Armchair Book Club: Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Heather Allen explores Madeleine Thien’s new book Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

I was a Pen High student at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. I knew something terrible was happening in Beijing, but didn’t have much context to understand it, or know how to react to the news.

In fact, we were so naïve that our drama class staged a solemn vigil for the Beijing University students during our year-end comedy show. It didn’t go over well. At the time, we thought it was because our audience was callous. Of course, that wasn’t it at all.

How glad I am to finally read a novel that brilliantly contextualizes the Tiananmen Square protests. It’s no wonder that Madeleine Thien’s new book Do Not Say We Have Nothing won this year’s Governor General’s Award, the Scotia Bank Giller Prize, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

In Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Ai-Ming arrives at the doorstep of Canadian relatives in 1991, fleeing China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen protests. Her story is interwoven with the story of her family’s struggles in revolutionary China.

Over the years, several relatives were sent to prison camps to be re-educated, others were beaten and abused by angry mobs. Some chose to hide, to commit suicide, or to turn on friends and family.

Through individual family member’s stories, especially three young musicians at the Shanghai Conservatory, the reader experiences each of the different phases of the Cultural Revolution. One day, you could be asked to play violin before Chairman Mao. The next, during a crackdown, you could be killed for simply carrying a violin in public.

Because so many families were separated and put into re-education camps, or forced labour, many were unable to parent their own children. The suffering became generational.

By the time you reach the final chapters, set in Tiananmen Square, you carry the weight of each family’s struggles, and hope beyond hope that the protestors in the square will succeed. It’s like watching someone search for a lost item you know they will never find, but at the same time, you keep hoping they will.