“I assumed that when the story finished, life would continue and I would go back to being myself. But it wasn’t true. The stories got longer and longer, and I got smaller and smaller”.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a brilliantly written window into a dreadful period of Chinese history. Despite trauma, human rights abuse and great loss, the beauty of music plays through the lives of two families. I don’t know why I waited so long to read this compelling novel with its beautifully written narrative providing a window into a shocking history that I sadly knew very little about.
This Giller and Governor General Award winning book has been on my bedside table since meeting Madeleine Thien and Alexandre Trudeau at the Eden Mills festival. The pair were promoting their books and discussing their love of China. I was lucky enough to meet Thien a second time at the 2016 Giller Between the Pages event just prior the award announcement.
The book begins in Vancouver. Marie is dealing with the loss of her father. He had visited Hong Kong, never to return, leaving her mother and Marie to grieve. At the same time, a Chinese refuge was sheltered in their apartment. As Marie got to know Ai Ming, she learned about her father’s history and the connections they shared as she sifted through old papers of her father’s.
China has been a land of change. The elder generation lived through land reforms, Marie and Ai Ming’s fathers experienced the cultural revolution and Ai Ming was part of the Tiananmen Square protests and riots. Each generation dealt with repression and violence at the hands of the government in stake contrast to Marie’s life in Canada. I remember the violence of Tiananmen Square but it was shocking to learn of the generations of abuse and violence which are not taught in Canadian schools.
The story began slowly but the drama and connection to the characters slowly built until the reader is left with a feeling of loss when turning the last page. The pages are filled with so much detail as to the lives of each generation that it left me wanting to know more about the destiny of Ai Ming and Marie.
If you have not read Do Not Say We Have Nothing, it is time. It is a starting point to understand more about world history and it is a beautifully written story of family and resilience.