Le cicatrici della guerra. Intervista a Madeleine Thien

Leggi l’intervista integrale rilasciata a Alessandra Di Pietro da Madeleine Thien, autrice del romanzo L’eco delle città vuote. L’intervista è apparsa in versione ridotta (in italiano) sull’ultimo numero di «Gioia».

How was the idea of writing this book born?
I had very strong memories of Cambodian refugees arriving in Canada in the early 1980s. For reasons I can’t entirely explain, I was drawn to Cambodia from the time I was a child. The first time I went there, I traveled for two months and had no plans to write about the country. But something about Phnom Penh got under my skin; it’s a very complex city, a very layered place. One’s first impressions can be misleading and so a person can’t really make any snap judgements about Cambodia; so many things are unspoken. I made some very intense friendships, and I returned the following year for 5 months (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam). I returned the following year, and this was how the book began to take shape.

Where did you get the inspiration for the characters and facts you describe in the book?
The character of Hiroji came to me first, I had been thinking about a scientist who has walked out of his life — disappeared. Each time I was in Cambodia, I read about people — Cambodians and foreigners — who had gone missing, vanished into thin air, and seemingly by their own choice. Initially, when I began writing, I imagined Dogs at the Perimeter as a novel of friendship, and a novel about the peripheral reverberations of the Cambodian civil war and genocide in peoples’ lives. The more I wrote, the more I realized that the complexity of the Cambodian experience is not well known or well understood outside the country, and that the only way for me to tell the story would be to go right through to the centre, to events that happened between 1975 and 1979. Because of this, Janie, and not Hiroji, became the centre of the story.

The main character had to see her family die. She managed to overcome such a traumatic experience and go on with her life, until the phantoms of her past strike her again. What is your opinion, how is it possible to cope with the traumatic experience of a war?
I think the way one lives with trauma changes over time, and that it’s not a progression of healing or reconciliation, but a movement back and forth, or even circular. One of the realizations that devastates Janie is that, despite all her extraordinary accomplishments as an adult, her past still has the power to break her. She fears that the further she climbs to remove herself from these memories, the greater the distance to fall. After living with Janie and Hiroji and the story for so many years, I came to think that trauma is like a seam that opens and closes. Sometimes one feels at peace. Sometimes one feels a terrifying loss of control. In this novel, it’s the loss of control that frightens her the most.

Reading your amazing book, I had the impression that a message – within many – stands out: a war do not belong only to the country that had to live with it. It belongs to all of us. Am I right, is that your opinion?
Yes, absolutely. Thank you for articulating it so succinctly and beautifully. Part of the pain for Cambodian survivors is this invisibility and silence surrounding the war — despite the fact that this is a war that really implicates many Western countries, particularly the United States and their illegal and secret bombing of Cambodia in the early 1970s. Few people realize that the Khmer Rouge representative held Cambodia’s seat at the United Nations until the 1990s — 15 years after the facts of the genocide were well known. Our governments supported the Khmer Rouge because of other geopolitical interests.

To write this novel must have been heavy for you. Such an emotional challenge! What did this experience leave in your heart?
It was heavy, but I also felt that the people I met and the story I was trying tell showed me so much about storytelling and about my generation. As I researched Dogs at the Perimeter, I knew that, as an outsider, I could not understand everything; but what surprised me is how much could be expressed if one was patient, and if one never lost sight of the reason for the telling. In the novel, Janie disappears in order to tell the story of Hiroji and his brother. The Khmer Rouge tried to erase ideas of self-hood and individuality, and Janie tries to turn this disappearance — this loss of self — into something powerful and subversive. The Khmer Rouge told Cambodians that each person was alone, that they could not save their lovers, parents, children or friends. Janie tries to give voice, in her own way, to the commonality of experience. In the aftermath of such extreme violence and loneliness, Cambodians each understood each other’s lives.

How long it took you to write the book?
It took five years. I was writing continuously, but it took a long time to find the right words, to pare everything down, and to distill it to the story that I hoped would feel true for Cambodians.


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