Living as Sparrow, Swirl and Wen the Dreamer in Communist China, with Madeleine Thien

Book Reviews, Fiction

“One thing I have learned, dear Sparrow, is that light is never still and solid and so it is with love. Light can be split into many directions. Its nature is to break apart.”

I’m not sure where I should start after reading Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Amazon | Indie Bound) but here are three things I know: 1) reading a story that challenges your own political ideology is tricky, 2) it takes a great storyteller to illustrate the complexity and intimacy — really, the humanity — of the other side, and 3) that the author was fully able to transcend point no. 1 and effectively accomplish point no. 2.

(Note: Spoilers ahead.)

It is the story of an inter-generational  Chinese multi-family, a sweeping epic of politics, love and music. It is an intimate look at how the characters dealt with living in Communist China before, during and after the Great Proletarian Revolution, the demonstrations and the massacre at Tiananmen Square, all the way to Canada for a life of quiet and refuge.

What enamored me even more with Thien’s masterpiece is how at the intersection of these families is a piece of delicate literature, the mysterious “Book of Records” which has been passed down from generation to generation. It was an exhilarating and heartbreaking read, the kind that stays with you for days. Even now as I write this review, I can still remember certain scenes in my head: Sparrow at the Conservatory and then at the factories, Swirl and Wen the Dreamer on the run, Big Mother Knife on the train back home to Ba Lute.

The book begins with Marie, a ten-year old girl who lives in Canada with her mother. After learning about her father’s (Kai) suicide in Hongkong, she grieves and recalls the most tender moments with him. Soon, the family of two receives a visitor, Ai-Ming, the daughter of Kai’s old friend, Sparrow. It is through Ai-Ming that Marie learns about Communist China, the friendship of their fathers and one of the reasons why Ai-Ming left.

Ai-Ming hesitated for a long time before answering. Finally, she told me about days and nights when more than a million people had come to Square. Students had begun a hunger strike that lasted seven days and Ai-ming herself had spent nights on the concrete, sleeping beside her best friend, Yiwen. They sat in the open, with almost nothing to shelter them from the sun or rain. During those six weeks of demonstrations, she had felt at home in China; she had understood, for the first time, what it felt to look at her country through her own eyes and her own history, to come awake alongside million of others. She didn’t want to be her own still river, she wished to be a part of the ocean.

CHINA-BEIJING SPRING-DEMO

In a time when protests are erupting all over the country against Trump’s fascist regime, there were moments when I identified with Ai-Ming and her generation’s struggle for democracy. At the same time, she was living in a much different context, with an entirely different form of government. What was clear to me though was the power of people, (specifically students) en masse to mobilize against the state, a ripple in the fabric of Ai-Ming’s generation heard throughout the world.

But the story started way before the massacre, the protests and the hunger strike at Tiananmen Square. The story started right after the Communist revolution in China, when the Party led by Mao Zedong gained control. Revolutionary fervor was high, and Thien gave a glimpse of this vividly through a family living in Shanghai. There was Big Mother Knife, a matriarch, married to Ba Lute who was a Party cadre with their children Sparrow, a gifted composer and the younger brothers, Flying Bear and Da Shan. There was Big Mother’s sister Swirl, her husband Wen the Dreamer and their daughter, Zhuli. And there was Kai, a friend of both Zhuli and Sparrow. These characters all take center stage at some point in the book, overlapping and seamlessly weaving into one another. But first, a few basics.

tumblr_oc480ov3ie1vqv97bo1_r4_1280