Holiday in Cambodia: Madeleine Thien

Local author Madeleine Thien talks to Cult MTL about her novel Dogs at the Perimeter and the atrocities of the Cambodian genocide that inspired it, in advance of her talk at Writers Read.

Madeleine Thien

Genocide is a topic so repugnant that few fiction authors dare make it their subject. One of the most horrific, the Cambodian genocide under the Khmer Rouge regime in 1975-1979, cost two million people their lives, as 20% of the country’s population was killed. Montreal-based award-winning writer Madeleine Thien elegantly and bravely examines the effects of this genocide through her book Dogs at the Perimeter.

Thien acknowledges the monumentality of the task. “I don’t think many writers would set out to write a book about something as difficult and complex as the Cambodian genocide,” she says. “It was a process that took five years, and for a lot of those five years, I was in the region where events took place. It changed me.”

The novel grew out of her travels in Southeast Asia. “I was drawn to Cambodia,” she says. “Initially, I started writing about the things I was seeing, the people I was getting to know, the ever-present history that was not quite present.”

Her intent was not publication, but simply her attempts to understand what happened. “It took me that long to believe that I could enter into that world in a limited way,” she says. “It was a departure away from my own experience.”

In particular, Thien is interested in the effects of disappearance. The novel follows a Japanese-Canadian neurologist whose brother disappears under the Khmer Rouge. Questions about the brother’s fate remain unanswered. Thien says, “This was experienced by many Cambodians — never able to put closure, never able to find out to their loved ones. Not knowing. This disappearance and learning to live with the emptiness — this is a key part of the history which is not addressed in the way that I think it deserves to be.”

“The novel is a lot about survival, how to survive these different parts of ourselves,” she says, “It relates to the individual and the individual in society — how these fit into a particular moment in time and are fragmented.”

The book especially speaks to Cambodians who identify with the experiences the novel captures. “They sense they are being spoken directly to,” she says. “Those are the readers I was thinking about when I wrote the novel.”

Of course, since translated into more than 16 languages, the novel has universal appeal. “There is a feeling that if you open your imagination and you are willing to go to certain places, there is much more we can understand than we like to believe. There is an instant and strong reaction,” she says.

No doubt, Thien has an uncanny ability to intuit the experiences of others and make them understandable to all. She takes the words of Nobel Laureate Orham Pamuk for guidance: “the heart of the novel is the capacity to see the world through others’ eyes.”

“It’s the best and the worst thing to be a writer,” she says, and then corrects herself. “No, it’s good and it’s challenging. I’m writing at a time when there are avenues to get work out that weren’t there before, and I’ve been fortunate to have my work well-translated. But it’s a challenging thing if you are shy and are not as comfortable with the author as public figure or author as commentator. I am a very private person, so that’s a challenge.”

“I’m just happy to be able to do it. It’s a lucky thing when you have a feeling for what your life is. I think I feel that about writing. No matter what happens, writing is the core that I approach the world through. It’s a stability and an anchor for me.” ■

Madeleine Thien speaks as part of the Writers Read series Friday, Feb. 1 at Concordia University’s J.A. de Sève Cinema (1400 de Maisonneuve W.), 7 p.m., free

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