Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Monday, January 16, 2017

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Madeleine Thien, in her sprawling, complex, and vigorously beautiful third novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, manages to simultaneously devastate and inspire. The book is poetic balm, even as it tortures.

Thien begins by introducing us to Marie, who remembers the day Ai-Ming, a mysterious family friend, comes to live with her and her mother in Canada. Ai-Ming instantly becomes a part of the family, offering Marie a link, however tenuous, to the rich tapestry of ancestors she barely knew she had.

What begins in present-day Canada soon shifts to a  China under Chairman Mao's regime, where “people simply didn’t have the right to live where they wanted, to love who they wanted, to do the work they wanted. Everything was decided by the Party.” In this China, there are very few liberties, but, as Thien muses, “It was still possible to keep your private dreams, only they had to stay that way, intensely, powerfully private. You had to keep something for yourself.”

Do Not Say We Have Nothing has many faces: A pair of wanderers, hunting the desert for their missing girl. Sparrow, Ai-Ming’s father, who filters everything he hears through the language of musical notes. Zhuli, daughter of the desert nomads and a brilliant violinist who, mid-novel, takes her own life and whose character lingers throughout the narrative long after her death. Always there’s Ai-Ming, coming of age in a country where nothing is hers, not even her body, not even her family, and just barely her thoughts. To Ai-Ming, Thien writes, “The only…question that mattered was, How was it possible for a person to write her own future?”

Ultimately, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is about both loss and inheritance, destruction and rebirth. The book hinges on revolution—first, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, when China was brutally forced to erase its past. The country’s artists, educators, and thinkers become the enemy to be spat upon in the street. The gifted are forced to unlearn their abilities. Sparrow, Ai-Ming's father, has only ever known music, but he submits to a lifetime of work in a wire factory. Kai, Sparrow’s closest friend, his maybe-love, manages to leave the country while he still can, forever branded, at least to himself, as a coward, a traitor to his family and his country both. Zhuli, Sparrow’s cousin, kills herself rather than betray what’s inside her heart. No option ever seems wholly right; no character can be fully blamed. All are intensely, relatably real. As Ai-Ming remarks, “Maybe we should mistrust every idea we think is original and ours alone.”

The second revolution, the student protest at Tiananmen Square, lends the book its strongest, most compelling scenes. “When the demonstrations began,” Thien writes, “the students were asking for something simple. In the beginning it wasn’t about changing the system, or bringing down the government, let alone the Party. It was about having the freedom to live where you chose, to pursue the work you loved.” In this revolution, the victories are staggered, balanced by violence. The city is stagnant with heat beneath a yellow sky, and the protests go on for days. The students weaken, starve, collapse. The city occupies an uncertain, unsettled no-man's-land. “I want to live,” Ai-Ming thinks to herself, “but nobody here knows how.”

Those still reeling from Trump’s November victory might find solace in Thien’s sensitively penned and ever-shifting saga. It is, after all, a story about survival: cultural preservation, family bonds, and the enduring strength in courageous art. Even as power corrupts, our ability – or, perhaps in Thien's world, our desire and will – to enact change prevails. Facism, however brutal, eventually fuels change. Human rights violations eventually fuel change. Censorship fuels change. Ultimately, Thien’s novel affirms, the power to enact meaningful change exists within us all. Sometimes, we just need someone to light the fire. Sparrow walks in protest with his fellow citizens - police, bus drivers, shop owners, all daring to walk in protest, all daring to risk their lives. “He felt," Thien writes, "as if all his past lives, his past selves, were walking beside him.”

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is about our most fundamental freedoms: the ability to think, to create, to imagine, and to feel. Thien's story is about remembering, even when the safest thing to do is to simply forget. Even when an entire cultural history is destroyed, families are shattered, and song lyrics are buried deep into the ground, “Not everything," Thien wryly reminds us, "will pass.”

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Take Your Broken Heart

Make It Into Art.

To a productive, inspired 2017. #StillWithHer #NotMyPresident #Hope