Tuesday, June 23, 2009

An Interview with Madeleine Thien

To read Madeleine Thien is to fall under the spell of her luminous prose. The clarity and precision of her writing invests even ordinary actions – such as a Chinese family’s daily ritual of preparing rice for dinner – with emotional heft and resonance. “There is a simple recipe for making rice. My father taught it to me when I was a child,” begins the narrator of “Simple Recipes,” the opening story in Thien’s 2001 award-winning collection, also entitled Simple Recipes. “He sifted the grains in his hands…[h]e swirled his hands through the water…[w]hen he scrubbed the grains clean, the sound was as big as a field of insects.” The alliterative “s” sound of the sequence of verbs chosen – “sifted,” “swirled,” “scrubbed” – links these gestures together in a fluid, continuous motion that feels as ritualized as the hand movements of an Asian dancer. It is because the language Thien uses to describe the father washing rice is so beautiful that we feel the full force of the narrator’s shock when she later witnesses her father beating her older brother with a bamboo pole, and we understand what the narrator means when she says of her father, “this violence will turn all my love to shame and grief.”

Like fellow Canadian author Alice Munro, Thien is interested in the unpredictable dynamics of family life; several of her short stories focus on the puzzling, unexpected actions of adults and the confusion of their children as they struggle to make sense of the events going on around them. In “House,” two young sisters spend an entire day outside the house they once lived in, waiting for the mother who abandoned them more than a year ago to return. And in “A Map of the City,” the last story in the collection, a young woman tries to comprehend the mysterious yearnings of her father, a failed furniture salesman, who abruptly leaves behind the family he brought to Canada to return to his native Indonesia. “When I was younger, I used to study all the details of Indonesia, its wealth and beauty, its lost ages,” the daughter, Miriam, says. “As if I could understand my father and myself by knowing this, as if what I needed could be compiled, written down, and it would shore me up against the present day.” In both stories which bookend the collection, “Simple Recipes” and “A Map of the City,” the narrator is the Canadian-born child of immigrant parents, much like Thien herself; born to Malaysian Chinese parents, Thien grew up in Vancouver, and the city “wading out into the ocean” features prominently in her work.

If in “Simple Recipes” and “A Map of the City” we feel the confusion of a daughter trying to understand a father who has left part of his life behind in another country, in Thien’s first novel Certainty (2006) we feel the confusion of the father as well as he grapples with conflicting emotions: the desire to let go of the past and the yearning to hold on to it. A finalist for the 2007 Kiriyama Book Prize, Certainty chronicles the inner lives and outward journeys of a Canadian family with roots in Asia: Gail Lim, a documentary maker for Canadian radio; her father Matthew Lim, who grew up amid the rubber estates of Sandakan in British North Borneo; and her Hong Kong-born mother, Clara. All his life, Matthew is haunted by memories of his adored childhood friend Ani. When Gail finds an old letter addressed to Matthew informing him of the death of Ani, she sets off on a quest in search of her father’s past.

The novel, told in the third person, draws together multiple points of view: we are privy to the thoughts and feelings not just of Gail, Matthew, Ani, and Clara, but also those of Ansel, Gail’s lover, a clinician and medical researcher, and Sipke Vermeulen, a Dutch photographer who eventually marries Ani. Their stories take us from wartime Sandakan to the urban bustle of Jakarta in 1957; from the clamor of a family-owned restaurant in Kowloon to the quiet of a university boarding house in Melbourne, Australia; from the canals of Ysbrechtum in the Netherlands to rain-washed, present-day Vancouver. The novel deftly moves back and forth across great expanses of time and space, a structure which captures the sense of fracture and dislocation at the heart of the immigrant experience. To read Certainty is to feel the force of the unburied past, to recognize its pull, and to understand that in the end, we hold on to what we have lost “in the hope that what we know will finally redeem us.”

I sat down with Madeleine Thien to chat about the origins of stories, the pleasures of writing and revising, and the transition from writing short stories to a novel. She is currently at work on a novel set in Cambodia in the 1970s.

Madeleine, you’ve said that a story often begins for you with an image of some kind. In your collection, there are several powerful images of violence – the father whipping the son in the title story, “Simple Recipes,” for example. I just wondered: did these stories start out for you with those images of violence?

Actually, “Simple Recipes” started with the girl and her father, and I think the image of a fish in a basin. I was an undergraduate at the time and I went to do a semester in England; I was supposed to be writing a paper about Seamus Heaney, the poet, and instead I started writing fiction. The story came out all in a burst, and in fact the violence in the story took me by surprise – I didn’t think that was what I was writing about. I thought I was writing about this relationship between a father and daughter, and then the story went places I wasn’t prepared for. I think partly it was because I was away from home, and this distance opened up and it allowed me to write about particular things.

It’s like when Flannery O’Connor says she didn’t realize the Bible salesman was going to steal Hulga’s wooden leg in “Good Country People” until just before it happened.

Yes, it’s true. When I was still an undergraduate in creative writing, “Simple Recipes” was the first story I took to my writing workshop. It was a very raw draft, quite different from the story in the book. People were very positive about the story, but one woman in my class said ‘I don’t understand what the point is. Why take us to this dark place that’s so violent and leave us hanging there?’ and that was the comment that stayed with me longest, and even now, it is a difficult question, and it’s an ethical question: what happens when you open up this kind of violence in a work of art? Where are you trying to leave the reader? Does it have a point? What the woman in my class said really fed into my rewriting of that story…it’s the story that’s lasted in Canada, the story that has been anthologized, and that’s hard when it’s one of your first stories.

Another recurring theme in the collection has to do with people disappearing suddenly: Miriam’s father leaves for a time in “A Map of the City,” for example. I remember reading that your Malaysian grandfather disappeared during the war, and something similar happens to Matthew Lim’s father in your novel, Certainty. It’s such an incredibly painful thing to have someone in your family vanish that I wonder if the story of that event stayed with you, and perhaps triggered other stories about disappearances?

I think so, although my father almost never spoke about my grandfather; he’d only say he was killed. His last memory is the Japanese soldiers coming to the house and taking him away. But when I was a teenager my father left very suddenly. I was at that age when adolescents are usually the ones leaving the family, so when it’s reversed and a parent leaves – it puts you in a strange position. So I think [in “Simple Recipes”] I was probably more influenced by my father’s disappearance. The weird thing about writing fiction is you’re not really aware of it – it takes other people to point it out to you. I was surprised; I wasn’t thinking about that event explicitly – I was thinking of it story to story.

While we’re talking about fathers, what’s interesting to me is that several of the fathers in Simple Recipes are so ineffectual: they feel adrift in a foreign country, and they begin to lose their parental authority, like Miriam’s father in “A Map of the City.” What do you think it is about the immigrant experience that affects these fathers?

I think in my case, my mother was the most stable, and my father seemed far too complicated for me to understand, at least at that time. In hindsight, there’s something particular about that generation of people who emigrated, who came to a new country without support and had to support their own families. For women – at least in the case of my mother – the women found a lot of strength. Being in North America gave them opportunities that weren’t available to them in their home countries. They kind of blossomed, whereas for the men they lost a lot of control over circumstances; there was a loss of dignity from not being able to provide for your family that was humiliating. They didn’t know how to connect with their families differently than as providers, because that was the model they grew up knowing.

Speaking of immigrant families, I wondered if that was important to you to get down on paper the voices of these mothers and fathers – the diction, the way they speak. As an Asian writer, I identify with the “Ah-yahs,” these little speech inflections that feel so familiar to me when I see them on the page…

Yes, the melody and musicality of the voice, the rhythm of the sentences, it is different. You don’t realize it until you hear it, and then you feel this instant connection to the voice.

Let’s switch gears and talk about the technical aspects of writing…Madeleine, how much revision do you tend to do with your stories?

I developed this habit where I would write a draft, throw it out, sit down and write the story again, throw it out, and do this maybe eight or nine or ten times. Because I was just starting to write, so there was so much I was learning technically about voice and structure that in a way I couldn’t apply to drafts I already had. I had to sit down and live through the story all over again, it was the only way I could integrate them. There’s a writer named Larissa Lai and she once told me there’s a point in the editing process at where you take it to the very best you can be, then there’s a stage where you keep editing and you push it off that point. I think she’s right; there’s often that point where it’s as good as you can get the story to be, so it’s finding that moment.

Do you try to wait until you’ve written the whole story before you revise or do you try to tinker a bit at the edges?

I tinker a bit, but mostly I wait until I get the whole story written so I know the lay of the land, and that helps you figure out what’s important. I can’t really see it until I’ve written the whole piece.

Perhaps we could turn now to your first novel, Certainty. It’s set in the present tense, which is really interesting because the novel moves back and forth in time. When did you realize it had to be written in the present tense, and why?

I think from the beginning, I did play with the past tense, but in a way it didn’t feel right. [The characters in the novel] – their stories collide – they are these contained present moments and the future is very dark to them. I thought of [those moments] as islands of memory, and they had to be immediate. Because of the part set in 1945, in the last days of war, it felt like it had to be immediate and vivid and from a farther point in time you couldn’t get back into.

Certainty covers so much ground, and not just in terms of history and geography…it’s also about neuroscience, and cryptology, and even about Malay fishing techniques! I just wondered, when you were setting out to write the novel, how did you go about it?

Well, I spent about two months in Malaysia. I travelled in the Peninsula and then I went to Borneo, to Sabah, and all the time I was in the company of family. I did a lot of interviews, visiting different historical sites, museums, but I didn’t do any writing. Then I went back to Vancouver and started writing. I wrote a very messy first draft; people appeared and disappeared and appeared again. It took a year…there was so much material to consider and I was always researching as I was going, and when you research as you go it tends to be clunky. Because it was my first novel I didn’t quite know exactly what I was doing; I was putting pieces together. Then I did what I do with my stories – I threw out the draft and wrote it again.

I liked that in a novel partly set in the Malay-speaking world, you included words a Malay-speaking audience would recognize, words like “bunga kubur,” a kind of local flower, which an English-speaking audience might not recognize. I liked that you weren’t afraid to do that.

I was afraid! What I found interesting is that people from Malaysia have been very supportive about the way the landscape is described. I was worried about depicting this atmosphere, yet the criticism I received was from people who weren’t Malaysian.

What was the research process like when you were writing Certainty? How was it different from writing short stories?

I had towering stacks of books around me all the time to dip into. What you’re holding in your head keeps growing, and there are all these corridors you never really go down but you know they’re there. It’s hard to go back to the short story – there’s a certain rigor and discipline, whereas with novels you have to give yourself the freedom to expand within structure…they’re very different processes. I found that for the five years I was writing Certainty I couldn’t write any short stories.

Which character in Certainty proved most challenging to write – the person you found kept surprising you?

Gail was the hardest – she is the closest to me in temperament, but we have very different lives. When a character is close enough to you that you assume you know her, your imagination shuts down. It’s a bit claustrophobic – you feel like you should get her but you don’t. It’s like taking somebody you know well for granted.

What was it like creating the character of Ani, whose life story is so different from Gail’s? What was it like trying to get into Ani’s head, so to speak?

I loved Ani…she was so exemplary to me. I think she understands so many things other people in the novel are trying to understand. She’s somehow integrated in all these things and is able to live her own failings. She can love people in different ways, and it’s hard to write a character like that because she is good, and she’s wise, and I’m not – but she is kind of the soul of the novel. I told myself her fears, her desires, her guilt, would not be foreign when it came down to it – those were the outer layers. It required the greatest leap but it appealed to what was most important to me personally…it was a strangely distant yet close experience.