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University of Iowa News Release

 

Oct. 28, 2008

Thien's novel was inspired by dark events in family history

Madeleine Thien, Canada's representative in the 2008 University of Iowa International Writing Program (IWP), is the daughter of Malaysian-Chinese immigrants. Her debut novel, "Certainty" -- winner of the 2006 First Novel Award from Books in Canada and a finalist for the Kiriyama Prize -- was inspired by a dark and mysterious chapter of her family's history.

"My father was five at the end of World War II, and his father disappeared," she says. "The story I heard was that he was murdered because he knew a great deal about the war crimes that had taken place, so when the Japanese surrendered he was killed."

The town where her father's family lived in Malaysia was notorious for its prisoner of war camp where, out of 3,000 British and Australian prisoners who were incarcerated, only six escapees survived.

After the war, she explained, the events there became largely forgotten. Bombs had obliterated the town, and the area then suffered through a crippling famine. As she says, "Because they were poor, they had less materially to lose, but also less help to survive. The next few years were just about surviving."

Although she was drawn to this dark story from the past, Thien had little to go on. Her parents, struggling to prosper in a new country, didn't want to talk about the painful past. "It was mostly silence," she says. "Mostly what I remember from when we were young is that we moved a lot. We moved because my parents were having a hard time financially. I think what I have been doing is writing against that inability to speak."

And yet, even though that inspiration resulted in a novel, that past remains opaque. "When I started I thought it would be much more clear-cut, that it would be about what I did find out," she says. "But in fact I found out almost nothing, so the book went off in another direction."

The novel portrays six Canadian-immigrant characters from widely different backgrounds, including Dutch, Malay, Indonesian and Chinese, and turned out to be about, "What you can know and you can't know about the people you love."

Thien was born in Vancouver, and grew up speaking English. But she recently spent two years living in the north of the Netherlands, which provided new insight into the challenges of the kind of immigrant experience her parents confronted. "It was a really humbling experience," she says. "Where I lived in the Netherlands was in the north, in Friesland. And actually not many people spoke English, so it's quite different from Amsterdam.

"My Dutch is okay, but at first I was speaking more of a childlike Dutch, and I couldn't express myself in a way I was used to. There is a difference then in the way that people then perceive you. It definitely taught me about what it means to leave behind one part of yourself and make in new life in another place. People already know the kinds of things you are leaving behind -- family, financial stability, security -- but you are also leaving big parts of your identity that you can no longer express."

Thien is in residency at the IWP through the support of the Quebec Arts Council and other sources.

Biographies of the writers in residence this fall at the IWP are accessible at http://iwp.uiowa.edu/writers/index.html.

For UI arts information and calendar updates visit http://www.uiowa.edu/artsiowa. To receive UI arts news by e-mail, go to http://list.uiowa.edu/archives/acr-news.html and click the link "Join or Leave ACR News," then follow the instructions.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Arts Center Relations, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 351, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACTS: Hugh Ferrer, IWP, hugh-ferrer@uiowa.edu; Winston Barclay, Arts Center Relations, 319-384-0073, winston-barclay@uiowa.edu.

 

For UI arts information and calendar updates, visit http://www.uiowa.edu/artsiowa. To receive UI arts news by e-mail, go to http://list.uiowa.edu/archives/acr-news.html and click the link "Join or Leave ACR News," then follow the instructions.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Arts Center Relations, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 351, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACT: Winston Barclay, 319-384-0073 (office), 310-430-1013 (cell), winston-barclay@uiowa.edu