Madeleine Thien wins $100,000 Giller Prize for ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’


TORONTO: Madeleine Thien paid a touching tribute to her late mother after being awarded the $100,000 Scotiabank Giller Prize for “Do Not Say We Have Nothing,” capping a season flush with accolades for the Montreal-based writer.

After Thien thanked the jury, acknowledged fellow Giller finalists and her loved ones, she expressed the wish that her mother could have been alive to share in celebrating the honour.

“She arrived in Canada 42 years ago and passed away too young in 2002,” Thien told assembled guests at a lavish televised gala held at the Ritz-Carlton in Toronto Monday night.

“She wanted me to be free in this world, to live with confidence, to love and be loved. She taught me to be kind and how to be brave.”

Honours and acclaim have poured in for the Vancouver-born writer, who recently received the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction for her bestselling novel. Her book was also shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize.

“Do Not Say We Have Nothing” (Knopf Canada) is set in China before, during and after the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

The heart of the story involves three Chinese musicians who are studying Western classical music at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music in the 1960s, and explores the revolution that occurred under Mao Zedong and the many political campaigns that pulled apart people’s lives.

“’Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ …enchants the jurors with its detailed, layered, complex drama of classical musicians and their loved ones trying to survive two monstrous insults to their humanity,” said award-winning composer and recording artist Tanya Tagaq during her presentation of Thien’s novel.

The jury also described the book as “a beautiful homage to music and to the human spirit,” and as “both sad and uplifting in its dramatization of human loss and resilience in China and in Canada.”

Other Giller finalists were Montreal-born Mona Awad for “13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl,” London, Ont.-based Emma Donoghue for “The Wonder,” and Montreal’s Catherine Leroux for “The Party Wall” translated by Lazer Lederhendler.

Rounding out this year’s finalists were Hamilton’s Gary Barwin for “Yiddish for Pirates” and Toronto-based Zoe Whittall for “The Best Kind of People.”

The six titles were chosen from 161 books submitted by 69 publisher imprints.

In an interview moments after her win, Thien admitted to feeling “quite emotional” and in a state of disbelief at receiving the prize.

“I’m a quiet person. I tend to write quiet books,” she said. “It’s been 20 years of writing, and I do it for the love of writing.”

“The most that we can do is put the most complex, challenging humane book into the world. That’s what I wanted to do.”

At a reception held ahead of the televised gala, Thien spent time meeting and greeting several guests who were effusive in their praise of her work.

Among them were former Ontario premier Bob Rae. His wife, Arlene Perly Rae, told Thien she spent a portion of their recent road trip in the U.S. reading the book aloud in the car on their journey.

“I feel kind of like it’s a really wonderful night to celebrate everything that has happened for me, for the shortlisted authors,” Thien said in a pre-show interview.

“These things don’t come along very often in a writer’s career. I think I just feel really at peace. Happy for the book. So happy for the book.”

Award-winning author Lawrence Hill served as chair of this year’s jury, along with fellow Canadian writers Jeet Heer and Kathleen Winter, British author Samantha Harvey and Scottish writer Alan Warner.

Hill said the jury spent four hours deliberating earlier in the day ahead of the ceremony.

“It’s humbling to see the breadth of talent. I think Canadians can hold their own against writers around the world.”

CBC Radio host and comedian Steve Patterson helmed the gala which was broadcast live on CBC-TV.

The ceremony was held on the eve of the U.S. election, but the finalists kept their remarks free of political references _ with one notable exception.

During one of several pre-taped segments, they were asked the simple question: Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump? All six selected Clinton.

Joining Tagaq among the presenters were playwright Ins Choi, musician Tanya Tagaq, and actors Gordon Pinsent, Amanda Parris, Annie Murphy and Catherine Reitman. The gala also featured a musical performance by R&B singer-songwriter Jully Black.

The Giller awards $100,000 annually to the author of the best Canadian novel or short story collection published in English, and $10,000 to each of the finalists.

The prize’s founder, Toronto businessman Jack Rabinovitch, named the award in honour of his late wife, literary journalist Doris Giller.

During the pre-televised gala, Rabinovitch took time to remember several acclaimed Canadian writers who had died in recent years, including 2002 Giller winner Austin Clarke and former jurors Mavis Gallant and Alistair MacLeod.

He also paid tribute to the late Ellen Seligman, the publisher and editor for many celebrated homegrown authors including Margaret Atwood.

“It’s moments like this that you realize you miss important people,” Rabinovitch said to applause.