Am Johal: One of the things with being a Canadian writer, and also being a visible minority, if you gain access in an area that lacks diversity, the media can sometimes place you in a box, like give you a hyphenated name. Did you have challenges with the way the work was received, mediated and looked at?
Madeleine Thien: I was lucky because my publisher presented my work as one by a young Canadian author, so there was less pressure to represent a particular community. The focus placed me in a wider literary context than a narrower context of minority Canadian writers. In a way that was better for me — it meant I could talk about my work in a variety of ways rather than have it be representative of one community only. As a writer, you feel that the world is your subject, and you feel protective about that. Simple Recipes was about immigrants, but it was as much about class and poverty, about struggling parents, having to get by in their different ways.
AJ: What were some of your influences and interests in engaging with these themes in your novel?
MT: Certainty is about the aftermath of war. Part of the novel takes place on the last day of the Second World War, before the town of Sandakan is liberated. After this day, the two children, having lived through a devastating experience, try to make their own destinies. The book is about choices and consequences, about belief, death and the losses we experience in our lives, and what we can and can’t be certain about. In terms of influences, I read a lot, people like Hannah Arendt, Cees Nooteboom. There were many stories layered into this book, but to me it all made sense, it had a kind of wholeness to it.
AJ: Your novel seems to be influenced by the trauma of displacement. How did this theme play into your novel?
MT: Sandakan, the town that I write about, was completely destroyed during the war. So the pre-war world literally ceased to exist for these characters. They try to rebuild their lives in other ways, with other people, in different countries. There is a war photographer, Sipke Vermeulen. He comes to Jakarta, tries to find a way to live with the extreme violence and brutality he has witnessed. It surprises him when, suddenly, he begins to feel at home. He makes that choice. I think, for him, displacement becomes a state of mind. At some point, you have to choose to make a home, to create a place that could be home, that might be true of a lot of immigrants. They are displaced, but at some point, it’s simply choosing to set yourself down in the world.
AJ: You probably walk in the narrative footsteps of Ondaatje, given the themes he works with and being Canadian.
MT: I’ve never seen anyone do what he does, very few writers speak to me in that way. Reading The English Patient showed me that stories could be told this way. I recognized a voice that felt instinctually right. In Germany, someone told me that my characters didn’t feel ethnic enough, their names were too English etc. There were historical reasons for that, as North Borneo was a British colony and the character in question had been educated in a Catholic mission school. My only defence is, I don’t approach my characters from the outside point of view. I want to put you in their skin, the distance is compressed to as small a space as possible. We drift into the souls of these characters, their humanity.
AJ: Your views of now living in Quebec City and Montreal? What do you think of that reasonable accommodation debate?
MT: I lived in Quebec City for two years and am now in Montreal, but I have a transient existence. I loved Quebec City, but I didn’t feel at home there. Growing up in a cosmopolitan city like Vancouver, [Quebec City] is an old French town and not multicultural.
I think there is a danger when you see yourself as part of a group, and the group, or the tribe, is an integral part of your identity. It’s affects how you view others, because they become representatives of their tribe. I find the debate about “reasonable accommodation” disappointing. There’s not a huge problem with integration here in Quebec. We all speak French. When I think of multi-culturalism and First Nations history, it has defined this country, the balance of majority and minority rights has defined this country. There is a lot of fear behind this debate. I just don’t understand what problem this debate is trying to solve. I wonder why, you know, why is the headscarf on the little Muslim girl playing soccer going to choke her only in Quebec?
AJ: What is the reality of being a working writer in Canada?
MT: It is difficult to make a living if you only sell books in Canada. It’s possible for some writers but we don’t have a huge market. We have an amazing literary tradition and there’s so many great writers here. But, I can only make a living because I have publishers in other countries.
Something happened about 15 years ago, things opened up for Canadian writers, doors opened. Maybe it’s also changed our literature, we perceive ourselves as not having borders, we feel comfortable telling stories across borders. It’s a good thing for literature and I think it has had a positive effect.
AJ: The George W. Bush administration, all this displacement happening, terrorism, did this context of contemporary world events impact your writing while you were working with these post-war themes?
MT: Everything that was happening, it definitely affected the tone and direction, the frustration I felt as I was working. It was really painful, describing this town, Sandakan, the wholesale destruction of this town, this bombing, while the bombing was happening in Iraq, definitely. I was writing about the past, but the past didn’t seem that far removed from now.