Vancouver International Writers & Readers Festival presents Madeleine Thien, author of Dogs at the Perimeter

Madeleine Thien. Photo credit: Rawi Hage

Vancouver born Madeleine Thien has written a book that acts upon the mind with the disturbing power of a dream from which one cannot turn away.

As the novel’s narrator, Janie, searches for her friend and mentor, Hiroji, she finds herself remembering her girlhood and final flight from Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, for whom memory itself was an enemy of the revolution. And because we are so deeply inside the narrator’s experience, we ourselves are guilty of the crime of remembering. And yet it is someone else’s life.

Or is it?

Thein says that of her three books of fiction, this was the hardest for her to write, not only because of what happened in the years the novel covers, but also because she was troubled with doubt all through the writing process.

“I doubted I had the capacity to write it, that I should be writing it,” she says. “Not being Cambodian, not knowing the culture as an insider. I had an almost built in sense that the words would never be enough.

“I wanted it to be a book that would speak truthfully to that experience not only to people coming to it from outside, but also a book with integrity for those who’d experienced it.”

And what was the response?

“There was a great generosity in that they would even read the book. It’s not something they wanted to open up in their lives again. I’ve had amazing responses from the children of people who lived through the genocide and couldn’t speak about it. And from journalists who covered the war in the 70s. The first audience was the people it touched, the people who lived it.”

Thien made her first trip to Cambodia in 2007. It was during her second visit that she started writing the novel.

“I didn’t know what I was writing, where it was going,” she says. “Over time the characters solidified.

“Hiroji was the character that came first. I knew his brother had disappeared. I didn’t think any part would be set during the genocide. Then I realized it was impossible not to [deal with] the mechanics of what happened, the way the cities were emptied and families were broken apart, the prisons, the whole ideology that was just laid down into every aspect of people’s lives.

“Then Janie emerged. I thought she would be the teller of the story, not tell her own story. She was there from the beginning, but it took her longer to reveal things about herself. It’s hard for her to express herself. I don’t know how fully conscious it is—how much a memory is contained or unfolding in her mind.”

Which has everything to do with the novel’s structure.

Thien wrote the first draft, working nine or ten hours a day over a period of three months. At the end of each day, she would go out walking in the Cambodian evenings.

“In a strange way, it was a reflection of what I was experiencing as I wrote the book,” she says. “The characters were incredibly present to me. They were the most real to me that I’d ever written. The shape and the order emerged from the beginning. I was following Janie. There was only one place for her to go—the restructuring of the James/Hiroji story. That’s the way it was.”

When her editor read the first draft, she was excited about the book, but felt that the parts in Cambodia overshadowed the parts about Janie’s son and husband.

“That’s probably still true,” Thien says, “but it’s where Janie is in her thinking. So much needs to be resolved in her mind before she goes back to her son and her husband.

“I was trying to hit that very delicate line of everything just barely coming together. For an editor that’s difficult. Many want a novel to be more accessible—not having to go back and check things. I was willing to let that be the way this novel would need to be read.”

What made Madeleine Thien a writer?

“I was a shy child in public situations and at school, painfully shy,” she says. “Writing was so liberating; it just came. It was like talking to myself. It’s how I learned to be myself to myself. Then as I got older—I don’t know what it was about adolescence—I wanted to be someone other than myself. Writing allowed me not to be me, to experience the world through another way of thinking or looking at things—a mixture of freedom and working against the awareness that your life is so finite, a way to push back against that.”

Madeleine Thien will be participating in two events at the VIWF: #7 Grand Openings, on Tuesday, October 18 and # 21 Rich With History, on Wednesday, October 19.

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