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  1. Book ImageDo Not Say We Have Nothing: A Novel

    Madeleine Thien

    Winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General's Literary Award
    Finalist for the Man Booker Prize and the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction


    "A powerfully expansive novel…Thien writes with the mastery of a conductor." —New York Times Book Review

Discussion Questions

 

  1. Why do you think the author chose this particular structure of alternating past and present, or of stories opening through doorways into other stories? What does the counterpoint structure imply about time’s relationships with music and history?
  2. Ai-Ming explains to Marie that during the protests in Tiananmen Square, Ai-Ming had “understood, for the first time, what it felt like to look at her country through her own eyes and her own history, to come awake alongside millions of others.” Why wasn’t this possible before?
  3. Explore the ideas of patriotism, complicity, and subversion in Do Not Say We Have Nothing. How do the characters relate to the Communist political regime? In what ways do they voice their fealty to the state, through sound or silence, and in what ways do they subvert the regime?
  4. The characters in the novel have deep relationships to music. How does their appreciation of music relate to idealism and revolution? How does the state’s treatment of music change throughout the novel?
  5. Tiananmen Square is referred to as the “zero point.” What does this mean? How does the mathematical concept of zero, an idea on which other numbers depend, manifest itself in the general novel? (292, 297, 463) Marie observes that “dividing by zero equals infinity” and that “a small thing never entirely disappears.” Is silence a form of nothingness or does it contain contradictory possibilities?
  6. At the conservatory, Sparrow views Zhuli’s and Kai’s ambitions with concern. Why? How is their conception of freedom and will different from his?
  7. How would you characterize the relationships between Sparrow, Kai, and Zhuli? Do you think Zhuli was in love with Kai? How did Sparrow and Kai think of each other? How might their relationships have evolved if they’d been allowed other kinds of freedom?
  8. Characters like Ba Lute and the president of the conservatory, He Luting, go from being hailed as Communist heroes and influential figures to being denounced as traitors. What forces are really at play? How do the Maoist slogans and practices, and ideas of goodness and violence, contradict themselves in the story?
  9. Comrade Glass Eye tells Sparrow, “I wonder which story [Wen the Dreamer] wanted you to hear. You know how it is: pull one thread, and the whole curtain unravels.” How is this remark true for the stories in the novel? What stories still remain untold? What questions are left unanswered?
  10. Jiang Kai suggests that the people from his village are part of a pattern that recurs, generation after generation. How does this cyclical nature manifest itself in the novel and in the generations, revolutions, and desires it explores? How might this be related to the structure of Bach and the recurring motifs of the Goldberg Variations?
  11. Examine the methods of storytelling. What is the purpose and significance of the Book of Records for the characters in Do Not Say We Have Nothing? How does story, in its different forms of music, mathematics, language, and history, relate to the idea of a story that remains unfinished, partial, fragmented, unheard, or ongoing?
  12. What do you think happens to Ai-Ming? Does Marie think she will ever find her? What do you think?

 

Watch: Novelist Madeleine Thien on her book Do Not Say We Have Nothing

About Madeleine Thien

Madeleine Thien is the author of three novels and a collection of stories, and her work has been translated into twenty-five languages. Her most recent novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. She lives in Montreal, Canada.

Books by Madeleine Thien

  1. Book CoverDo Not Say We Have Nothing: A Novel

    Winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General's Literary Award
    Finalist for the Man Booker Prize and the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction


    "A powerfully expansive novel…Thien writes with the mastery of a conductor." —New York Times Book ReviewMore

  2. Book CoverDogs at the Perimeter: A Novel

    The second novel by the Man Booker Prize shortlisted author Madeleine Thien is "beautiful, deeply moving, [and] addresses universal questions" (Independent).More