November Lit: Excerpt from DO NOT SAY WE HAVE NOTHING by Madeleine Thien

November 21, 2016

For November, we have an excerpt from Madeleine Thien's Man Booker Nominated Do Not Say We Have Nothing, a multi-generational novel that takes readers through the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square protests all the way to modern day Canada. Interwoven are stories within stories, and a book within a book. At its heart, the novel is about how politics and art collide, how guilt and shame can fester and destroy us, and how governments can betray the people they are supposedly working for. Timely in its way, it's a breathtaking, heartwrenching novel. 

In this excerpt, we meet Wen the Dreamer, and the story of how he won over his wife, Swirl.

-- Karissa Chen, Senior Literature Editor

WEN THE DREAMER, the aspiring poet, was born in the village of Bingpai to a prosperous family with a shaky history. Back in 1872, his grandfather had received a great honour: the Imperial court selected him to be one of 120 children sent to study in America. The family sold everything to help pay for the boy’s journey. Fortune smiled on them for, after only ten years, that crackerjack son, now called Old West, sailed home, having lived next door to Mark Twain, studied at Yale and obtained his degree in civil engineering.

But after ten years at the Shanghai Armoury, Old West suddenly died of consumption, leaving behind a wife and baby daughter, and owing ten years’ skilled labour to the Emperor. It was a calamity. Old West’s father wept ten thousand tears and called destruction down upon himself. The four remaining sons, determined to prove their worth, banded together. Within a generation, the brothers acquired a dozen acres of land, including apple orchards and an enviable brick house, and were among the wealthiest men in Bingpai.

Meanwhile, Old West’s daughter grew up terrified of her father’s books, as if they held a disease that could destroy a village. Little West packed the books into a container and buried the lot of them. Her only son, born long after she had given up hope of a child, was the apple of her eye, and she hoped he would grow up to be a proper landlord like his great-uncles. Instead the boy lost his head to poetry. The boy was a walking cartload of books, he sat at his desk, calligraphy brush in hand, gazing up at the ceiling as if waiting for words to swallow him. His bedroom appeared to float, disconnected, above the solid world of transactions, commerce and land. She called him, sometimes gently, sometimes roughly, Wen the Dreamer. He was an observant and sensitive teenager and when the war came, it broke him.

In 1949, when the fighting ended, Little West sent him to Shanghai, hoping it would restore his vigour. Books made all his pockets heavy. When acquaintances met him on the road, Wen said he couldn’tstop to discuss the Communists or the Nationalists, Stalin, Truman or the weather, because he was composing a six-character eight-line regulated verse in his head, and any variation in his path would push the words out of order. It was a lie. In fact, he was empty of poetry and afraid of words. During the war, Bingpai had been ravaged by the worst famine in a century, but he himself had never known hunger. He had sat in his study memorizing ancient and modern verses while, outside, labourers ate nothing but tree bark, mothers sold their children and young boys died horrifying deaths on the front lines. Half the village of Bingpai starved to death, but the gentry, inheritors of seemingly limitless resources, survived. Now, the Shanghai literati were talking about a new kind of poetry, a revolutionary literature worthy of a reborn nation, and the idea of it both moved and troubled him. Could the avant-garde express the ideas that went unspoken, could it confront the hypocrisy of lives like theirs? He did not know. When his poems came back from one of the revolutionary journals, a thick brush had scrawled across the page: “Excellent calligraphy. But your poems still sleep in their pastoral prison. Moon this, wind that, and who cares about your bloody grandfather?! Wake up!!!”

He knew they were right. Wen kept the rejection letter and threw the poems away. He remembered Bertolt Brecht:

I would also like to be wise.

In the old books it says what wisdom is:

To shun the strife of the world and to live out

Your brief time without fear

All this I cannot do.

By chance, he wandered into the New World Teahouse. A young woman was singing and Wen the Dreamer, perplexed and enchanted, listened to her for five straight hours. Afterwards, he wanted to speak to her, to commend the harsh beauty of her music, but with what words? The young woman’s music contained poetry and the written word, and yet it travelled far beyond them to a realm, a silence, he had believed inexpressible. Wen wanted to call out to her but instead he watched her disappear, alone, up a flight of stairs. Nothing had shifted, the world was still the same, and yet, walking home, Wen felt as if his life had snapped in two. He stood for a long time looking at the muddy, sleepless river, which in the darkness was only a sound, trying to understand what had changed.

On a muggy August night, a package arrived for Swirl in the quarters she shared with three widows. This package contained a single notebook: the shape of a miniature door, bound together by a length of walnut-coloured cotton string. There was no postmark, return address or explanatory letter: only her name written on the envelope in a square yet affecting calligraphy. She sat down to her dinner of salted turnips but the notebook, occupying the empty space beside her, beckoned. Swirl opened it to the first page and began to read. It was a story, handwritten in brush and ink. She hadn’t read a story in years, and at first could make no sense of it.

Page by page, her cramped, lonely room dissolved; she breathed in the dusty air of an imaginary Beijing where the government was on its knees, the old beliefs were all corrupted, and two friends, Da-wei and May Fourth, once intimate in every way, had arrived at “the tenth word,” the place wher vows are broken and lives diverge. When the notebook ended just as it had begun—in mid-sentence—she retrieved the envelope and shook it mightily, hoping that another might fall out, but it was empty. She sat on her bed in the newly quiet room, consoling herself by setting a passage of the story to music. When she sang the words, they took on yet another life, and filled the room with possibility. Her neighbours, the widows, rapped on the walls and yelled at her to be quiet. A few days later, a second chapter arrived. Why was someone harassing her with mail? The following week, she received a third and a fourth. The novel continued, following first Da-wei and then May Fourth, as they made their way across a China in ruins. The narrative leaped and turned, as if entire chapters or pages had been ripped out; but Swirl, too, had been uprooted by the war, and she had no trouble filling in the missing gaps. Bit by bit, her irritation gave way to recognition and, slowly, without her realizing it, attachment.

On its surface, the story was a simple epic chronicling the fall of empire, but the people trapped inside the book reminded her of people she tried not to remember: her brothers and parents, her lost husband and son. People who, against their will, had been pushed by war to the cliff ’s edge. She read the fourth, ninth and twelfth notebooks as if reading would keep these characters anchored to the pages. Of course she was only a spectator; one by one, they spilled into the sea and were swept away. There were moments so piteous, she wanted to slam the book shut and close her eyes against its images, yet the novel insistently pulled her forward, as if its very survival depended on leaving the past and the dead behind. But what if the novel was written by someone she knew? Her family had all been singers, performers and storytellers. What if they had somehow lived, or lived long enough to write this fictional world? These irrational thoughts frightened her, as if she was being tempted backwards into a grief larger than the world or reality itself. What if the notebooks came from her dead husband, a Nationalist soldier killed at the start of the war, letters misplaced in the chaos and only now arriving? Swirl had heard of such a thing happening, a bag of mail lost in northwest China in the fourth century, preserved by the desert air. Thirteen hundred years later, an Hungarian explorer discovered them in a collapsed watchtower. But such things were as good as fairy tales. She chided herself for her delusions.

The parcels arrived on Sunday or Thursday evenings, when she was occupied in the teahouse downstairs, performing The Dream of the West Chamber. Could the writer be someone in the audience, or did he or she simply take the opportunity to slip in unnoticed, leaving the parcel at her door? Sleepless, she burned candles she couldn’t afford to waste and reread the notebooks, searching for clues. Something else had caught Swirl’s attention. The writer was playing with the names of Da-wei and May Fourth.

In the first notebook, for instance, wèi had been written 位 which means place or location. In the third, wèi 卫, an ancient kingdom in Henan or Hebei Province. And in the sixth notebook, wēi 危 , another name for Taiwan, as if the writer’s location was coded into the book itself.

The day she received the twenty-fifth notebook, she met her sister in Fuxing Park. “I can’t shake the feeling that I know this person,” Swirl said. “But why such an elaborate game and why am I the recipient? I’m just a widow with no literary taste whatsoever.”

“You mean those packages are still arriving?” Big Mother said, incredulous. “You should have told me sooner. It could be a criminal gang or a political trap!”

Swirl could only laugh.

“And please don’t give me this nonsense about literary taste,” her sister continued. “That kind of talk is just camel’s lips and horse’s mouth. Speaking of which, when will you stop living with those miserable widows and come stay with me?”

The next time they met, Swirl didn’t mention the novel at all. Big Mother brought it up, saying that such fictions were a false world in which her younger sister, if she was not careful, would lose her corporeal being and become only air and longing.

But Swirl was only half-listening. She was thinking of the novel’s characters: Da-wei, the adventurer, and May Fourth, the scholar. Their great fear was not death, but the brevity of an insufficient life. She recognized in them desires which, until now, had gone unexpressed in her. She smiled at her sister, unable to mask her sadness. “Big Mother,” she said, “don’t take it so seriously. It’s only a book after all.”

After the thirty-first notebook, she waited as usual. But day after day, and then week after week, no more deliveries came.

As time passed, the cold loneliness of Swirl’s life reasserted itself. She ate her dinners and the notebooks piled up across from her, like a friend gone quiet.

Downstairs, rumours abounded.

The manager was worried that, with Chairman Mao in power, teahouses would be denounced as bourgeois frivolities, singers would be assigned to work units, and the lyrics of every song monitored. Bread Crumb fretted that the government would ban all games, especially and including chess. Not for the first time, Swirl wondered if it was time to leave Shanghai; passage to Hong Kong was getting more expensive by the day. But down at the train ticket office, she ran into the owner of the Library of the Gods, who was out taking the air with his cockatoo. In her distraction, she mentioned the mysterious notebooks. The bookseller teased her and said she had a twin in this district—a failed poet known as Wen the Dreamer was going from place to place, seeking a copy of the very same book.

“Try the Old Cat at the Perilous Heights bookstore. Suzhou Creek Road,” he said. “Third lane down. She’s got her whiskers in everything.”

Swirl thanked him. She took the tram to the bookshop, thinking she would buy the rest of the novel and take it with her to Hong Kong. The Perilous Heights Bookstore was housed in one wing of a stout courtyard house, and the books were three-deep from floor to ceiling. In the literature section, she climbed a sliding ladder and began scanning shelves. But with neither title nor author, the search was futile. Meanwhile a steady stream of patrons arrived, young men and women who gazed all around, from north to south, as if looking for something they had dropped. One approached the bookseller and began whispering urgently. He was pushed aside by a grandfather wearing a Western jacket over a dark blue gown.

“Is it ready?” he said, between dry coughs. The Old Cat, who didn’t look all that old, handed him a mimeographed sheaf of papers. From her vantage point, Swirl could see it was a copy of Guo Moruo’s translation of Dr. Faustus.

The Grandfather’s lips began to tremble. “But what about Part 2!”

“This is not a factory,” the Old Cat said, slapping a lozenge on the counter. “Come back next week.”

Others wanted foreign novels, works by philosophers, economists and nuclear physicists. As she fielded questions the Old Cat barely looked up. She herself was copying endless pages in her flowing script. Apparently the mimeograph was in need of a part that might never be replaced.

When Swirl climbed down from her ladder and inquired after Da-wei and May Fourth, the bookseller muttered, “Not again.”

Every morning, Swirl would go to the bookstore; it was calm inside and the shelves were full of treasures. Surely another story could serve the same purpose, and lift her out of her solitude. She lost herself in travel books about Paris and New York, imagining a journey that would bring her to the far west.

Behind her table, the Old Cat rarely lifted her eyes; the only movement came from her ballpoint pen which slid efficiently up and down the page, so that the pen seemed to be the one delivering advice, information and succour. A bestseller, Poor Persons Take Up Guns to Revolution, kept the papers from flying away.

Several weeks into her new routine, Swirl saw another tower of paper settle on the desk, as if the first stack had drawn an admirer. Then, her eyes lifting, she took in a clean grey coat with cloth buttons, a pocket filled with papers, and finally, smooth, ink-stained hands. She looked again and saw a young man with wavy hair looking at her with embarrassed recognition in his eyes.

“Wen the Dreamer,” she said. “Miss Swirl,” he answered.

“Took long enough,” the Old Cat said. Her pen bobbed against the sea of the page.

The young man’s manuscript threatened to fall, and he steadied the pages with the fingertips of his right hand. Swirl climbed down from the ladder and stared unashamedly at the top sheet, studying the neat columns of words, the calmly passionate calligraphy that had described the impossible love affair between May Fourth and Da-wei. She wanted to scoop the manuscript up, to rejoin May Fourth in the train to Hohhot, peering through the dust-caked windows to see her beloved smoking on the platform; he would still be there in a week, a month, a lifetime, if she asked him to. It is not in me, she realized, to fall in love with someone who would wait. I can never settle for half a freedom.

“May I?” she said, nodding at the manuscript.

The young man’s fingertips refused to lift from the pages. “I’m afraid,” he said, “unfortunately, due to my negligence . . .”

He was not at all like her husband. So this was the writer, the mysterious sender of packages. Wen the Dreamer was wispy and pale, while her husband’s Nationalist uniform had barely seemed to contain him. She blushed.

“Forgive me,” he said, beginning again. “I’m afraid this manuscript is a different story. A different writer.”

“It’s yours, though.”

“Yes,” he said. “No. Well, you understand, the writing is mine.” She had inched nearer to him. Almost there.

“Quit cowering in the bushes,” the Old Cat said. The pen lifted its head and pointed its nib at Swirl. “If you, Little Miss, are looking for Da-wei’s creator, good luck! I’ll be the first to congratulate you when you find him, and to offer him, of course, a generous remittance, excellent terms, etc. But the author’s whereabouts are as big a mystery to you as they are to poor Wen here. That said, if you need someone to copy your letters or write out your correspondence, well! There’s no finer hand or gentler soul than his.”

“I’ve looked everywhere for the rest of the novel,” Wen the Dreamer said. “There must be, at least, another five hundred pages. Maybe more. I think it’s called the Book of Records.

“But you—” Swirl began. She kept her gaze on the manuscript, which seemed solid and unimpeachable.

“I made a copy of the book for you, because I hoped . . . I wanted . . .”

Swirl knew she should end the conversation. Yet she could not bring herself to move away from the table.

“I wanted the story to bring you pleasure. What the Old Cat says is true, the words are not mine.” His slender hands came together and clasped themselves. “I sent the first chapters before I finished copying the manuscript. When I realized what had happened, that the book ended, literally, in mid-sentence, I tried to write my own chapters. I tried to finish the story but I . . .”

“You did not have the talent,” the Old Cat said.

His wispiness grew sorrowful now. But still he did not falter or retreat, he stayed very still and would not stop looking at her.

“Perhaps one day.”

“Pardon me,” Swirl said, stepping backwards. She felt ashamed but could not fathom why she should feel this way, if the emotion belonged to him or to her. She turned and walked to the door and managed to twist it open. Fresh air filled her lungs and she heard pages fluttering on every side.

“You’d be amazed at how few people can tell a story,” the Old Cat was saying. The sound of her voice was as rough and reassuring as pebbles rolling together. “Yet still these new emperors want to ban them, burn them, cross them all out. Don’t they know how hard it is to come by pleasure? Or perhaps they do know. The sly goats.”

“Might I have the honour of walking you home?” Wen the Dreamer said.

The wind seemed to push her backwards and spin her around. But once she was facing him, once she saw his observant, hopeful eyes, words failed her. She opened her mouth and then closed it again.

“Heavens, the suspense!” the Old Cat said.

Finally, as if it were also the wind’s doing, Swirl nodded in answer to Wen. “If you must.”

Wen the Dreamer was at her side, he was holding the door, and she walked out.

Leaves were falling everywhere. Soon winter would come with its padded coats and knitted mittens and, at the arrival of the first frost, Wen the Dreamer would bring her scarves and woollen socks, jars of honey, and novels that he had copied by hand in his contained yet passionate script.

Winter was kind to Wen. His wispiness became a delicate kind of hardiness. Young girls and their mothers hung their washing across the alleyways and admired the elongated question mark of his body as he loped down the slippery walks, towards the teahouse where Swirl sang. “Don’t go too fast,” his neighbours called. “Your words will get scrambled!” He still didn’t know how to talk about the new political order, the different factions and all his ideals; lines of poetry occupied his thoughts, he wrote them down and threw them out. He wrote and wrote and burned the pages. He waited.

“Carrier pigeon!” they called him.

And, still, out of an insistent curiosity, Swirl began approaching strangers reading in teahouses to enquire if they were acquainted with Da-wei, if they had perhaps journeyed to the Taklamakan desert and been impressed by his ingenuity in sending private messages to his lover over the radio broadcast, even while tens of thousands of people listened? “Hiding in plain sight,” a well-dressed lady answered. “But, no, I’ve never heard of this devil.” “Are you certain it’s a local writer?” a poet asked.

“Everyone here is worthless. It must be a translation of a foreign work.” A university student was convinced it was plagiarized from a novel by She Lao, another thought it sounded like a modern retelling of Record of Heretofore Lost Works or maybe Li Mengchu’s Slap the Table in Amazement. “Anyway, don’t waste your time on novels,” someone told her. “The one to read right now is that upstart gun collector poet from Chengdu. Though, in general, anything universally praised is usually preposterous rubbish.”

One night she returned to the old notebooks, reading them all over again from the beginning. As her candle flickered, she became certain that the writer had gone into exile or perhaps met with some tragedy. Perhaps she was one of the war wounded, she had been torn from her former existence, and the novel was now no more than a dream disturbed. Or, perhaps, like Swirl’s husband, the writer had been killed in the fighting, and the last chapters could only be recovered in the next world. Wen had told her that it was not he but the author who had written the names of the major character—Da-wei and May Fourth—with different ideograms. Wen, too, believed, that the names were part of a code, a trail that someone could follow. But to what end? Swirl wrapped the notebooks carefully in brown paper; she must be vigilant. After all, the Book of Records was just a distraction from the realities of modern life. It was only a book, so why couldn’t she let it go? She opened her trunk and saw objects from her past, a vanished time and a former self. If she let her guard down, she could almost see her son crawling towards her. He was pulling on her dress, on her fingertips, his delight like a string around her heart. Swirl had given birth to him when she was just fourteen years old. On the night he died, it had been too dark, too windy, for a child to travel to the netherworld on his own. She had wanted to follow him over the cliff edge, into the sea, but Big Mother had wept and begged Swirl not to leave her.

She could not sleep and lay awake until morning.

A dull light framed the curtains. Swirl heard an infant weeping, went to the window and when she looked down, she saw a couple trying to fit their baby into his winter coat, adjusting arms then legs then head as the baby lolled and weakly fought, then scrunched up his face and wailed, and still the outerwear refused to fasten. Wen the Dreamer came along the avenue, a block of pages sticking out of his pocket. He leaned towards the weeping child like a comma in a line so that, momentarily, the child, confused, suspended his wailing, the outerwear was fastened, and the little family went on their tremulous way.

Later that morning, when she stood with Wen on Huaihai Road, when he venerated her missing parents and older brothers, her lost husband and beloved son, when he wished for the blessing of her older sister, Swirl had a pure memory of her little boy. He had lost his footing and fallen backwards from the tram onto the concrete. Not even a scratch on him. He had laughed and asked if he could do it again, and then he had reached out his frail hand and snatched the bread out of Sparrow’s mouth. Sparrow’s lips had closed over air, bewilderment flooding his little face.

On Huaihai Road, Wen was asking her to be his wife.

Swirl remembered the quiet of the bed when she had woken suddenly. She had picked up her son’s perfect hand, and a grey sadness seemed to move from his chest into hers, and in that moment, when she knew her child was dead, she lost her parents, her brothers and her husband all over again. Unable to stop crying, she had refused to let go of the child’s body. But he grew rigid and cold in death. Only Big Mother had finally managed to lift the body from her arms.

“Miss Swirl,” Wen said now, as shoppers with empty bags wandered past, “I promise you that for all our life together, I will seek worlds that we might never have encountered in our singularity and our solitude. I will shelter our family. I will share your tears. I will bind my happiness to yours. Our country is about to be born. Let us, too, have the chance to begin again.”

“Yes,” Swirl said, as if his words were a prayer. “Let us.”


Reprinted from Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien. Copyright © 2016 by Madeleine Thien. With permission of the publisher. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. This selection may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.


Madeleine Thien

Madeleine Thien is the author of two previous novels and a collection of stories. Her works have been translated into twenty-five languages. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. Thien lives in Montreal.