Before its publication, Canadian novelist Madeleine Thien was told by a US publisher that her Khmer Rouge-inspired novel Dogs at the Perimeter was her best yet — but would never find an audience.
Since then, the novel, which was published in Canada and England, has found critical and word-of-mouth success.
The book tells the story of Janie, a Cambodian-Canadian woman whose trauma from her life under Pol Pot returns to play havoc with her settled life in Montreal, and her friend Hiroji, a Japanese neurologist obsessed with the disappearance of his older brother under the regime.
Ahead of the release of the paperback edition, the three-time novelist spoke to The Phnom Penh Post about unravelling a foreign past and fictionalising genocide.
The story touches on a lot of contemporary issues associated with the period, including current American deportees and the number of Japanese expats who went missing.
Did you set out to cover these topics, or did they arise naturally?
As I wrote, the stories seemed to open these different directions; each story was connected to other stories.
During my research, I spent a lot of time at DC-Cam and came across the story of a Japanese woman who survived the genocide.
Her husband, who was Khmer, lost his life, but she survived by pretending to be mute. It was a wise, and brave, decision not to speak.
Was it necessary while you were in Cambodia to write the book by trying to put yourself in the shoes of those who experienced it?
I didn’t think of it as putt-ing myself in the shoes of a survivor. In a way, the writing and imagining of the characters felt more like the kind of friendship that takes years, and that changes with time.
I felt it was important to be patient, that the characters would tell me some things and not others, that I had to wait and let things happen.
There are characters who are perpetrators, as well as vict-ims. Why was it important for you to tell their story?
It seemed to be so much a part of what happened under the Khmer Rouge.
First, children were taken from their families, and many were sent to work in labour camps or mobile units.
Without parents or siblings, it was incredibly difficult for these children to survive. Some were taken into the Khmer Rouge itself.
In her book When the War was Over, Elizabeth Becker talks about how many of the prison guards and torturers were between seven and 14 years old. One way to survive would have been to become part of the system.
The novel begins with a quote from Haing S Ngor’s Survival of the Killing Fields. What other literary influences did you draw upon?
I’m quite sure that I read almost every book written, in English, on the Khmer Rouge years, and some in French.
Given the enormous scale of what happened, there are so very few books. Altogether, I think they take up only one long shelf on my bookshelf.
I read everything that was available. In Phnom Penh, I spent a lot of time simply being in Cambodia and absorbing as much as I could.
My background is Mal-aysian Chinese, but often people assumed I was Cambodian Chinese and people approached me all the time.
They would come and start talking to me because they thought I was someone who had come home. People let me into their lives in ways that surprised me.
Were you nervous writing a novel about the Khmer Rouge?
Yes, very much so. I wanted this novel to be completely respectful of the experience of those who lived through the civil war and genocide.
For me, the reaction of my Cambodian friends was very important — and they’ve been the most supportive readers. First and foremost, it was important for me that it rang true for them.
Why hasn’t there been more fiction set around the Khmer Rouge period?
I think not enough time has passed. So many in the generation who would have written about it lost their lives. Others went to the camps, then abroad, and they had to focus on surviving.
It’s the younger generation, writers like Loung Ung and Chanrithy Him — the younger ones who went overseas and later found the courage and mental space to write.
The first novel written in English by a survivor of the Khmer Rouge is In the Shadow of the Banyan, by Vaddey Ratner, published last year.
I’m telling everyone to read it; I really believe it’s a masterpiece. She was only five when the Khmer Rouge came to power, so she’s had to reconstruct the story.
It’s an incredible work on so many levels, and in terms of its literary language.
The novel has been celeb-rated and was on the New York Times best-seller list, but it’s read as a memoir, an act of witnessing. I think she should also be given credit for its incredible literary merit.
The question of fiction... I’ve thought about this a lot, because Cambodia has such a complex history.
We really needed the non-fiction works to come first. We have a lot of knowledge now about what happened, but it doesn’t seem to be widely disseminated.
When I read memoirs, what hovers behind the text is this profound shame, this fear that the violence has come inside.
There is also guilt, which is so hard to put into words but seems to stay deeply embedded in people’s psyches.
I think fiction is a way of opening up the invisible worlds of a person, and how this changes over time, what lasts and what can be lived with. To look at these things without judgment.
There are a lot of name changes and ‘name erasing’ in the story. What does this symbolise?
I met a doctor flying to Phnom Penh on one of my trips. He told me he had changed his name in 1979 and never went back to his old one.
I kept hearing similar stor-ies from other people. People took on new names in order to erase their histories, to try to find a safe history.
And then, when the war was over, they didn’t, or couldn’t, go back to their old identities. There were new selves and old selves. For some people, these selves could never be fully brought back together.
Dogs at the Perimeter will be available in paperback from Monument Books at the end of March.