The Japanese proverb, “The nail that sticks out shall be hammered down,” kept popping into my head as I read Madeleine Thien’s brilliant novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing*. The novel follows three generations of two Chinese families. Each generation includes extremely talented musicians, authors, and mathematicians, who had the misfortune of living in China during its most turbulent periods of the twentieth century. The oldest generation survives the Japanese invasion and the civil war after. The middle generation has to contend with the Cultural Revolution. The last generation comes of age during the student protests in Tiananmen Square and the Chinese diaspora. This book is beautifully written and structured; I marveled at Thien’s talent.
The novel opens in the early 1990s, when Marie Jiang’s father commits suicide in Hong Kong. His death baffles, angers, and saddens her. She never knew much about his life. He never talked much about what happened to him in China and why he left. After all, he had a fairly good life as a member of the Chinese Philharmonic Orchestra. Marie doesn’t make much headway in understanding her father until the daughter of her father’s lifelong friend, Ai-Ming, shows up in Canada after the Tiananmen Square protests. Ai-Ming knows some of the history of their linked families and, as she relates them to Marie, the younger girl slowly starts to understand her father and her heritage.
Ai-Ming’s stories pivot around two creative works by her great-uncle and her father. The Book of Records is a popular novel that is only passed on as samizdat, written by Wen the Dreamer. Ai-Ming’s father, Sparrow, wrote two and a half symphonies that were never performed during his life because they were politically unacceptable. Ai-Ming’s family use the novel and their music to code information to talk to each other as they are separated over and over by events or labor camp sentences. Because of their talents, some members of this family stick out like the proverbial nails and they are hammered down so hard that they never quite recover. Each generation learns how to survive their chaotic country and tries to pass on their lessons to their children, who usually don’t learn in time what is worth fighting for and what is not.
Over and over, characters in the novel make records, hide instruments and literature, and preserve the past for future generations—again, whether they appreciate it or not. It isn’t until Marie’s generation that the past becomes important, because she is so cut off from her extended Chinese family. Fortunately for her, there are characters like the Old Cat, who believes:
“The things you experience,” she continued, “are written on your cells as memories and patterns, which are reprinted again on the next generation. And even if you never lift a shovel or plant a cabbage, every day of your life something is written upon you. And when you die, the entirety of that written record returns to the earth. All we have on this earth, all we are, is a record. Maybe the only things that persist are not the evildoers and demons (though, admittedly, they do have a certain longevity) but copies of things. The original has long since passed away from this universe, but on and on we copy. I have devoted my minuscule life to the act of copying.” (235**)
The records in Marie and Ai-Ming’s family are literal documents, rather than more ephemeral memories. The symphonies and the Book of Records, along with letters, capture moments in the families’ histories that help explain why family members are the way they and why they did what they did.
I’m not sure if Marie ever gets the full story of why her father died (in terms of the chain of events from the older generation to the present). We do, because this book does deep dives into the critical months and years as the geniuses in the family try not to be hammered into the ground. I loved the way Thien built up the layers of this novel, building up themes of compromising values in order to survive turmoil, finding lines in the sand one will not cross, and understanding how the traumas of parents and grandparents shapes the next generations. It’s heartbreaking to watch the nails of each generation try to dodge the hammer or stubbornly refuse to dodge.
This is one of the most skillfully and beautifully written books I’ve read for a long time.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to readers who don’t understand their parents.
* The title is translated from a lyric in the Chinese version of The Internationale.
** Quote is from the 2016 hardcover edition by W.W. Norton and Company.