Madeleine Thien, author of Certainty

Interview by Alden Mudge

separating wheat from chaff

Madeleine Thien

Madeleine Thien was born in Vancouver, Canada, the youngest of three children of Malaysian-Chinese immigrants. She earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia, and in 2001 received the Canadian Author's Association/Air Canada Award for the most promising writer under the age of 30. Her first work of fiction, a collection of short stories called Simple Recipes, was published in 2001; it won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize and was named a Kiriyama Prize notable book. That same year she published a children's book, The Chinese Violin, based on the true story of a young girl who emigrated from China with her father. Certainty, Thien's first novel, was named a Kiriyama Prize finalist in the spring of 2007, just before it was published in the United States.

WaterBridge Review: Where did the book that became Certainty start for you?

Madeleine Thien: With my father saying at one point that his father had been killed by the Japanese after the [Second World] war was finished. My father's story was different from the character Matthew's story in the novel. My father was really young and didn't really remember his father. I think my grandfather was forced to work for the Japanese but nobody in my family would classify it as collaboration. At the end of the war the soldiers simply came and took him away and that was it. Like most people of that generation, my father didn't really want to talk about it. But kids are very attuned to silences and think they hide the cause and effect of things. When I was a teenager, because my main expression was through writing and because I was drawn like most kids to what is not spoken, I wrote a story about a man being led away from town and never being seen again. That interest stayed with me and when I got older I realized how little I knew about the war in Southeast Asia, so anytime I came across a book about it, I read it. At one point I thought I would write something that would expose what had happened in the war. But I don't think I'm that kind of writer. I think my interest was always in families and immigration, in what kinds of lives people lived then let go of in order to immigrate, the way they remake themselves, the divides between parents and children in those kinds of families. So my father's story was the seed. I always felt I would write about the Second World War, but I didn't know the form it would take.

WBR: Has being the daughter of immigrant parents shaped your writing sensibility in specific ways?

MT: I didn't think so with the first book but I definitely feel it with this one. I had a professor at the University of British Columbia who put me in his translation class even though I was writing fiction. He thought it would be an interesting space for me because even though I wasn't translating from a different language into English, he thought I was translating from one cultural experience to another. It was a fascinating observation. What I do in my work is not what someone like Amy Tan does. I tend to leave off physical descriptions and the sense of writing from a specific ethnicity. I think I'm sort of existing between both worlds and trying to find a way to tell a story that encompasses those worlds and has a sort of give-and-take between both. Maybe this is because I was the only one in my family born in Canada. My brother and sister were born in Malaysia. I occupy a different kind of place. My sense of place is slightly different. I'm the child of immigrants without being an immigrant. I am the sister of immigrants without being an immigrant. It's a sense of occupying a new world, feeling I could embrace a new place right away, without hesitation, unlike my parents and siblings, but still feeling I was close to them.

WBR: Do you think that underlies your impulse to tell Certainty from so many different perspectives?

MT: Maybe. At the core of what I wanted to do in this book lies the belief that although these characters come from different places, they discover in each other resonances that are not what you might expect. They're surprising. It's surprising that Ani and Sipke can develop a relationship with each other because their backgrounds are very, very different. But something at the core of who they are is very, very similar and the questions they're wanting to answer about their lives are very, very similar. Yes, the novel is about identity, but it's also about everything the characters are carrying from their pasts and in their own lives. Ethnic identity is just one slice of that.

WBR: Your main protagonist, Gail Lim, 30-year-old daughter of Matthew, has already died when the novel opens. Only later do we enter her perspective. Why did you choose to tell the story this way?

MT: The order of the novel is almost exactly what it was in the first draft, even though that draft was massively different. I didn't realize until after the book was published that it might be seen as a complicated structure. I don't think it can really unfold in a different way. There are certain stories you need to tell before other stories. It's like walking through open doors. You have to go through the door of Matthew's story before you get to Ani's and Ani's door before you get to Sipke's. The same with Gail's story. The book is so much about memory and history, history that isn't dead. Gail is the most moving representative of that idea because she's so alive. As soon as someone dies they become a part of the world that doesn't quite link to our own. I wanted to break with that idea. I wanted Gail's history to be as real, as moving, as relevant as the stories of the living. It's an open question whether or not she is the novel's main character, but I didn't want there to be any divide between the living and the dead. I wanted to give their stories equal weight.

WBR: How did you choose the title for the book?

MT: I chose the title early, I think in the third draft. But even before I started writing the novel, I was thinking about that question: how much can you know about another person? There's a finite point of what you can know about a person, but the desire to really know someone to the core is not finite. It was a question that was really strong after my mom died. She died a few months before we were supposed to go to Hong Kong together. It would have been my first time to Hong Kong; she hadn't been back in maybe 15 years. I think we both thought that there would be many things to talk about because so many memories would come up for her, so many details of her life that I had never even thought to ask her about. When she died I realized there are so many things we don't know about the people we lose, while at the same time we do know that person. It raised all those existential questions—why are we here, what is the point, what happens afterwards? All that came up with my mother's death. All the things I couldn't know. For two or three years after her death it was really killing me that I couldn't be sure of those things.

That reminded me of the quote from Michael Ignatieff that is at the front of the book, which I had read years before. In fact we're very good a living with uncertainty. But it's the desire to know that makes us ask these questions and lead a more examined life. You keep asking because you're looking for an answer that will let you live your life in the best possible way. I think those are the sorts of questions that are in the background in the novel. I think of it as a very optimistic book because, while in the end there are many things the characters don't know about each other, they do know things that transcend the particularities of their experiences and connect them despite the unknowns.

WBR: You have visited or lived in most of the places where the novel is set and you have talked about how your experiences with your parents seeded this book. How do you use autobiographical material when you write?

MT: After my first book was published, my sister said me the most amazing thing. She told it was so strange to read the book because it was like looking in a broken mirror: "Sometimes you look and see it reflecting our lives, tiny bits of it, but other times you see it reflecting so many different things." I think that's a great image. You don't actually know when you start writing which parts of your life are going to seed the novel. Sometimes it's surprising what tiny detail or image or memory will come up. Sometimes it stays in the book and sometimes it just points you in a new direction. Or it reminds you of what it is to write honestly. Sometimes you put something down that is autobiographical and the feeling of writing that reminds you of the feeling of putting down the truth. So that infuses the way you write other parts of the book that are entirely imaginary.

WBR: Were there writers who influenced you during the composition of Certainty?

MT: Yes. Many. One of the biggest influences—and I realize more and more in hindsight just how much he affected me—was a Dutch writer named Cees Nooteboom. He's a giant of Dutch literature. He wrote a fascinating novel called All Souls Day, which I read four or five years ago, in which he allowed his characters to think about really existential questions. We are shy to do that in North American literature. But European literature has a tradition of not being afraid of asking those larger questions in a very forthright way, of not being afraid of sounding portentous. We are—I think because such things can take a reader out of the world of the novel or become too didactic. But there's got to be a way to do this. After we've gone through very deep loss we look for answers.

All my life I've turned to fiction. It's my main form of expression. But more and more I sense that people have stopped turning to literature and are going to nonfiction because fiction is not giving them what they need. There are questions that only science and nonfiction seem to answer, or even ask. I want a novel to be more open to that. I'm trying to find the language to do that, and reading Nooteboom gave me an idea of how it could be done. For me reading that book was an incredibly powerful experience because—it sounds so corny—it really touched my soul. That's what books have to do.

WBR: What are you currently reading?

MT: I Am A Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter. He's a science writer who writes in a very accessible, very conversational way. This book is about consciousness but it's unlike any other book I've read. His books are always unlike others. I love this book. It is fascinating to me because I'm interested in consciousness and because the book was written after his partner died and begins with the question, where did she go? So there are lots of resonances for me. I am also just about finished with The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. It's an incredible, heart-wrenching, provocative book. 

WBR: What is your writing space like?

MT: My writing space is the very center of my desk, which is this old rolltop desk that belonged to my mom. It's a little universe of its own. I open it up and my computer is there, all my papers and notes on a million bits and pieces of paper are there, and my books, stacked in a pile, are there. Physically and psychologically it's an amazing thing for me to have this desk, especially because it belonged to my mother. It's a connection back to her. Just as a physical object it perfectly encompasses the world of writing. After I'm done working, I just roll the top down. Not that you can really leave the work behind, but at least it feels protected in there. You can close it off and go on with your day-to-day life, but with the sense that the work is just sitting there waiting for you.

WBR: Has being a Kiriyama finalist had any impact on you personally or on your career?

MT: For me it's been huge, huge on a number of levels. There were so many great books on that shortlist. I couldn't believe being put alongside those other writers. Certainty has been published in a lot of countries and it's allowed me to make a living, but it's a strange book, a quiet book, so it's an incredible feeling to know that the jury felt that it held together and had an impact. I think without the Kiriyama shortlist the book was destined to just appear and disappear. I'm pretty sure everything positive that's happened in the US is because I made the shortlist. So it's huge. It was the best thing that happened with this book. I am really grateful.

Alden Mudge is a writer and the director of organizational effectiveness for the California Council for the Humanities.