Devastating Beauty and Tragedy: Madeleine Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing”

Such devastating beauty in the elegant writing, the intermingling of literature and music, the simple poignancy of human connections.

Such devastating tragedy in the violence of repression, the lost opportunities to create, the rupture of relationships.

And the importance of memory, preserving both the beauty and the tragedy.

One of the first things that struck me in reading Madeleine Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” was the beautiful writing itself and more specifically her gift for evocative imagery:

  • Their incompatible love made her feel hollow, as if the world had turned out to be flat after all.
  • …it was as if the very air shrouded the buildings in paranoia.
  • …the elongated question mark of his body as he loped down the slippery walks…
  • He leaned toward the child like a comma in a line so that, momentarily, the child, confused, suspended his wailing…
  • The landscape passed in waves of green and yellow as if the country were an endless unharvested sea.

It’s a gift of vision of both the outer eye and the inner eye. Thien draws into her descriptions concepts and pictures from totally different realms offering to us readers a deeper insight into the character and the scene.

There is much beauty in how music and the written word are reflected as two tributaries of the same stream in this novel. They feed into each other becoming something new, and then part and move off on their own though richer now, only to reconnect in a different way later on: Wen the Dreamer’s “Book of Records,” Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” Sparrow’s unfinished “Symphony No. 3,” Prokofiev’s “Violin Concerto No. 1,” the poetry of Li Bai and Wang Wei inspiring Mahler to write his song symphony “Das Lied von der Erde” (The Song of the Earth), and Thien’s literary descriptions of music itself:

  • Yet Zhuli imagined that she could hear her father’s presence in the music just as clearly as if Wen the Dreamer’s name was written on the page.
  • But what was music? Every note could only be understood by its relation to those around it. Merged, they made new sounds, new colours, a new resonance or dissonance, a stability or rupture. Inside the pure tone of C was a ladder of rich overtones as well as the echoes of other Cs, like a man wearing many suits of clothing, or a grandmother carrying all her memories inside her.

Thien beautifully sketches her characters with a fine brush that projects deeply intimate and yet tortured relationships within families including the narrator Li-ling and her mother, Sparrow and his daughter Ai-ming, Sparrow and his cousin Zhuli, Big Ma and her husband Ba Lute, Big Ma and her sister Swirl, and between lovers and would-be lovers especially Sparrow and Jiang Kai. Her writing is so deft that I was never aware of her developing these relationships. I was inside the story from the first page and living with the characters as they tentatively reached out to the other, faltered, fought, touched fingertips, tore up a loved-one’s manuscript, smiled at a sweet gesture and just as quickly averted their eyes.

And then there is the multi-dimensional tragedy in “Do Not Say We Have Nothing”.

I am a fan of historical fiction such as the novels of Hilary Mantel, Jane Urquhart, Viet Thanh Nguyen. I now add Thien to my list. Through the eyes and experiences of her characters, Thien has graphically and gut-wrenchingly recreated the repression, violence, and social upheaval of Mao Zedong’s attempt to reassert his authority over China’s Communist party through what came to be known as the Cultural Revolution from about 1966 to 1976. I am grateful to Thien for bringing alive a dramatic time in history that affected hundreds of millions of people and allowing me to experience it in the first person, so to speak, through her characters. And that experience is devastating with the forced relocations and separations from family, the shaming and torturing of citizens for what was maligned as “decadent” intellectual interests and artistic competence, the suppression of opportunities to create art, the unremitting attempts at brainwashing, the brutal suppression of dissent that Thien describes graphically in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

Sparrow’s inability to compose for such a long period of time during the Cultural Revolution is the most prominent example of the devastating loss that occurs when art that could have been, isn’t. It is not only that he was essentially forbidden to compose. It was devastating because the repressive environment had silenced the music in his soul. Art was suppressed as well through the closing of the universities and the conservatories and the prohibition to perform works that had not been sanctioned. Sparrow reflects at one point on Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony:

  • This is a fragment, he thought, of something that once existed but that no longer grows here, like a corn field cut down…you could close a book and forget about it, knowing it would not lose its contents when you stopped reading, but music wasn’t the same, not for him, it was most alive when it was heard.

The rupturing of relationships is portrayed by Thien in an under-stated style that ramps up the tension and the pathos to an intensity far greater than had she used a vociferous style. The secret long-term connection between Sparrow and Kai is heart-breakingly written:

  • “Sparrow, remember the classics that we memorized? The words are still true. ‘We have no ties of kinship or even provenance, but I am bound to him by ties of sentiment and I share his sorrows and misfortunes.’ We’ve waited our whole lives and now the country is finally opening up. I’ve been thinking…there are ways to begin again. We could leave.”
  • The possibilities before Sparrow, which should have given him joy, instead broke his heart. He was no longer the same person.

Finally, Thien’s novel epitomizes the essentialness of memory and the active commitment to remembering. The “Book of Records,” with its dual literary and musical connotation, forms the core of this process of preserving memory. At the meta level, “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” serves the same function…and does so brilliantly.

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For more information on Madeleine Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing,” see: http://penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/259732/do-not-say-we-have-nothing#9780345810427

For more information on my books including my recently-published collection of gay literary short stories entitled “Book Tales” see: www.DavidGHallman.com

 

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The Pace of Writing

Over the past five years I’ve written three books (a memoir, a novel, and a collection of short stories) and the pace of writing has varied dramatically from one to the other. In retrospect, it strikes me that the difference was due to the relationship between the subject matter and my socio-emotional state.

I started writing August Farewell when my partner Bill died two weeks after a totally unanticipated diagnosis of stage-four pancreatic cancer. Those sixteen days between the diagnosis and his death were intense, traumatic and wrenching but also filled with blessed moments. Several weeks after his memorial service, I began to panic that I would forget many of the details of those two weeks as time passed with its inevitable slippage of memories. I wanted to hold on to those details and to be able to revisit in the future the preciousness of those final days that we had together. It was similar to how we value picture albums that contain treasured memories.

I started writing. It was as if my heart had broken open and the material poured out of it. Quite spontaneously, I began to integrate vignettes or flashbacks of experiences that we had over our thirty-three years as a couple. I wrote almost non-stop for six weeks. I had to remind myself to eat and to sleep. I intended it only as a record for myself with no one else ever reading it. A few close friends learned of it and asked to see it. I agreed. Then, with my permission, they started circulating the manuscript more broadly. People kept telling me two things: this could be helpful for others dealing with the death of a loved one, and secondly, this is an incredible gay love story that should be shared. After a year of cajoling from friends, I agreed to have it published. August Farewell has now been read by thousands of people around the world.

Though writing August Farewell had somewhat of a cathartic effect in helping me with Bill’s death, I was still convulsed with feelings of loss. His had been the culmination of a series of family deaths over a relatively short few years including the suicide of my younger brother and the deaths of my parents and Bill’s parents. I was now alone, had time on my hands having recently retired, and had the tranquility and solitude of our home.

Writing had always been a passion of mine and a source of creative nourishment for me. I came up with the idea to write a piece of fiction—something I had never done—through which I could continue grappling with the psychological and emotional challenges of all these family deaths and the end of my professional career with retirement. I thought that tackling fiction would be stimulating for me intellectually and artistically. Indeed it was. I loved the process of working primarily from my imagination—there was a kind of liberation from the strictures of non-fiction work such as the five academic books on environmental ethics that I had written during my working life.

The novel Searching for Gilead was the result. There are autobiographical dimensions in it but more in terms of the themes that it deals with rather than the characters and plotlines. I worked intensely on the writing and, in contrast to August Farewell, I utilized the services of a professional editor. This being my first attempt at fiction, I decided that I could benefit from the guidance that an editor could bring. It took eighteen months and five drafts from when I began to write Searching for Gilead to when I was holding the published copy in my hands.

After the novel came out, I started to experience an intense thirst for other people’s writing. I had always been a voracious reader but during the work on August Farewell and Searching for Gilead I had done almost no reading. All my available time had been occupied with the writing. I now realized how much artistic nourishment I had been missing by not indulging in the rich and diverse stimulation of new and classic literature, particularly fiction. I jumped in with both feet and started to read for several hours a day, occasionally as much as eight or ten hours. It was, and continues to be, a major enrichment to the quality of my life.

In the back of my mind, I was casting around for what my next writing project might be and it occurred to me that I was holding the answer in my hands. As I say in the preface to Book Tales: “I love to read books. I love to write books. So I decided to write a book about reading books.” I wanted to continue pushing myself to develop my skills as a writer so I set myself the challenge of trying my hand at the short story genre. In each of the stories in Book Tales, the plot revolves in one way or another around the characters’ interaction with a piece of literature. Combining fiction, creative non-fiction, and semi-fictionalized autobiography, I crafted tales that hopefully draw readers into my characters’ complex lives using the lens of books such as Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky, John Le Carré’s The Constant Gardener, E. M. Forster’s Maurice, Patricia Nell Warren’s The Front Runner, Robertson Davies’s Fifth Business, and my own memoir August Farewell. Some of the stories focus specifically on the literary work. In others, the role of the book in the plot is quite subtle.

I reread all the novels that I was using in the short stories plus background books on the authors’ lives and times. In addition, I was continuing to read many other books, especially newly published novels, that had nothing to do with my writing project. The net effect of integrating so much reading time into my daily schedule was that the writing of Book Tales took about four years since I was not concentrating on it 24/7 as I had been with August Farewell and Searching for Gilead.

So, six weeks to write the 165-page memoir August Farewell. Eighteen months to write the 375-page novel Searching for Gilead. And four years to write the 175-page collection of short stories Book Tales. Such wide variation doesn’t seem logical but that is how it happened. In each case, the pace of writing felt intrinsic to the specific writing project and appropriate given what was happening in my life personally and socially and how I was feeling emotionally and psychologically.

I love writing and reading and writing and reading and …

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For more information on my writing, please visit my website at: http://DavidGHallman.com

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Parallels in Grief

I have a complicated relationship with Canadian poet and novelist Helen Humphreys’ poignant memoir Nocturne – On the Life and Death of My Brother.

I met Humphreys at a literary event and we had a conversation about the parallels in our lives:

  • She lost her brother to pancreatic cancer;
  • I lost my long-term partner Bill to pancreatic cancer; I also know the grief of losing a brother – my brother (we were only thirteen months apart in age) committed suicide in the same year that Bill died;
  • Music and literature play a big role in Humphreys’ life: she is an author and her brother was a concert pianist;
  • Music and literature play a big role in my life: I am a writer and play the piano and Bill was a teacher of piano and voice;
  • Humphreys wrote Nocturne in part as a way to process her grief on the loss of her brother;
  • I wrote my memoir August Farewell – the last sixteen days of a thirty-three year romance in part as a way to process my grief on the loss of Bill;
  • Humphreys is a lesbian and I am a gay man.

I have highlighted many of Humphreys’ sentences and paragraphs in my copy of Nocturne because of their resonance with my experiences:

  • “One of the things I learned about death is that it makes you behave in ways you never thought you would.”
  • “The music to which you’d given your life sustained you while you were dying.”
  • “We all give our lives to something, and our lives are taken from us at some point. We are lucky if what we devote ourselves to can offer some comfort at the end.”
  • “ ‘I’m not afraid to die,’ you said. ‘I just don’t want to.’ “
  • “I’ve been thinking about the human soul, about the presence of the unseen in our lives, about how, the moment you died, I felt you leave. What was it that left? And why did I feel that you did leave? It wasn’t simply that a light was turned off, that your consciousness stopped, but rather that you moved swiftly from your dead body and went somewhere else. But where did you go?”

Helen Humphreys knows that life goes on.

I continue to write. I continue to read. I continue to listen to and play music. I continue to love. I know that life goes on.

But for both Helen and me, life continues under a shadow.

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Information on Helen Humphreys’ writing is on her website at: http://www.hhumphreys.com

Information on my writing is on my website at: http://www.DavidGHallman.com

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Writing and Reading: Capturing complexity in Anne Enright’s “The Green Road”

“That’s an excellent question! You really grasped the essence of Rosaleen,” Irish writer Anne Enright exclaimed.

I was near the back of the theatre at the 2015 International Festival of Authors in Toronto. The audience Q&A was winding down at the end of a panel session in which Enright and several other novelists had been discussing their recent works.

I got the moderator’s attention and posed my comment/question to Enright: “You have drawn Rosaleen, the mother character in your exquisite novel “The Green Road,” as such a complex character. At least that’s how I experienced her, especially in the final climactic chapters. She relates to her adult children in an irritating passive-aggressive manner hurtling guilt-ridden barbs at each of them for what she perceives as their abandonment of her. As a reader, I identified totally with the frustration that her children were experiencing. And then Rosaleen goes off, disappearing into the countryside, and we see this incredibly vulnerable and fragile woman prepared to lie down and die, not out of vindictiveness toward her family but out of genuine despair at the loneliness and aridness of how her life is shrinking. And suddenly, you have me as the reader, in deep sympathy for her. How did you manage to create such a complex character that we find ourselves simultaneously irritated by and weeping for?”

Enright replied, “That’s an excellent question! You really grasped the essence of Rosaleen.” I was thrilled. Esteemed author Anne Enright, winner of the Man Booker Prize for her previous novel “The Gathering,” was complimenting my perceptiveness. I know… I’m easily flattered. But when a writer whom I hold in high regard talks with me as a peer … well, that’s terrific.

I learned as our conversation continued that for Enright, there was some degree of planned intentionality about creating the complexity of Rosaleen, but by in large it emerged for her spontaneously. Enright said that she had procrastinated writing much about Rosaleen because she knew that the character was going to have to be so multidimensional. She wrote most of the rest of the novel and fleshed out the other characters before tackling her. But when she began with Rosaleen, especially in the climactic finale, it just flowed. She knew what she had to write and how. In one sense, it was already formed in her mind after she had laid down the rest of the story, and in another sense it was emerging spontaneously from her imagination. She did little rewriting of those final scenes. Creating Rosaleen was one of the most satisfying occasions of her writing career.

“Thank you so much for asking your question. I’m glad that I got an opportunity to share that experience.”

As I said, I was thrilled by our little exchange. Reading fine literature is such a source of enrichment for me. Encountering and being able to dialogue with the creators of fine literature deepens my appreciation for the product, the writer and the craft, all of which encourages me further in my own writing. Intellectually and artistically, it doesn’t get much better than that.

The Green Road

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For information on my writing, see my website at http://DavidGHallman.com

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How do I want to die? Reflections on Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal – Medicine and What Matters in the End”

IMG_3109Many of the case studies and personal experiences that surgeon and writer Atul Gawande depicts in his new book “Being Mortal” resonated with my own recent history of the deaths of my family members.

Gawande talks about patients with whom he worked during their struggles with ultimately incurable diseases. He carries us with him as he, despite his professional expertise, describes his sense of inadequacy when he accompanies his own father in his last years, months, weeks and days.

All the way through my reading of “Being Mortal,” my mind and heart were constantly flipping between the text on the page and the searing memories of the end-of-life for my parents, my partner Bill’s parents, my younger brother who committed suicide and Bill’s two weeks between his diagnosis with pancreatic cancer and his death.

Gawande has five themes, at least as I read his book. Firstly, we can do so much better than we are in facilitating an enriching lifestyle for aging persons so that they can retain autonomy and engagement in life-enhancing interactions with family, community and society, a key element in retaining a sense of purpose and meaning. This applies even to those with cognitive impairment as Gawande illustrates with detailed examples. Secondly, our social and health care systems need to retreat from trying to medicalize every problem utilizing extreme measures to keep people alive regardless of the quality of their living. Thirdly, families and professionals need to relinquish their fear of losing the dying person and refocus on helping them access whatever supports are necessary for spending their remaining time as they want to. Fourthly, in order to clarify for both the dying person and ourselves what their priorities are, we all need to have the courage to initiate THE CONVERSATION, asking the questions that surface what is most important to them for the amount of time that they have left. And fifthly, what we learn in helping shape options for sustaining the greatest possible meaning and engagement in life for our dying loved ones can help us prepare the ground for what we want for ourselves when our time comes.

And so, as I read through Gawande’s wonderfully thought-provoking and accessible contribution to this pressing societal issue, my mind was being cast not only backwards to my experiences with all those family members whose dying I accompanied but also forward to what I will want for myself and what I need to put in place to increase the likelihood of having as a good a quality of dying as possible.

That is not to say, obviously, that I can determine everything in advance. But as Gawande writes, “you many not control life’s circumstances, but getting to be the author of our life means getting to control what you do with them.”

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Info on Atul Gawande’s “Being Mortal” at: http://atulgawande.com/book/being-mortal/

Info on my memoir “August Farewell” and my novel “Searching for Gilead” at: http://DavidGHallman.com

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So Much Said in Silence – the new novels of Marilynne Robinson and Colm Tóibín

I was in the back row of the theatre when Marilynne Robinson and Colm Tóibín sat down with the CBC’s Eleanor Wachtel for a panel discussion at the 2014 International Festival of Authors (IFOA) in Toronto. Sitting on the aisle in the back row, to be precise, is my preferred location at many events (the exceptions being movies and musical presentations), in part for the pragmatic reason of being able to slip out quickly at the end and not be trapped by the departing crowd. But more so, it’s so that I can be alone in my thoughts, to absorb the input from the presenters without the complication of having to discuss it with a talkative person who has taken the seat next me. I seek and create the circumstances for solitude.

In the IFOA conversation between Robinson, Tóibín and Wachtel, one of the themes that emerged was the importance of solitude and loneliness. Tóibín said that one gains a great deal from loneliness, especially in circumstances of loss, that’s not possible if one is in constant chatter with others. Robinson observed that loneliness is a kind of passion for her, that she cultivates loneliness. Robinson believes that loneliness is essential for understanding and creating one’s identity so as not to be dependent on others for your own self-definition.

At that point, I had not yet read Marilynne Robinson’s newest novel “Lila” though I was anxious to having read and adored her earlier novel “Gilead.” The same was true for Colm Tóibín’s new work “Nora Webster.” I had previously read and enjoyed much of Tóibín’s writing and was looking forward to this new one.

“Lila” and “Nora Webster” did not disappoint me. Both novels thrilled me, largely because they are such quiet works—the characters not speaking of much of what goes on. So much is said in the silences.

This is not to suggest that the principal characters exist in isolation from significant others or from community. Young Lila and her much older husband John Ames have an intense relationship despite the differences in age, education, socio-economic and cultural background. They are bound to each other by a mutual attraction that is as much metaphysical as it is physical. Nora Webster, struggling to redefine herself as a person and as a mother after the death of her husband, finds new life not through family or neighbours in her repressive Irish town but rather through the music that she relishes in a small musical society and with her vocal teacher, a community of people whose souls are enlivened by the arts.

Telling a compelling story through silences and through what is left unspoken takes enormous skill on the part of a writer. Robinson and Tóibín are such writers.

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The IFOA conversation between Marilynne Robinson and Colm Tóibín can be heard at Writers & Company: Marilynne Robinson & Colm Tóibín – CBC.

Information on my memoir “August Farewell” and my novel “Searching for Gilead” can be found on my website at DavidGHallman.com

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…from another Forster fan

I met South African writer Damon Galgut at the 2014 International Festival of Authors (IFOA) in Toronto where he was on several panels reading from and discussing his new novel “Arctic Spring.” Two of Galgut’s previous novels, “The Good Doctor” and “In A Strange Room,” have been Man Booker Prize finalists.

The timing couldn’t have been more propitious. I was at work at the time on a short story in which I recount English author E.M. Forster’s life leading up to and including his writing of his novel “Maurice,” his one explicitly gay novel. Galgut’s novel “Arctic Spring” is a semi-fictionalized take on the years 1912 to 1924 during which Forster was working on his novel “Passage to India.” It was during this period that he also wrote “Maurice.”

The grey area between fiction and non-fiction intrigues me. One of the most widely read contemporary excavators of this terrain is Hilary Mantel with her Oliver Cromwell novels “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies.” This mixed-genre seems to go by various names such as creative nonfiction, literary nonfiction, narrative nonfiction and the somewhat distinct but related historical fiction.

With my short story “Morgan and Maurice,” I was interested not only in depicting the biographical elements in Forster’s life that led up to his writing of the novel but also the dynamics behind his decision not to allow it to be published during his lifetime. I tried a number of structures and approaches before settling on a straightforward recounting of Forster’s life up to 1913 when he wrote “Maurice” and then adding an epilogue in which Forster is in an imagined conversation with the character Maurice. Or to put it more specifically, Maurice chastises Morgan for his reluctance to allow the story out into the reading public for fifty-five years and through their conversation Forster has an opportunity to present the case for his decision.

Galgut has more guts and considerably more skill than I do. His whole novel “Arctic Summer,” while based on the known historical elements of Forster’s life, is a free-flowing journey through those years 1912 to 1924 when he was working on “Passage to India” as experienced from within the skin of the great novelist himself. Having done considerable research myself in preparation for writing “Morgan and Maurice,” reading Galgut’s “Arctic Summer” has been like a protracted and uninhibited conversation with a dear friend who was prepared to share the joy and pain that went into the creation of that work of art.

My copy of “Arctic Summer” bears the inscription: “For David – with very best wishes from another Forster fan, Damon Galgut, Toronto, 26 Oct 2014” – a lovely memento of an inspiring conversation with a very gifted writer.

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