When I was little, my father always urged me to read, whether simply reading children articles in the Sunday morning newspaper or actual books with no drawings in them. This prompted me to develop a hobby in reading that has carried on until now. The number of books I’ve read over the years has accumulated and among them, there is one book that changes my views on social issues, taboos, and history.
This impactful book is a historical fiction by a Canadian author, Madeleine Thien, called Do Not Say We Have Nothing. It tells the story of three generations of Chinese individuals who grew up during different times and upheld different views of life.
The book was told through the perspective of a Chinese-Canadian math professor named Marie. Marie, whose Mandarin name was Li-Ling, was the daughter of a Hong Kong-born mother and an ex-musician named Jiang-Kai who committed suicide near the Hong Kong-China border. Her father’s suicide set off a series of events during Marie’s childhood, one of which was the arrival of Ai-Ming, a girl involved in the Tiananmen Square protests and the unofficial niece of her father.
Through Ai-Ming, Marie learnt about her father’s past and his friends back in China. She learnt why her father had left and tried to go back to China, family secrets, and the suicide of a girl that her father unknowingly played a part in. This triggered adult-Marie to travel to China to learn more about her father, his friends, and Ai-Ming.
This book is so impactful to me due to my own family’s history and my previous unawareness of that history. I am a second generation of Chinese-Indonesian and my grandparents arrived in Indonesia by boat eighty years ago. Before reading this book, I barely had any interest in my background or ethnicity. I was ignorant. Reading this book opened my eyes to the recent history and made me understand my own feelings of detachment toward my motherland.
I relate to Li-Ling’s struggles to reconnect not only to his father but her own history as well. This book propelled me to discover the reason why my grandparents felt the need to start anew elsewhere. And for that, I see this book as more than just writings but pieces of someone else’s history that somehow mirrors my own.
Another reason is simply because of the issues presented and discussed in the story. It discusses old and new problems still apparent in today’s society. The harms of tyranny, the lasting effects of a closed-off community, homosexuality, mental health, and suicides are addressed in a way that neither exaggerates nor diminishes it. The book also raises concerns about the Chinese government’s wrongdoings during the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square protests. It presents the issues and criticises them in a subtle way that helps people with no previous knowledge of the issues understand. It’s a book with understanding within its pages.
In short, Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien is an impactful book to me for two main reasons. The first reason is that it urged me to discover my own family’s history and to stop being ignorant of it. The second reason is simply that it’s a book full of issues that hit close to home, a book that presents problems that struck a cord. And for these two reasons, I dare say I learn something from this book and that this book teaches me something.