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Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Madeleine Thien
Image of Do Not Say We Have Nothing


In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life. That year, 1989, my mother flew to Hong Kong and laid my father to rest in a cemetery near the Chinese border. Afterwards, distraught, she rushed home to Vancouver where I had been alone. I was ten years old. Here is what I remember:

My father has a handsome, ageless face; he is a kind but mel­ancholy man. He wears glasses that have no frames and the lenses give the impression of hovering just before him, the thinnest of curtains. His eyes, dark brown, are guarded and unsure; he is only 39 years old. My father's name was Jiang Kai and he was born in a small village outside of Changsha. Later on, when I learned my father had been a renowned concert pianist in China, I thought of the way his fingers tapped the kitchen table, how they pattered across countertops and along my mother's soft arms all the way to her fingertips, driving her crazy and me into fits of glee. He gave me my Chinese name, Jiang Li-ling, and my English one, Marie Jiang. When he died, I was only a child, and the few memories I possessed, however fractional, however inaccurate, were all I had of him. I've never let them go.

In my twenties, in the difficult years after both my parents had passed away, I gave my life wholeheartedly to numbers-observation, conjecture, logic and proof, the tools we mathemati­cians have not only to interpret, but simply to describe the world. For the last decade I have been a professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada. Numbers have allowed me to move between the unimaginably large and the magnificently small; to live an existence away from my parents, their affairs and unrequited dreams and, I used to think, my own.

Some years ago, in 2010, while walking in Vancouver's Chinatown, I passed a store selling DVDs. I remember that it was pouring rain and the sidewalks were empty. Concert music rang from two enormous speakers outside the shop. I knew the music, Bach's Sonata for Piano and Violin No. 4, and I was drawn towards it as keenly as if someone were pulling me by the hand. The counterpoint, holding together composer, musicians and even silence, the music, with its spiralling waves of grief and rapture, was everything I remembered.

Dizzy, I leaned against the glass.

And suddenly I was in the car with my father. I heard rain splashing up over the tires and my father, humming. He was so alive, so beloved, that the incomprehensibility of his suicide grieved me all over again. By then, my father had been dead for two decades, and such a pure memory of him had never come back to me. I was thirty-one years old.

I went inside the store. The pianist, Glenn Gould, appeared on a flatscreen: he and Yehudi Menuhin were performing the Bach sonata I had recognized. There was Glenn Gould hunched over the piano, wearing a dark suit, hearing patterns far beyond the range of what most of us are given to perceive, and he was... so familiar to me, like an entire language, a world, I had forgotten.