Author Madeleine Thien was kind enough to answer a few questions about her new book Dogs at the Perimeter, the story of a young Cambodian-Canadian woman who is haunted by her past.
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H I'm always curious about writers' favourite books in their teen years. What books influenced you the most? Were you a fan of Go Ask Alice or more the Jane Eyre type of reader?
MT I did love Go Ask Alice, and later on, I also loved Jane Eyre. But Alice definitely came first. It could be because my elementary school was in the neighbourhood adjoining Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, and so the drugs and the young girls and poverty were familiar, and almost normalized, when I was young. Later on, my best friend in high school was swept away into that world, and I remember that the line between surviving adolescence and being pulled under it was so very thin. I do think that reading saved me; I wasn't afraid of being alone because books gave me somewhere to go, they allowed me to solidify myself against the pressures of the world. I loved Flowers for Algernon and To Kill a Mockingbird, as many young people do. And also, A Separate Peace, by John Knowles, John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany, and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. I've never really thought about it before, but the question makes me realize that I treasured the books that were about adolescence, the complexity of the encroaching world, and how to meet it head on.
H I wanted to know the significance of the title Dogs at the Perimeter. I took it to mean that Janie should protect her memories of her loving happy childhood in Cambodia. Am I on the right track?
MT Yes, it's two-fold. The line is: "I remembered beauty. Long ago, it had not seemed necessary to note its presence, to memorize it, to set the dogs out at the perimeter." Initially, I think that Janie needs to protect this childhood, this life from before. She wants to remember her parents and her brother, Sopham, as creators of their own life, before the revolution came with its confusion and violence and dehumanization. But later on, this remembering means that all the heartache and violence of the revolution are embedded in her self and in her memories; she is actively guarding these memories against the outside world, and against the life she has made for herself in Canada. I think, for me, the question became: when can Janie let the dogs go? Are they with her forever? At what point does her love for those she has lost, and her responsibility to the past, become a prison?
H Identity is a central theme. The Khmer Rouge reportedly forced children to forget their family ties and former names. For children, their names and their relationships to loved ones, I would imagine, form the basis of an identity. Mei manages to hold on to her family ties, but what about all the other children? I was wondering in your research if you came across other children who, under duress, had forgotten their family ties and former names. What became of them? Did they form new families or did they remain alone?
MT Yes, I came across children and adults alike who took new names to survive the Khmer Rouge time, and they never went back to their old names. In fact, I found that this was incredibly common, especially for those who had lost both parents, or for adults who had lost spouses and children. There truly was a rupture in people's lives, and the self that existed before, and the self that survived the war, couldn't always be reconnected. Some of the "separated children," as they were known, the ones who had lost entire families, came to France or the United States or Canada, among other places, and were adopted. My sense is that they felt very much alone because there was no one in their present lives who could understand, or even imagine, what they had seen and lived through.
H Recovery from trauma is another theme that arises in Dogs. We see that Janie and Nuong, although both are adopted by families in North America, end up in very different situations later in life. Both suffer from survivor guilt, yet one becomes a neuroscience researcher and the other has trouble with the law and is later deported back to Cambodia. From all the stories you have heard in your five trips to Cambodia are these two cases exceptional or are they relatively common among Cambodian survivors adopted by North American parents?
MT Without making generalizations, this was a story that I did hear repeated: that some of the girls became very high achievers, and some of the boys lost their way. I really recommend this reportage, "A New History: Cambodian American Deportation Carries History's Weight," as I think it gives a very powerful sense not only of the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge time in people's lives, but how difficult it is to make a new life and a new future. There is very little room for error and for breakdown. Post-9/11, the United States began enforcing an earlier and, in my opinion, unjust law: "aggravated felony" (including crimes as small as shoplifting) could lead to a refugee being deported. Deportations were in force even when the person had served their sentence. In Dogs, Nuong's crime is that he gets in a vicious fight. Not entirely surprising, given what he's lived through; but the consequences are astronomically high.
H I must admit that I wanted to know more about Nuong and his life, both in the US and in Cambodia after losing his five older brothers in a minefield. I hope you write a short story about him at some point. I also couldn't help but notice that you could have just as easily used Nuong's deportation and his connection to Hiroji as the basis for your story in his search for James. Had you ever considered telling the story through Nuong instead of Janie?
MT I want to keep writing about these characters in some way, particularly Nuong and Hiroji. I hadn't actually thought of using Nuong as the throughway, but you're right, he could easily have held all the disparate pieces together. In some ways, Nuong is an open doorway in this story. He was my way of saying: Look, this story is so much bigger. This story involves an infinite complexity of stories. One third of Cambodia's population died during the Khmer Rouge revolution; two thirds survived and were scattered not only throughout the country and border regions, but across the world. This is Cambodia's story but is also a story of our generation, from the Western presence and interference in Southeast Asia, to the flow of Marxist ideas into Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and the way those ideas were reshaped within the regional political discourse. Until the early 1990s, Canada, along with other Western nations, continued to recognize the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate holder of Cambodia's seat at the United Nations. Right now, something like 300 million dollars/year is sent back to Cambodia by Cambodians who live abroad. One of my beliefs in writing this book is that there is no us and them, we are all entwined and responsible to one another. Geopolitics and the movement of people across borders has made this so.
H How long did it take you to write Dogs? When did you know you wanted to write a book about Cambodia?
MT It took five years, and I travelled regularly back and forth to Cambodia and the border regions. I had always been drawn to the country, for reasons that are not entirely explainable. The first time I went, I stayed nearly two months, and I just travelled. It is, by far, the most beautiful and the most complex place I have ever had the privilege to visit. Modern history and ancient history are ever present. The second time, I stayed for five months, and I knew I wanted to try to write something. Cambodia and the people I met had taken hold of my thoughts. I had so many questions and I couldn't let it be.
H Do you think that you will write any more books about Cambodia? You can certainly draw on some of the extensive research you have done.
MT Apart from writing, I feel that I will always go back there, I feel a deep attachment to the country and the people I met. I would like to write about the present in Cambodia because what's happening there now--border conflict with Thailand, land evictions, a government that acts with terrifying impunity--is very complicated and very haunting. The second war crimes trial is scheduled for this year, and it will finally bring four of the surviving Khmer Rouge leaders into the Court. This trial needs to go forward, but the process has been mired in controversy and is extraordinarily fragile. A good source for information is the website of the Cambodia Trial Monitor.
H Let's talk about the short "Visual Notebook." First of all, this is a beautiful complement to the book. After reading it, I desperately wanted to see some images of Cambodia and Khmer architecture. I feel like this is a lot more than a book trailer. Did you have another purpose for making it?
MT I'm so very happy to hear this. You're completely right, it is not a book trailer. I felt compelled to make this visual notebook because I wanted people to see the images that had haunted me, that spoke to the Cambodia that existed in the 1960s and early 70s. The visual notebook contains some of the images in Janie's mind, an avalanche of memories, never fitting together, hearkening back to a city and a country and a people that were lost; and also images of the Khmer Rouge time that, perhaps, need to be seen to be believed. Janie and her family and so many Cambodians were not a world apart, or all that different from people growing up here, right now, in Canada. Her father spoke French, Khmer and English; he wasn't an exception. Sometime soon, filmmakers John Pirozzi and his production team will release their documentary, Don't Think I've Forgotten, which I know is going to be extraordinary. Their film is about Cambodia's psychedelic rock scene in the 1960s and 1970s, and they try to uncover what happened this groundbreaking recording and performing community. Even now, in Cambodia, you can hear this music everywhere, songs from Sin Sisamuth and Ros Serey Sothea, among others. That music and those images help you see a fragment of the immensity that was lost.
H Thank you so much for your time, and congratulations on a fabulous book!
This interview has been crossposted at Rover:an independent review of art and culture in Montreal
This interview has been crossposted at Rover:an independent review of art and culture in Montreal