draw towards fiction Thien explained, “I need to live differently than me. I need to live outside of myself.” 

The five-year research Thien undertook to write Do Not Say We Have Nothing involved becoming fluent in classical music and 20th century Chinese history through completely immersing herself in documentaries and books, such as Beijing Coma by Ma Jian, the author explained to the room. Thien claims that these alternative “languages” provide another way of understanding the world.

Afterwards, Thien signed copies of her book. All fourth-year English students were presented with a free copy of Thien’s award-winning text to commemorate their time at Queen’s. The long line inched along slowly as Thien was amply generous with her time, exchanging anecdotes and offering words of encouragement individually.

An author who speaks to the complicated and emotional nature of transnationalism, Thien is an irresistible voice in Canadian literature, one that is just beginning to shine.

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