Madeleine Thien’s novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a look back into 20th-century Chinese history from the vantage point of modern-day Canada. The framing narration is provided by Marie, a girl living in Vancouver whose father Kai has recently died by suicide in Hong Kong, far from home, and whose mother has taken in an older girl called Ai-Ming, a student fleeing from the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing is the story of Marie’s parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles; and the story of Ai-Ming’s parents too, and how they came to be entwined so closely with Marie’s family. It’s the story of a family living through land reform, the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward and Tiananmen Square, and a look at how they cope (or not) with oppression, hunger, imprisonment and humiliation.
Music, and art in general, is a key theme in the novel. Kai, Ai-Ming’s father Sparrow and Sparrow’s cousin Zhuli are all gifted musicians of one sort of another who study at the Shanghai Conservatory – which becomes a target during the Cultural Revolution for its focus on Western classical music, seen as decadent and unpatriotic. Then there is The Book of Records: a handwritten novel in multiple volumes that grows throughout the course of the novel and comes to have hidden significance for the family.
For this is a story about family, at its heart, about the cords of love and obligation and convenience and shared heartbreak that bind us all together. Those relationships are tested in different ways in Thien’s novel: couples separated for years in reeducation camps; in-laws on different sides of political disputes; a friend turning away from becoming something more, out of fear. Terrible things happen – death, illness, humiliation, radicalisation. And yet, those bonds persist, riding the waves of political tumult until two young people meet in a small flat in Vancouver.
And so, art is perhaps one outward manifestation of what it means to be a family. Not just The Book of Records, a neverending story encoding this particular family’s struggles and secrets; there’s also the music that Kai, Zhuli and Sparrow share, that ends up tearing them apart too. There’s a point when Sparrow says that of course music doesn’t matter when placed against a life; but also, that that is the point. In the same way, for these characters swept up in the flood of history, the bonds of love avail nothing against the vast changes sweeping their country: all they can do is weather the storm. And yet. Love – for others, for art – is all that these characters have. A fragile and tenuous thing; but it is not nothing.
Do not say we have nothing, the novel’s title urges, a reference to the Internationale – an anthem popular in Communist China. Thien’s characters quote it at intervals throughout the novel, insisting that they have some rights, that the Party is ultimately benevolent and grants them that much; but, as those illusions are stripped away, the phrase takes on another, half-ironic meaning. Do not say we have nothing: we have this thing that has no power, that cannot protect us, and yet persists – love. Connection. Family.