Interview with Madeleine Thien


Madeleine-Thien PhotoInterview by Alison Petrovich

When reading Dogs at the Perimeter, I found it really terrifying that a political leader such as Pol Pot could have so much power. How did you go about researching such a topic and what obstacles did you encounter? ‬

I’m not sure that Pol Pot’s power is the greatest disturbance. No genocide in history has been committed, single-handedly, by one person or leader. In every case, groups, classes, races or segments of society are targeted as impure elements; they are targeted as enemies of the people. How this happens, how society creates the conditions for genocide, how quickly we allow ourselves to buy into the dehumanization of our fellow human beings, is a question that should trouble all of us.

Specific to Cambodia: the country attempted to remain neutral during the Vietnam War but in 1970, the Prime Minister was removed in a coup backed by the CIA. Within 5 years, the United States had dropped 2.7 million tonnes of bombs on Cambodia, a bombing that was illegal and therefore done secretly — it is illegal to bomb a neutral country.

The consequent civil war was devastating. The Khmer Rouge, led by a group of leaders, including Pol Pot, came to power in 1975, instigating violent upheaval to create what they termed a pure and self-reliant Communist utopia. Within four years, 1.7 million Cambodians lost their lives. Cambodia’s UN-backed tribunal has convicted Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan of crimes against humanity — but not Pol Pot, who passed away in 1998, nor Ieng Sary, who died in 2013.

The Canadian government, along with the United States and a number of Western governments, continued to support Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate representatives of the Cambodian people at the United Nations until 1993. We did this with full knowledge of the Cambodian genocide. Therefore, to answer your question, there is much in this story that is disturbing. Pol Pot, the individual, is just one piece.

Writing Dogs at the Perimeter took many years and a great deal of hard thinking. There were many obstacles, and for a long time I truly didn’t believe I would publish the novel. I decided to publish the book because I feel it has a place. The novel is only one small piece added to a much greater, still unfolding Cambodian story.

Lately women’s issues have been discussed in news and social media following Emma Watson’s UN speech and the recent catcalling video filmed in New York. In your opinion, what is the most important issue for women that we should be focusing on right now?

For me, the most pressing concern in Canada is the rights of First Nations peoples and the way injustice, historical and everyday, remains invisible. We have a very narrow sense of our country, its people, and the geography of Canada. Our problems are structural and they are deep. Equality and respect, and the discussions we need to have with one another, should involve all of us. But certain voices and certain frames of experience — male and female — are privileged, and get replicated over and over and over again.

Who has the privilege to direct the conversation, to access media centres, to edit, cut, distort, deny and erase the complex experiences of six billion people, male and female? This question troubles me a great deal.

When you first come up with a new idea for a story, is it immediately obvious if it should take the form of a short story or a novel? What aspects influences your decision of what form it will take?‬

Nothing is immediately clear, but the question of short story or novel has never been a pressing or difficult one for me. I’m usually thinking through an idea and a world, and trying to see more and more. For me, a novel feels very different from a story, just as there’s a great difference, in intention, between a cup of water and a river.

‪What are some of your favorite recent works in Canadian literature? Is there anything that you would like to see more of or less of in Canadian literature?‬

I read widely, I want to be taken up by the writer, I want to immerse in the world and the thinking they have created. I think there’s a immeasurable distance between a writer who, through precise observation and artistic flexibility, creates a world in all its contradictions, paradoxes and states of being, and a writer who cynically falsifies a world. There’s a great deal of the latter, of course, but I find their works fairly easy to avoid. There’s a great deal of the former, fortunately.

The books I’ve loved most recently are Canadian and not Canadian, Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know, Rawi Hage’s Carnival, Doris Lessing’s Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, John Asfour’s Blindfold, Dung Kai-cheung’s Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City, Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s Heavenly Questions, Pankaj Mishra’s From the Ruins of Empire, Dionne Brand’s Love, Enough, Matt Rader’s What I Want to Say Goes Like This, Aaron Copland’s What to Listen for in Music. Today I’m reading Johanna Skibsrud’s Quartet for the End of Time.