Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a captivating book about the ordeals experienced by two Chinese families, under the shadow of an oppressive regime in China, led by Mao Zedong. The story begins in Vancouver, Canada, but in the early nineties, when Marie (also known as Li-ling) meets Ai-Ming, who has run away from the Chinese heartland following a horrific protests-based episode at Tiananmen Square. Eventually Marie comes to learn about her relative’s family, from this new guest, welcomed by her mother inside their house, and those stories from Ai-Ming magnificently traverse through Chinese revolutions and early-day protests in Beijing.
The ordeals experienced by ordinary people during some of China’s most formative years, in the book reflect in tone of the extreme kinds: shame, browbeat, savagery, public beatings, but the narrative remarkably manages to rise wonderfully like a phoenix, resonating hope, bravery and resilience. Classical music, such as a piece by German composer Johann Christian Bach, plays an extraordinary role here in connecting people’s lives with each other despite the intensely emotional nature of the story, which actually makes the tale bearable, to be engrossed by, and heartwarming.
Marie’s father, Jiang Kai, left his mother, at first and then in 1989, committed suicide (before he even reached his forties) in Hong Kong – Marie was only ten at the time. Even though Marie isn’t fluent in Chinese, she begins to know more about her father from Ai-Ming’s lengthy family stories (it stretches more than seventy years), and she discovers that he had an abject (and sometimes upset) bond with particular people from her relative’s family.
It is not tough to relate these small matters, with secret notebooks that help Marie learn more about her father: they document history but it seems to risky to do it out in the open. Kai, a mysterious but talented concert pianist, had committed suicide, Marie comes to know after singularly surviving starvation, when Mao was still in power, and that he was friends with a bashful composer called Sparrow (Ai-Ming’s father), and his teacher. Swirl and Big Mother, Ai-Ming’s great aunt, and grandmother complete the family picture, except it’s an incomplete story without mentioning that revolutions in China shattered peace for many, in the two separate families.
To elaborate: simply loving a particular kind of music could mean abuse and it’s naturally hard to stop reminiscing about them, so it’s always an atmosphere of fear everywhere. The families began with the Shanghai Conservatory of Music as their lives’ centrepiece but then Swirl and Big Mother, who during their teenage years earned a living as travelling tea house singers, experience labour camps – Swirl is sent off there, and Big Mother is left with the responsibility of bringing up her daughter Zhuli, who is now a prodigal (and committed) violinist. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this year, the novel is an extraordinary blend of Chinese history, and family stories influenced by national political atrocities.