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January 10, 2017

Book Notes - Madeleine Thien "Do Not Say We Have Nothing"

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Winner of the Giller Prize and a finalist for the Booker, Madeleine Thien's novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing is an ambitious and profound exploration of the lives of Chinese citizens and how the Cultural Revolution changed their (and their family's) lives.

The New York Times wrote of the book:

"A powerfully expansive novel…Thien writes with the mastery of a conductor who is as in command of the symphony’s tempo as she is attuned to the nuances of each individual instrument"


In her own words, here is Madeleine Thien's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing:



In 2011, I finished a a novel, Dogs at the Perimeter, which forever changed my thinking about why and how I write. Then novel takes place within, and in the aftermath of, the Cambodian civil war and genocide, and is about the destruction of society and self, first by a totalitarian regime and horrific brutality, and afterwards by one's own hands (the guilt and loneliness of survival, and violence against oneself). Writing the novel and, later, speaking about it in the world, was emotionally and physically exhausting. By the end, I was almost afraid of words. What they couldn't say, and what they hid.

I was overwhelmed, and for a long time, desperately sad. When the depression lifted, I turned to music, and in particular, one piece, J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations.

Unexpectedly, this music opened for me another way of thinking about sound, silence, time, cadence, discipline, and freedom. I began to feel how, each time we listen deeply, each time we give ourselves over to a piece of music, it reconfigures something within us.

Eventually I wrote another novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which circles between three musicians studying at the Shanghai Conservatory in the 1960s. The novel is a meditation and a journey through art and revolution, as well as artistic and revolutionary violence. In the novel, silence and sound are not binaries; rather they form part of a continuous, complex fabric of life, politics, music and self.

When and if we can, we speak (make music, write, engage, commit) and when we cannot, we listen. It was listening, not speaking, that saved me.


The Goldberg Variations, J.S. Bach, recorded by Glenn Gould in 1955 and 1981

These two recordings bookend Glenn Gould's career and life. The Goldberg Variations consists of an aria (which begins and ends the whole) and a set of 30 variations, built not on the melody of the aria, but on the notes of baseline. By the time we return to the beginning, we have traversed worlds. I listened to these recordings whenever I worked on Do Not Say We Have Nothing, and heard it at least 10,000 times.

Of the 15th variation, Glenn Gould wrote, "It's the most severe and rigorous and beautiful canon … the most severe and beautiful that I know, the canon in inversion at the fifth. It's a piece so moving, so anguished—and so uplifting at the same time—that it would not be in any way out of place in the St. Matthew's Passion."


Sonatas for Piano and Violin, J.S. Bach

Sometime before his 40th birthday, Bach began composing six sonatas for violin and harpsichord. Over the next 25 years, he returned to these six sonatas again and again; they would be the very last pieces of music he worked on before he died. The first instrument Bach studied was not the organ, but the violin. He was taught by his father, who passed away when Bach was twelve. In these sonatas, the two voices, piano and violin, seem to create space even as they speak their own desires. The act of creation was, for Bach, acts of counterpoint: necessary solitude and necessary contact; each to his or her own, each brought into focus by the other.


Sin Sisamuth and Ros Sereysothea, "Mou Pei Na"

Cambodian singers Sin Sisamuth and Ros Sereysothea were part of the country's brilliant psychedelic rock scene of the 1950s and 1960s. They carry us back to the Cambodia that was, and a Cambodia that still exists. Many of the original recordings were destroyed during the time of the Khmer Rouge and the genocide, but their music, preserved on copies of copies of cassettes and CDs and every possible format, can be heard everywhere in Cambodia today.


Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony No. 5

In 1936, the Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich, persecuted by authorities, chose to withdraw his Fourth Symphony. His brother-in-law, his sister and his mother-in-law had all been sent into exile or labour camps, and one by one his friends were disappearing. Shostakovich, according to biographer Laurel E. Fay, knew that his life was in peril.

When he returned with his Fifth Symphony, Shostakovich courageously put into the world a symphony that was necessarily public but also deeply private. Abstract, wordless, yet making use of a narrative structure, the Fifth Symphony reaches us in multiple, complex ways. The Committee for Artistic Affairs concluded that it was the "practical creative answer of a Soviet artist to just criticism" and an exemplar of Socialist Realism. Meanwhile the public heard profound grief and audience members wept openly during the Largo. At the height of Stalin's Terror, a thousand people were executed every day.

Fay notes that Shostakovich's lifelong reluctance to describe his music was both necessitated by survival as well as "a natural disinclination to circumscribe the multiplicity of meanings music harbours."

For me, it remains one of the most extraordinary orchestral works, at once a public response to political criticism and a deeply personal, enormously moving, mysterious work of art.


Teresa Tang, "The Moon Reflects My Heart"

This was one of my mother's favourite songs, and arguably one of the most beloved Chinese pop songs ever recorded. It is a song of fidelity and innocence, and of deep sentiment.

During the decade-long Cultural Revolution in China – which saw 36 million people targeted, countless suicides, and mass violence and murders fuelled by political denunciations and a drive towards ideological purity – only Communist Party-approved art that served the revolution was permitted.

When Deng Xiaoping came to power, China shifted to a highly controlled "open door policy", a slight loosening of the reins on Chinese traditional and contemporary art, as well as fewer restrictions on foreign goods, music, art and books. "The Moon Represents My Heart" became one of the first hits of the new era. Film director Jia Zhangke later said, The song was "something completely new. So people of my generation were suddenly infected with this very personal, individual world."

You ask how deeply I love you,
and just how great my love is.
My affection does not waver
and my love doesn't change.
The moon represents my heart.


Leonard Cohen, "Dance Me to the End of Love"

The music of Leonard Cohen has accompanied me through decades of living. This was the first of his songs that I ever heard, and has never ceased to move me. Cohen was writing about the existence of a string quartet in a concentration camp, and of the almost unbearable side-by-side existence of the sacred and the profane. He says, ‘So, that music, ‘Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin,' meaning the beauty there of being the consummation of life, the end of this existence … But it is the same language that we use for surrender to the beloved, so that the song — it's not important that anybody knows the genesis of it, because if the language comes from that passionate resource, it will be able to embrace all passionate activity."


Sun Belt (Rick Maddocks, Steven Lyons, Paul Rigby and Jon Wood), Cabalcor, "Pale Destroyer"

This is a beautiful and provocative work by Vancouver's Sun Belt, using music and text to tell the story of the rise and fall of a mythical tar sands company town. Mixing music, journals, film transcripts, environmental studies and police reports, the album blends historical and speculative storytelling to bring to life a booming resource town that, within a century, becomes a desert wasteland.

"Pale Destroyer" carries us between First Contact and the present ("The year 1509 / two suns in the morning / we looked down to find / shadows in the water / we were so young, her age / And though we traveled far / we were never free from her deep wondering"), and speaks to a history that is now.


Madeleine Thien and Do Not Say We Have Nothing links:

the author's website
the book's Wikipedia page
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Financial Times review
Guardian review
Kirkus review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
Wall Street Journal review

CBC interview with the author
Financial Times interview with the author
Guardian profile of the author
Wall Street Journal interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

Support the Largehearted Boy website

List of Online "Best Books of 2016" Lists

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists


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