In her Booker Prize-shortlisted Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Canadian author Madeleine Thien, the daughter of Malaysian-Chinese immigrants, offers a fresh look at the experience of exile. In Thien’s carefully crafted story, not only is her protagonist, Jiang Li-ling, suspended between two cultures, but also huge portions of history in one of those cultures, the Chinese, have been systematically erased.
In 1991, when Li-ling – or Marie, her English name – is twelve, she and her mother welcome a young girl named Ai-ming into their house in Vancouver. Ai-ming fled the bloody repression of the student protests in China two years earlier, and arrives on the back of a letter from her mother explaining that her and Marie’s fathers had been friends in China. Marie hardly knew her father: he killed himself in Hong Kong in 1989. It immediately becomes clear that Marie’s and Ai-ming’s families are linked by a fate that runs parallel to the country’s political developments. As the girls’ relationship deepens, Ai-ming unveils for her melancholy friend the intricate world of their respective ancestors.
Marie’s father, Jiang Kai, was a talented pianist and the sole survivor of a provincial family killed in the agrarian reforms of the 1950s. He became intimate friends with Ai-ming’s father, a composer named Sparrow, and his cousin, a female violinist named Zhuli, when all three were prodigies at