Sunday, May 29, 2011

Out-of-Town Authors: Madeleine Thien

Novelist turns loss inside out in new book about survivors of Khmer Rouge regime

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
by: Ariel Gordon

Montreal-based writer Madeleine Thien's work has been translated into more than 16 languages. In 2010, Thien received Romania's Ovid Festival Prize, awarded each year to an international writer of promise.

This year sees the release of her second novel, which focuses on survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia.

Thien will launch Dogs at the Perimeter Monday at McNally Robinson Booksellers.

* * *

1) As a writer (someone whose artistic practice is predicated on time spent alone), how do you approach performance? What do you get out of it?

I've been sifting through the book, reading things aloud, looking for the parts that will speak. By nature, I'm shy, but I've thought so deeply about this novel that I'm incredibly happy to have the chance to introduce it, to talk about it. At the events themselves, I find I learn a great deal from the many conversations that ensue.

2) What do you want people to know about Dogs at the Perimeter?

The Khmer Rouge told people that they were alone, that they were powerless to protect those they loved, that only the regime could save them. My novel is an attempt to confront this atomization, this breakage, and to defy it. Disappearance permeates the book, but disappearance is also turned inside out.

The narrator, Janie, attempts to make sense of the fractures in her life by telling the story of two lost brothers, Hiroji and James Matsui; she disappears into their stories and, in so doing, hopes to survive.

3) Will this be your first time in Winnipeg? What have you heard?

One of the first readings I ever did was in Winnipeg, back in 2001. I love the city (it's where, in 2006, I met my partner, who is also a novelist). Friends have told me that the theatre scene and theatre community are extraordinary.

4) What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?

I'm reading a truly great reportage, All That We Say is Ours: Guujaaw and the Reawakening of the Haida Nation.

Right now, I'm finishing a long essay on the American mid-Atlantic and South. It's part of an ongoing conversation between myself and seven international writers who were invited to tour the United States in early April.

As I've been writing, the essays of the American novelist James Baldwin have become my northern light. He is both a brilliant and a brave thinker.

5) You've written about the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia and the Japanese occupation of Malaysia. How do you keep your research material from overwhelming you?

The research overwhelms. I think it's part of the nature of what I write, what challenges me, and what propels me. For this book, in particular, the more I wrote, the more I saw that a single book could never convey the magnitude of what happened. The Cambodian genocide is so complex, so multi-layered, so tied to other histories, that we need many books.

I tried to write a story that would carry Cambodian history a little further into a wider consciousness. I wanted to create characters who took on a life of their own, who would form a bond of friendship with the reader, and this would be my way of adding to the larger story.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.

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