Entrevista a Madeleine Thien (El eco de las ciudades vacías)
What inspired you to become a writer? If you weren't a writer, what would you be?
A love of books that began when my sister taught me to read. I was three or four years old, and so I can't quite remember a time when I books were inaccessible to me. For many years, when I was a child, they were my world.
If I wasn't a writer, I would have loved to have been a dancer (I studied ballet and modern dance for many years) or a musician (I still hope to learn to play the violin). But I think I might have been a journalist.
What is your writing space like?
I seem to spend a lot of time getting away from my desk! Sometimes I sit at the kitchen counter, sometimes on the couch, and sometimes I sit in quiet cafes. I like to see the world going by, but I wear headphones so that I don't hear it. It's wonderful. I'm addicted to street life.
When did this book come about? Was there a gestation period, or was there a clear moment of inspiration?
I started writing this book in 2007. I was living between Cambodia and Laos for half a year. For a long time I didn't think that I was writing a novel that I would publish; instead, I thought there were things that I needed to think through. Cambodia, as a place, had gotten under my skin. It resonated with me in a very deep way that surprised and frightened me.
When I realized that this was a book that I wanted to publish, it took me about a year longer to complete it. And then another three more years rewriting, re-thinking and revising. It's the hardest book I've ever written and it's a book that has changed me. I lived with it, and within it, in a way that I hadn't known was possible when making a work of fiction.
Were there writers who influenced you during the composition of your book?
Yes, many. Despite there being relatively few works about Cambodia, they are each significant and extraordinary. Elizabeth Becker's When the War Was Over is probably my most tattered book; it's been in my backpack for at least five research and writing trips to Southeast Asia. Also, books by Luong Ung, Haing S. Ngor, Jon Swain, Francois Bizot, Dith Pran, and Bree Lafreniere.
You have visited or lived in most of the places where the novel is set and you have talked about how your experiences with your parents seeded this book. How do you use autobiographical material when you write?
I think, all my life, I've been obsessed with the notion of forgetting. What does it mean to forget something? How do people survive, re-invent themselves, or become something more than what their pasts said they should be? I think I grew up surrounded by people, family and not family, who had cut themselves off from past lives, and who wanted to be someone new. The past, which is both ephemeral and concrete, both a story and a set of facts, confuses me. I think I'm trying to pin down different ways of living alongside the past.
I would say that there's nothing autobiographical of me in this novel except perhaps the desire to understand the past, to come as near to the unknowable as the empathy and imagination will allow.
I’m wondering, in terms of the writing process, was that something that you just couldn’t write?
Yes, there were certain acts of violence and violation--acts that occurred with regularity during the Cambodian genocide--that I will never be able to erase from my mind. I couldn't write them. It was a conscious decision. There is great violence in the novel, but increasingly it became more psychological and emotional: the damage done from witnessing so much.
How do you think the Cambodian genocide has played into your generation’s consciousness? Do you have personal memories associated with that event and its aftermath?
I think the Cambodian genocide has been largely forgotten, and that it has been forgotten because of a false idea: that the conditions that led to rise of the Khmer Rouge had nothing to do with the West. This is not true. The destabilization of the region (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) in the years after independence, culminating in the Vietnam War and the illegal bombing of Cambodia by the United States, are crimes that no one has taken responsibility for. I fear that many people believe that the Cambodian genocide was an isolated, incomprehensible disturbance that had to do with internal power struggles.
My own first memories are of the refugees arriving in the United States and Canada, beginning in the early 1980s. It stayed in my memory because I was only a child then and so many of the refugees were my age, children arriving alone without parents or siblings.
Let's talk about the technical aspects of writing… Madeleine, how much revision do you tend to do with your stories?
Endless revision! For my last three books, the writing process was a process of distillation. In other words, writing entire novels, then getting rid of the draft and writing the book again. And then once more. It was as if I needed to walk the whole path a few times before I felt confident to tell the story. But I'm sensing now, as I work on my fourth book, that the process may be changing for me, and that I'm experimenting with different ways of building stories.
In a number of your stories the main characters are children. Why?
In the short stories, which I published in my early twenties, many of the characters were children. But I think that's changed with the novels. Or, more precisely, the children in my novels become adults. They change. I'm drawn, more and more, to the complexity of portraying entire lives.
Why do you prefer working on short stories rather than a novel?
I think that, actually, I prefer novels! But there are times when only stories will do. I spent five years writing a book of stories, then ten years writing two novels, and now I'm writing both novels and stories simultaneously. It's been a discovery!
Stories allow me to experiment, to try something knowing I won't be living with it for five years or more. I love this, I love the rhythm of them, the contained power, and the challenge of making something small that is psychologically immense.
Where do you hope your writing takes you next?
The best question of all. I want my writing to expand my thinking, to humble me, to let me see a little bit more of this life in the short time we're given. For me, that's what writing allows me. That's what all the anxiety, persistence, doubt and stubbornness is for.
Entrevista por Noel Corregidor