“Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true;
Real becomes not-real where the unreal’s real” (from Dream of a Red Chamber)
Denise Chong, a two-time finalist for the Governor General’s literary award, is best known for her family memoir, The Concubine’s Children, a Globe and Mail bestseller for 93 weeks. She is also the author of The Girl in the Picture, about the iconic photograph from the Vietnam War; Egg on Mao, which pivots on a young bus mechanic’s act of defiance during the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square; and Lives of the Family: Stories of Fate and Circumstance, linked stories of a handful of early Chinese immigrants who struggle with exile and loneliness as they forge lives in small town Canada. Recognized for writing books “that raise our social consciousness,” Denise was named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2013. She holds four honourary doctorates.
Madeleine Thien is the author of the story collection Simple Recipes (2001) and the novels Certainty (2006) and Dogs at the Perimeter (2012), which was shortlisted for Berlin’s 2014 International Literature Award and won the Frankfurt Book Fair’s 2015 Liberaturpreis. Her books and stories have been translated into 25 languages. Her essays have appeared in Granta, the Guardian, the Financial Times, Five Dials, Brick, and elsewhere, and her story “The Wedding Cake” was shortlisted for the 2015 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. The daughter of Malaysian-Chinese immigrants to Canada, she lives in Montreal. A new novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, about the legacy of the 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations, will be published in 2016.
This interview was conducted on March 7, 2016 at Northwood, a café and bar in Toronto. Madeleine and Denise were both in Toronto for Literature Matters, a speaker series organized by Professor Smaro Kamboureli, the Avie Bennett Chair for Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto. We’d like to acknowledge Smaro’s help in making this interview possible. For the reader’s information: Madeleine and Denise had, just a few days earlier, participated in an onstage interview on (among other things) the overlapping nature of non-fiction and fiction.
Joanne Leow: One of the things that this issue of The Puritan is thinking through is the idea of inheritance, literary inheritance, but also all forms of inheritance. So I wanted to start with that: what does it mean to both of you? How does it affect your writing?
Denise Chong: Well, when I think of inheritance, just on its own, it’s been the distinguishing feature of my life in that I inherited nothing because my parents’ generation was really poor. My mother and father would say, “We had nothing, we were poor.” And as for my grandparents, anything of value went the way of the pawn shop. Maybe that has shaped my literary thinking, in that you create out of what you have, before you reach backwards to think about what you inherited. I mean, inheritance is my husband saying, “This is a table my grandfather made,” and we’re still using it. While there’s a lot of literary tradition that I can think of, when I think of grandparents as having been peasants coming from rural China, I don’t think of myself as starting with a literary cedar chest that I can go to to look at what I inherited …
JL: Are there things that we inherit that don’t come from our families, but in a sense come from elsewhere?
Madeleine Thien: It’s such a hard question because it’s a heavy word, inheritance. But I found myself nodding a lot when Denise was speaking. It’s not true that I inherited nothing, but I do feel something similar in the sense that my parents didn’t speak about the past, they didn’t talk about their families, about their growing up, about their childhoods, about the old country. It was almost an emptiness behind them, even though of course it wasn’t … it was present in everything. I don’t speak my parents’ mother tongues, which are Cantonese and Hakka; I didn’t even inherit their language. So it’s not exactly beginning with nothing, but you don’t actually know the dimensions of what you’ve inherited. You can’t exactly see it; so much of is not quite visible, not quite spoken and not quite heard. So you kind of grope in the dark. And I’ve found that maybe the worst writing that I’ve done is when I’ve explicitly tried to recapture my parents’ history, like when I tried to write about my mother’s childhood in Hong Kong, or some of the writing I’ve done about Malaysia. To me it’s the writing that falls short the most.
DC: You do reach back because you know that the previous generation affects your life somehow. So you can’t help but reach back; you might not know the boundaries of it, but you know there’s something there. But inheritance in itself always sounds to me like something handed to you on a plate. There’s no plate there! There’s nothing being handed to me!
JL: Do you think the theme or idea of inheritance is something that you’ll ever be away to fully move away from? I know it’s an issue that troubles many minority Canadian writers. Can we ever move away from that familial story?
DC: It doesn’t trouble me. I’m not a good sleeper but I’ve never lost sleep over that!
MT: Me neither, just speaking for myself. I don’t feel the pressure to write about certain things in a certain way. I’ve always felt that I’m following my own obsessions and vision and trying to understand the things that are disrupting my thinking. And I am kind of driven by that more than what anyone may expect me to write.
DC: Whatever those disruptive forces are, known or unknown, that may somehow have left some indelible mark on you … I feel, quite apart from writing, that how that affects your life is a revelation of human temperament. So for some, it [the theme of inheritance] may be inescapable for them. But that’s an illustration of human temperament. Writers can only succeed if they buck up against that; a literary temperament cannot have boundaries; you have to transcend boundaries. But back to your point, Maddie, I am one with your thinking. The lens, say of colour, may be the sensibility of others; they may choose to view my writing through that lens or to compare me to others through that lens, and if asked, I may comment on that. But I have to say that I cannot think of an instance where that would be my literary instinct. It would not be. It’s not even my instinct in terms of how I see my own family. Although, as people remind me when they say things like, “Oh how amazing, you’re 100% Cantonese.” And I think, well, what does that mean?
JL: That is hilarious. What does that even mean?
DC: I know, I look in the mirror and I think, really? Because I don’t think that, I don’t put those boundaries around myself. That’s not to say, however, that others might.
MT: Others do. And I think that’s a different question.
JL: Well, why don’t we move to that question. What kinds of boundaries do you think you’ve had to work against in terms of the writing that you’ve chosen to do? Have you run against reception, boundaries or people putting you into boxes, and what might those look like from your side?
DC: Well, I’ll set myself against the literary landscape as it unfolded, to go back to your initial question. For example, when I published The Concubine’s Children, there was very little work to speak of from writers of Asian origin. I remember being on a panel and I was being introduced as a pioneer. Really, I’m a settler?
JL: That makes me think of Susanna Moodie!
DC: Oh … a pioneer of Asian writing in Canada!
JL: That’s a lot of responsibility …
DC: But in that sense, if I were—and I’m not—a literary historian, I would say yes, you can trace over time a lineage from the motherland to the immigrant with a foot in each continent, to the settler’s experience. And yes, if I wanted to impose that on my work I might come up against someone describing my work as “immigrant writing.” But that is no different than someone coming up to me and describing my work as “women’s literature.” You’re never going to escape the categorization that someone can impose on you. But I still go back to the point that as a writer, I do not impose anything on my writing but my own curiosity, and that can be really varied.
MT: Maybe it helps some literary critics, or even the publishing world, to group things. To sort of figure where you stand in a context, or in relation to, certain other categories of writers. Sometimes it’s beautiful whom they put you alongside. Sometimes it’s odd. But either way … it’s not that it doesn’t have anything to do with me, but it feels like a tool for something else that has very little to do with me. I don’t know how to express it; it’s such a complicated series of mechanisms that come into play.
I think when Simple Recipes was published, maybe what struck people the most—maybe why in some ways it’s been my most successful book, which kind of makes me sad—is that it’s a book where race is not clearly identified. The characters don’t really name, except for the first and the last story, a race or ethnic background. It’s not mentioned. For me, they are immigrant families. But they don’t identify that way in the book, in the sense that they don’t announce themselves as such. It’s just about their inner lives, you know, and about these families. And maybe at the time the book was published, that seemed very unusual. At the time, I was just following instinct, I was like Denise, trying to look at the things that I was trying to understand. I don’t know, I’m not really answering your question because it is hard to talk about these frames. Because we know they exist and this is the world we live in and this is the literary landscape. But if I internalize that, it would be such a diminishing of what I think my writing can do. Or not diminishing, but rather it sets up a frame that I don’t need.
JL: A kind of shrinking down of the space that you find available for yourself. Is that what you’re thinking of?
DC: Yes, it does. Because every time you shrink your horizon, you can dry up as a writer. But back to Maddie’s point about being compared to other writers. I remember when The Concubine’s Children came out, I got introduced around the publishing house and the marketing guy said, “Oh! You’re the non-fiction Amy Tan!”
JL: Are you kidding me? They said that? That is hilarious!
MT: I have a good story to go with that. Well, this critic, who shall not be named, because I like this critic very much, this critic was writing a column about … this was when Simple Recipes came out … certain Canadian books being published or not being published in the US, and Simple Recipes was being published in the US with a big house. And this critic made the comment that this was possible because the Canadian dollar was very low at the time, so I was like a cheaper version of Amy Tan.
JL: Why her? Why is she the only one?
MT: A bargain basement Amy Tan. Oddly enough, it never hurt my feelings. I thought it was hilarious because it was so ridiculous. The absurdity was almost a friendly sort of humour. It was so strange.
JL: Since we’re thinking of categories of race, of being an immigrant, of being new. I just want to think of one more before we push away from that subject … This idea of Canadian vs. the global and transnational. And it’s clear to me that in both your works, you push beyond what some might call a national Canadian literature. What you’re doing to me seems so much more expansive, and I wanted to get your thoughts on that.
DC: What I’m interested in is what happens when you are confronted with tumult, when much is revealed about human temperament. How do you deal with chaos in your life, with war, when everything is upended? Or, the happenstance of romance. Can the big things be as momentous as the little things? It just so happens that those whom I wrote of are immigrants. This does come back to my moment of frustration when someone says, “Oh, you’re an immigrant writer.” I attempt to dismantle that mentality because it’s a shorthand, it’s a label. Then again really there’s so much choice out there that people want to find a way to categorize something. But I do relive a moment of frustration when I have to explain that, as I see it, the protagonist of The Concubine’s Children just so happens to be my grandmother, who just so happens to be from China.
MT: Also, when they say immigrant literature, they don’t just mean immigrant, as in someone who is from another place. They actually have a whole set idea of what immigrant literature is.
DC: Exactly, exactly.
JL: For certain other immigrants, this would not even be an issue.
MT: And they see immigrant literature as having a very particular aesthetic and a very specific set of concerns and a certain set of limitations. And that’s the box. It’s not immigration or immigrants … you could call Alice Munro’s work, or some of it, immigrant literature. It’s the aesthetic value they’re placing on that category, which they then, knowingly or unknowingly, allow to limit what they can pick up from your work. They only become conscious of those aspects they were expecting to find.
DC: That’s right; it’s closing your readers to what other resonances your work might have.
MT: If they had a more realistic and more sophisticated understanding of what immigrant literature is, then this wouldn’t be such an issue. But it’s the fact that they have a very small idea.
JL: And what are the racialized codes underneath all of it? One other thing that really struck me in Denise’s comment in this idea of scale, this idea of the small story and big story and this modulation between the two. And I think in both your bodies of work that is one constant. When you’re thinking about just that one girl in that photograph or just that one man who threw the egg on Mao’s portrait, or Maddie, you’re thinking through that one person in your forthcoming book, in the middle of Tiananmen Square, or in Certainty that one relationship in the midst of the turmoil in Indonesia. How do you think about larger political contexts and smaller relationships?
MT: One thing that I was thinking about when Denise was speaking was how I love it when you use this phrase ‘human temperament.’ Because I completely agree. But at the same time that we, as writers, are looking at that vast range, we are also looking at very specific lives. A specific life that might be emblematic. And I think when I am working with history … maybe ten years ago I was really interested in the self-determination of the individual life versus the violence of history that has its way with that human life. The history that makes certain choices not possible anymore, that closes down certain avenues for that person and opens other avenues, so that what feels self-determining is also mixed in with what feels like fate, what feels like historical force. And I am interested in that turbulence and how you can actually navigate your life in those conditions.
DC: I thought of the subtitle of my last book before I thought of the title. The subtitle was going to be ‘Stories of Fate and Circumstance.’ I ask myself, what is the power of non-fiction? And to me, it’s placing myself in my world so I can better navigate it, understand it, make sense of it. Real life is chaotic; non-fiction writing attaches a certain moral order to that chaos. I am interested in setting human beings, human characters, in a certain social order. And, I am also trying to understand my social context and my times; I try to write about a fairly contemporary time. So to do that, you still have that one character doing certain things, you know, at a certain time of day. So yes, those are specific things. But, what is the writer’s task? All storytelling is a mirror. My job is to polish the mirror so that the reader sees into it, and that specific thing ultimately becomes the reader seeing themselves; that is that mysterious thing of the particular becoming the universal. That to me is the act of writing.
JL: The other question I wanted to think about in terms of fiction and non-fiction— the line between them is more blurred than we think it is. One of the things I’d like for you to think about is where does the non-fiction stop and the act of writing begin? In terms of Maddie’s work, the larger political context appears quite non-fictional as well, if I may use that word. So for both of you, is there a line? Or is that the wrong word to use to think about it? That dividing between the fiction and the non-fiction? When you’re writing about the “character” Denise, is there some ambiguity between fiction and non-fiction there?
DC: Well, I am really interested in the inner character. And I struggle with that as a writer of non-fiction. Maddie’s answer [at the Literature Matters event] was just so interesting. There are many approaches to fiction versus those of non-fiction that we can think about … Non-fiction writers often get told, “You seem to ‘borrow’ the tools of fiction,” which doesn’t make any sense. You think, well, do I have to give them back?
JL: Give back the shovel!
MT: I have been missing my character development tool … do you have it, Denise?
DC: So I think about such things, but I do think there are limitations for the non-fiction writer and fiction has similar debates. In non-fiction, you make a moral compact—said or left unsaid—with the reader. So you know, some writers will go further into creativity, some will hew to matters of record. It can be small technical issues, like how you create dialogue. But even if left unspoken, the reader has some understanding of the moral compact that the author has made with them. And when that moral compact sits on solid ground, it’s fine. But when that compact is uncertain, then we start to ask, well, what is the line? Are you blurring it? Are you borrowing techniques? And the reader feels a bit unsettled. Or maybe some writers feel comfortable with that kind of ambiguity. I do think in the interests of pushing the art and the craft of writing, you must think about whatever you think the frontier is. So I do think about such things. For example, using structure as narrative.
MT: We’re very similar that way.
JL: How do we tell ourselves stories as a way to make sense of events?
DC: In the end we are talking about texts, we are fashioning texts. So I kind of bring it back to that.
MT: That moment when we were talking about that divide or non-divide between fiction and non-fiction—when you [Denise] talked about retracing the steps of the people that you’re writing about, taking that same train at the same time as your protagonist [in Egg on Mao]—it was fascinating to me, because you were imagining your way into another self. Your body taking up the space that their body had taken up.
DC: Yes, yes.
MT: And then sort of re-experiencing it, even though it’s been shifted in time. And I loved that. There was something about that movement of the imagination, of this imagined self into another body, that felt very true to me as a fiction writer. This is what I do in my mind when I am in this relationship with a character. For fiction writers, the difficulty might be that it feels too easy to inhabit that body, and I think we need to question this more. We convince ourselves we’re inhabiting this other body and thinking in a character’s terms, but in fact we’re working in our terms—and being unconscious of them. We’re working in that disjuncture between how much we think our imagination is doing and maybe how little it’s doing in actuality. It could be doing much more.
JL: On that line between fiction and non-fiction—so where Denise is following a real body through this contemporary history, what Maddie is doing is almost conjuring up new beings to inhabit this real space. What is the relationship to you between our non-fictional, contemporary world and the fictional world that you are trying to produce?
MT: I think, like Denise, I actually don’t see a big divide between the two and I never really have. I think what you’re saying about the moral compact is really, really important for the non-fiction side. For fiction, I was thinking, you have to build this credible world and so on. But then I think of [Kazuo] Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled where nothing stays exactly what it seems and you never even know what is real and what is not real over these five or six hundred pages of the novel. And yet, you believe … you believe in this line that is being pulled forward, even as the character doesn’t ever seem to be himself at any point. It’s an extraordinary thing. Fiction has a lot of space for this ambiguity. It’s weird, it’s almost like even the ground doesn’t have to be firm but there’s something that you believe at the essence or the core.
DC: I think the same should be said of non-fiction. There’s not very much that I would disagree with you. Other than most obviously, my adhering to the use of real names. I get people who say, “Oh, that’s a very hard name to say.” And I go, “I’m sorry, but that really is their name.” In the example that you [Maddie] just cited, there’s what I see as the indeterminateness of life. That’s the beauty of life. Fiction’s got to have that quality and it does. But even though as a writer of non-fiction I know where my character is going to end up and I am bound by that, my act of writing still has to have that quality, that essence of the indeterminateness of life and of the curiousness of human temperament; it’s got to carry the reader from one page to the next. In some ways, I think if you want to talk about literature, we should be looking for the qualities that are universal to fiction and nonfiction as opposed to looking at the differences. There are important differences, but what will improve the craft and push the art are concerns that are central to both.
MT: I think historically in world literature they (the two genres) were always blurred. It’s only in recent times in North America where it’s become this big issue. But it’s actually a weird, strange and small argument to have because I’m thinking in Chinese literature, in Latin American literature, there’s always been a crossing and an uncrossing, a tangledness to it. People have long understood that we ourselves have fictional and non-fictional elusive selves that are always tangled up together. I was thinking of that opening couplet from Dream of the Red Chamber [“Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true;/ Real becomes not-real where the unreal’s real”]. It’s a complex hall of mirrors.
JL: Moving from that idea of the indeterminate and that the fictional and nonfictional overlap, I want to think about the specific themes and geographies in your works. One idea that both of you have turned to in recent years are ideas of totalitarian regimes, working against them, of trauma. What is the impetus behind your being drawn to these histories in Asia, and in China specifically? Do you feel that it is in the end about language, about the repression of storytelling, of the indeterminate that draws you to these moments in history, to these moments of a lack of human freedom?
DC: That might be how it appears. In The Concubine’s Children I would say that I was curious about my family. I was like an animal circling its prey, but I didn’t know what the prey was; it turned out to be the unknown of my family history. I’d circled it since I was a child and when I was finally able to get a grip on it, it was still in China. Then with The Girl in the Picture, when I again write about something in Asia, while it appears I’m interested in all the things your question raised, in fact I wanted to explore something that I was deeply curious about and that I really didn’t know much about in my time—that is, the Vietnam War. My understanding of it affects my life and my outlook and my view of myself in the world that I inhabit. During my writing of that book, Yugoslavia was under NATO bombardment and my husband [a television journalist at the time] was in Belgrade covering the conflict. Our children were young and I had to explain war to them. What interested me are the morally ambiguous questions about this condition of being human, such that we wage war. Plus, those questions coincide with a time that impacts my life still; the term the “Vietnamization” of a conflict has entered the modern lexicon. It just so happens that the war I wrote about was in Asia … When it came time to Egg on Mao and writing about human rights, I had lived in China, I had seen the abuse of human rights, and Tiananmen Square  was a world event which I remained curious about. Again, I am interested in this condition of being human and how we humans treat one another. So I don’t think I choose the country first. It’s not to say that there can’t be countries that are endlessly fascinating, but I don’t start there.
JL: Is the experience different for you, Maddie, or pretty much the same?
MT: It’s quite similar, I think. I was drawn to what was happening in Southeast Asia and the kinds of conditions that were in place that were part of what compelled my parents to leave. They left in ’74, and my parents, especially my father, never got over the heartbreak of leaving the home country. For many reasons, they were really happy to be here in Canada, but there was a real sorrow. And I think I was always drawn to understanding what happened in Southeast Asia in those years. What was happening? What made them think they couldn’t stay? What made them think that they couldn’t have a future here? I started with Malaysia and in the end I went to Cambodia. But now, I really think what I’ve been trying to understand is … I think, I’m tired of being told what my generation is, what my generation lived through. And through my novels, I’m trying to write another story about my generation. Because, in the case of Dogs at the Perimeter, the narrator is around the same age as me, someone who was a child when the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia. In Do Not Say We Have Nothing, one of the characters is just a few years older than me when the 1989 demonstrations begin, and when the Tiananmen massacre happens. Through these novels and, I think, in the one still to come, I want to write an alternative history of what my generation has been through, because I think it’s been a bit narrowly focused on the experiences of North America, in ways that I really don’t identify with, or can’t identify with. And I just think there is so much more at stake here, more that has shaped the current state of politics, and that we should, at least, be conscious of, in a world where there is so much amnesia, so much tunnel vision. I don’t go to literature in the role of activist, but I do go to literature as a space to open up new ways of thinking, imagining, and existing.
JL: An act of empathy but also of ethics, right? That’s something that’s incredibly strong in both your bodies of work. I want to end with this one question: we’ve thought so much about inheritance, about history, about writing. Maddie, you were talking about an alternative history of your generation while being deeply curious about your family past. When you consider the idea of the future, what are your hopes, in the sense of writing of the future? Anticipatory, or speculative, fiction or nonfiction that looks ahead? Does anything come to mind, thinking through that? Imagining beyond?
DC: Well, even when I write of war and of the atrocities of war, repression of human rights, or discrimination, I am an optimist. We read, we reflect, we understand, one human being to another. In the end, I am optimistic that in the future, people will see that life could be less hard, we could be kinder to each other, more mindful. We could be. Only in that sense do I write about such questions because I think that the subject matter can have resonance in the way we envisage or how we want to envisage human rights.
JL: That’s such a deeply hopeful answer. What do you think, Maddie?
MT: I think I am less optimistic than I was before, which is a difficult feeling. It’s a difficult feeling, and there’s certainly a level of pessimism that I feel. But in terms of the future, even though I’m a pessimist, I do think what we’re doing is trying to make space. I’m hoping that literature from other places, literature that is still to come, is going to keep opening up the space, because I don’t have a lot of optimism that the mechanisms and the cycles are going to change. But I would like more people to have more room to breathe. And I would like for more people to be reflected in literature in much more profound and complicated ways. This I feel hopeful about. But so much depends on the reader. The reader has to seek that out. Because the way that the structure of publishing works, it’s not going to hand it to you on a plate. You’re going to have to go after it, find it and want it. That, maybe, I feel hopeful about. That more people will see the limitations of what is being presented to us in the marketing of literature.
DC: I do feel really hopeful about literature itself. About writers and books of literature being the advance guard, being about breaking new ground where even politicians would be timid to go. Literature can break through barriers, can take more risks than people in positions of leadership in society.
MT: Do you see that here? I see that elsewhere. I see that in the literature I read coming out of China and elsewhere, I see that in places where it can be difficult to be direct about things, but you have to find other ways of speaking the truth, you have to go sideways. I think that there has been real innovation and courage from writers in these circumstances. But that kind of courage here? I don’t know. Courage makes for an economically tenuous existence. Consumerism is the air we breathe in North America. I think we’re all struggling to find a way to breathe differently.
Joanne Leow is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at McMaster University. Her work on Southeast Asian and Asian North American literature has been published in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Canadian Literature, Studies in Canadian Literature, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, and Journal of Asian American Studies (forthcoming). Her postdoctoral project, “Nature Capitals: Urban Ecologies and Literary Speculations,” is a comparative ecocritical study of literary and cultural texts from Singapore, Hong Kong, Vancouver, and Dubai. She is currently at work on a book manuscript entitled Counter-Cartographies: Literary Wayfinding in Transnational Cities. From July 2016, she will be an Assistant Professor of Transnational, Diasporic, Decolonizing/Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Saskatchewan.