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Madeleine Thien: Writer-in-Residence, Simon Fraser University


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2014/02/22

1. In terms of geography, culture, and language, where does your family background reside?  How do you find this influencing your development?

My parents speak different dialects of Chinese (Hakka and Cantonese) and so our common language was always English. Although, often, my parents would speak their own dialect to each other – so two languages simultaneously – and they would understand. My mother was born in Hong Kong and my father in Malaysia, but they rarely spoke about life before Canada. I think, for different reasons, and with different degrees of success, they both tried to forget. They couldn’t afford to return home, and so they had to accept that it was gone or else feel the constant pain of being cut off. For a long time I felt an incredible sadness when I thought about the sacrifices my parents made for us. Now that I’m older, I see their courage, selflessness and their extraordinary reinvention.

2. How was your youth? How did you come to this point? What do you consider a pivotal moment in your transition to writing?

It was chaotic. We moved a lot and my parents were under constant financial stress. My siblings left home at very young ages, and my father left when I was sixteen. That was probably one of the earlier pivotal moments, because for a while he simply disappeared. I was living with my mother, but we were really cut off from one another emotionally. I lived in my head. Writing became a way to express things that were unsayable, either because they were private and confused, or because they might injure another person, or because I didn’t know what the truth was. Writing was a space to lay things down.

3. Where did you acquire your education?  What education do you currently pursue?

I studied contemporary dance at Simon Fraser University (SFU) and, later on, creative writing at The University of British Columbia (UBC). My devotion to books, reading and learning is intense but also exhausting. I’m deeply interested in 20th century history, particularly transitional times; I’m utterly fascinated by the Silk Road, and also the post-independence years in Southeast Asia, and lately, Communist China. I’m also working on documentary projects, art installations, and I occasionally choreograph. I want to live about a thousand lives! I think that’s why the novel, and fiction, have been the mainstay in my life.

4. At present, you hold the ‘Writer-in-Residence’ position at Simon Fraser University. What does the position provide for you?

Yes, I’m incredibly lucky. The English Department is full of creative, questioning and generous scholars. And SFU has brought me back to Vancouver where I grew up, but where I haven’t lived for more than twelve years.

5. You have written four major works:  CertaintyDogs at the PerimeterThe Chinese ViolinSimple Recipes: Stories.  Most recently, Dogs at the Perimeter, I read it.  I urge readers to go and purchase the book.  For those interested, what inspired this book?  What is the overarching theme? 

I had been spending months at a time in Cambodia, and the country preoccupied me more and more. For me, Cambodia is like nowhere else – inhabiting his seam between the ancient cultural reaches of India and China, all filtered through a formidable Khmer culture. The Cambodian genocide happened when I was a child and has been largely forgotten by the rest of the world; or, if remembered, is remembered almost abstractly. That our governments played an undeniably large role in the de-stabilization of Cambodia and its civil war, and that the ensuing genocide claimed the lives of 1.7 million people, and that hundreds of thousands of Cambodians had to seek refuge outside of their country – has become a footnote of history. I wanted to think about how people begin again, how they remember and how they forget, and how these acts change over the course of a life. The Cambodians I know live both inside and outside their memories, they carry ruptured selves and also, in their own philosophy, multiple souls.

6. If you currently work and play with a piece of writing, what do you call it?  What is the general theme and idea behind it?

It has no title as of yet. I’ve finished a draft and am fine tuning now. The centre of the book is the story of three young musicians studying at the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1960s. They’re Chinese musicians studying Western classical music, trying to express themselves through Bach, Beethoven, Prokofiev, Debussy, and also trying to express the tenor of the times. Because of Mao’s extremism during the Cultural Revolution, this expression proves not only to be untenable, but it alters their lives forever. This novel is about how ideas and artistic practices move from East to West and West to East, what it means to speak in another language (be that music, ideology or literature), and it’s also about copying, repetition and the desire, however illusory, for transcendence, to be outside of one’s time.

7. If any, what do you consider the purpose of art?  More importantly, what role do artists play in shaping, defining, and contributing to society and culture?

To be a witness to this time and place, and to each other. I don’t see it as a record of one’s self. I want my art to be a record of the people and the world around me. A complicated questioning of what is, and a way to learn how to see more than I do now.

8. If you had sufficient funding and time, what would you like to write?

I think it would be the same. I think of funding and time almost solely as a means to write, and so I try to create the conditions for this in my day to day life.

9. What do you consider the most controversial topic in writing at the moment?  How do you examine the issue?

Race. It makes everyone afraid. A few decades ago we could talk about race, but now even saying the word is difficult, in both national and geopolitical contexts.

10. In terms of representation of ‘minority populations’ in literary circles, presentation of awards and honours, and media time provided, what do you consider the present conditions?  What do you think and feel about these conditions?

I think literary culture in Canada and America has been adversely affected by the closing down of bookshops and the merging of publishers. It’s extremely competitive, and bookshops and publishers are simply looking to survive. It makes sense that, with such fine margins, they support (financially, emotionally, intellectually) work that has the potential to be mainstream. But how do we imagine mainstream? Sadly, I think that we mean white middle- or upper-class. So this audience (or the way a publisher envisions this audience and what they want) is reflected, in some way, in the novels that are published and supported. A Chinese novelist might sell a million copies in China, but a publisher here may still see that work as foreign, other and unlikely to appeal.

I think we should widen our understanding of the reader.

I’m a pretty stubborn person, and so these conditions make me want to push back the boundaries even more.

11. Furthermore, in concrete, or practical and applied, terms, what needs doing?  How might these aims come to fruition?  What about their short- and long-term implications for impacting the literary culture in the Lower Mainland, in Canada, and abroad?

Deeper engagement and from those of us who have another perspective. Acknowledgement that

New York literary culture is an echo chamber and increasingly narrow.

I’m teaching an Asian Literature course in the US right now, I teach in a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program in Hong Kong, where I work with writers from around the world, and I’m helping to develop the curriculum for a fine arts university in Zimbabwe. I love the responses I get when I ask this younger generation why literature matters, why they are studying it, and why bookshops are shelved with stories that are already familiar to us. Does it matter to us as individuals or as a society if our literature supports singular concepts of national identity, or when celebrated literature is narcissistic or apolitical, or when the majority of the world is invisible in 99% of the literature we read and discuss? We have a stake in trying to see what the system makes invisible, and then articulating these gaps in forthright and intelligent ways.

12. Who most influenced you? Why them?  Can you recommend any books or articles by them?

James Baldwin. Cees Nooteboom, All Souls Day. Alice Munro. Michael Ondaatje, Running in the Family and so many other books. Dionne Brand. Ma Jian, Beijing Coma and Red Dust. Liao Yiwu. Sven Lindqvist. Tsitsi Dangarembga, The Book of Not and Nervous Conditions. Hannah Arendt. Antonio Damasio and Oliver Sacks. Shirley Hazzard, The Great Fire and The Transit of Venus. Colin Thubron, The Hills of Adonis and In the Shadow of the Silk Road. Dostoevsky and Chekhov. The literature, memoir and reportage around Cambodia, from Vaddey Ratner to Bree Lafreniere, Loung Ung, Elizabeth Becker, Francois Bizot, Jon Swain and Peter Maguire. Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War. Kazuo Ishiguro, The UnconsoledThe Remains of the DayNever Let Me Go and When We Were Orphans. All these writers break form and enlarge content, they are humane and, in my eyes, fearless.

13. Where do you see writing, the teaching of writing, and publishing in the near and far future?  How does, and will, the internet change the landscape?

I’m curious about the publishing worlds of India and China. I wonder how they’ll influence and alter the English-language market, how soon will they become centres of influence alongside London and New York. I hope the internet will break down some of the stagnation in the way we talk about books, and which books we encounter.

14. What advice do you have for young writers? 

Fiction is not outdated or tired. Fiction is what you make of it, what you bring to it, how far you’re willing to travel both into yourself and outside yourself. Don’t knock the imagination.

15. What worries and hopes do you have for the world of literature regarding the older and younger generations – writers and readers?

I’m not worried. I think that even when things seem stagnant or narrow, fissures always appear. I love multimedia and the experimentation with the new forms available to us via our laptops and phones and interconnectedness. But I also value closing all that down, turning inward, reading a book, and giving time, attention and focus to the interpretation and engagement with story.

16. Besides your own organizational affiliations and literary interests, what associations, writers, and even non-/for-profits can you recommend for interested readers?

The Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-CAM) and the Bophana Centre. And, in Vancouver, the extraordinary Thursdays Writing Collective.


1)  Bophana Centre (2014). Bophana Centre.  Retrieved from

2)  Dangarembga, T. (1988). Nervous Conditions. Ney York, NY: Seal Press.

3)  Dangarembga, T. (2006). The Book of Not: A Sequel to Nervous Conditions. Oxfordshire, UK: Ayebia Clarke Publishing Ltd.

4)  Documentation Centre of Cambodia (2014). Documentation centre of Cambodia. Retrieved from

5)  Hazzard, S. (2003). The Great Fire. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

6)  Hazzard, S. (1980). The Transit of Venus. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

7)  Ishiguro, K. (2005) Never Let Me Go. New York, NY: Random House Inc.

8)  Ishiguro, K. (1995) The Unconsoled. New York, NY: Random House Inc.

9)  Ishiguro, K. (1989) The Remains of the Day. London, UK: Faber and Faber Limited.

10)  Ishiguro, K. (2000) When We Were Orphans. London, UK: Faber and Faber.

11)  Jian, M. (2008). Beijing Coma: A Novel. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

12)  Jian, M. (2013, November 10). My Life: Ma Jian. Post Magazine. Retrieved from

13)  Jian, M. (2001). Red Dust. London, UK: Random House.

14)  Ninh, B. (1991) The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

15)  Nooteboom, C. (2001). All Souls Day. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt.

16)  Thien, M. (2011). Dogs at the Perimeter. Toronto, Ontario: Mclelland and Stewart Ltd.

17)  Thien, M. (2006). Certainty. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

18)  Thien, M. (2002). Chinese Violin. Vancouver/Toronto: Whitecap Books Ltd.

19)  Thien, M. (2001). Simple Recipes. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

20)  Thubron, C. (2006). In the Shadow of the Silk Road. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

21)  Thubron, C. (2009). The Hills of Adonis: A Quest in Lebanon. Toronto, Ontario: Random House Canada.

22)  Thursdays Writing Collective (2014). Thursdays Writing Collective . Retrieved from


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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