The keynote event of the Eden Mills Writer’s Festival took place at the University of Guelph’s War Memorial Hall today. It featured a lively conversation, about China, between authors Alexandre Trudeau (yes Sacha, brother of Canada’s current Prime Minister) and Madeleine Thien. Both authors share a deep love for China instilled by their parents. Trudeau has written a memoir about his experience travelling in the country while Thien wrote a fictional, generational tale including the protest at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Alexandre Trudeau is a journalist and documentary film maker who has had an enduring fascination with China since his childhood visit with his father Pierre Elliott Trudeau. He has visited more than a dozen times, discovering China and discovering himself. He spoke about the opposites and extremes of China and how he hopes that in each chapter of his book Barbarian Lost, readers “will find a piece of deep logic which will challenge them to see how it makes sense”. Trudeau seemed a bit uncomfortable with the attention and applause and had difficulty keeping on topic, at times, perhaps because the time was limited and he had much more that he wanted to share with the audience.
Interviewing Trudeau was Canadian author, Madeleine Thien. I enjoyed reading her earlier novel, Certainty this summer, as part of my quest to read the CBCs 100 Novels that Make You Proud to Be Canadian. I am looking forward to reading Do Not Say We have Nothing which is her latest novel. Described as a “powerful, intergenerational saga”, it has had the honour to be short-listed for the Man Booker Prize and long-listed for the Giller Prize. Thien has a connection with the University of Guelph having been the writer in residence in 2014.
Trudeau and Thein share a few similarities. They were born 5 months apart, have both lost a parent and have both had parents who “instilled an idea of China that exerts a hold on us” (Thien). Trudeau described his father as having a sense of energy and balance that travels with him. Thien travelled alone in 2002 while grieving the loss of her mother who had died suddenly in the midst of planning their trip to China together. Since their original trips, they have both felt the pull to return to China in the “shadow of our parents” (Thien).
Trudeau shared that he never planned to be a writer. After his reading describing a failed trip to a brothel to interview a sex worker he shared “what I just read, that is not possible to film” and that “what would have been a failure in film, in writing, failure becomes a success”. He referred to himself as a Barbarian with an understanding that “the written word has so much power”.
Thien described China as being “so big, yet being a microcosm” with a tension between the “revolutionary self and the old man self”, between new ideas and tradition. Trudeau described the culture as pragmatic, at peace and as a country that “has kind of seen it all”, a land of contradictions that we can learn from. While the West is concerned with the significance of the individual, China is a society focused on connection and a dependency on others. Both share a sense of optimism for China’s long-term future while Thien remains pessimistic about the short-term in relation to human rights
When questioned about visiting China and writing the book as being a spiritual journey, Trudeau shared that he learned that boats make him depressed. (Incidentally, he does not include canoes in this thought because he shared “I love a canoe because I am in charge”). He described that the chapter when he describes going down the river, staying in a cabin of a boat, was the most difficult to write. He had to embrace his depression and write about what was happening to the environment.
Trudeau was asked if he would write fiction and he described the process of writing as lonely, needing both intellect and courage and requiring a belief that it will be appreciated and understood. He felt that his writing was simple in many ways, requiring a description of what he saw yet there is “a lot more on your shoulder when creating a fictional space” with characters so “real that they tell you what to do”. He hopes that he does have the courage to write a novel but was honest in that “at the end of the day, with 3 kids, being tired and exhausted, sometimes reading is too hard and that film and TV brings images dancing into you”.
Both authors inspired an interest in China and I am looking forward learning more about China while reading their books. The discussion was well moderated yet I wish Thien had been able to speak about her novel while moderating the conversation with Trudeau. I am guessing that the event was likely planned prior to all the excitement about Thien’s book being nominated for the Giller Prize and short-listed for the Man Booker prize. It is unfortunate that Do Not Say We Have Nothing was not highlighted!
Good luck to Madeleine Thien! Canada is proud of your nominations!