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Authors Bring Chinese Heritage to Campus

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Discussing their newest novels, writers Madeleine Thien and Peter Ho Davies shared with University at Albany students and community members their stories of Chinese heritage and the human experience.

During a New York State Writers Institute presentation Oct. 3 in the Standish Room of the Science Library, Thien and Davies discussed their respective novels “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” and “The Fortunes.” This was only their second time appearing on stage together, the first being at the Adelaide Festival in Australia earlier this year.

Both writers are of Chinese descent and include that common theme in their books. Thien’s latest work follows the story of three musicians in China before, during and after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Davies’ book explores the experiences of four Chinese-Americans — a railroad baron’s valet who accidentally sets off an explosion in Chinese labor, Hollywood’s first Chinese movie star, a hate-crime victim whose death rallies Asian-Americans, and a bi-racial writer visiting China for an adoption — over the course of several different decades.

Davies’ revealed that a main idea in his novel is “The struggle with the burden of representation…how one individual stands for others.” Through her story of music in an artless society, Thien explores “what we use language for, how we use language, and how it fails us… how forms of music became dangerous in totalitarian times.”

Both authors originally had a different plan for life. Davies majored in physics in college, while Thien studied dance. Davies said that he had begun by writing science-fiction stories after the comics he adored as a child. He submitted one of these stories to a publisher, and the only word he could make out in the rejection was “possibilities.” That single word derailed his physics career forever. However, his knowledge of physics has affected his approach to writing and his way of thinking about fiction.

As for dance, Thien said “I loved it, but it wasn’t my form of expression in the end. The beautiful thing about writing is it allows you so many ways of thinking…there’s no containment.”

Several of UAlbany’s English classes have studied one or both of the author’s works and anticipated what they would say. Some had the opportunity to ask their own questions about the authors’ works, experiences, and advice.

One student asked how to get over not feeling good enough in comparison to other authors. Davies said to simply try not to compare to other authors at all: “Try to remember what it is about our work that is inherently ours to eliminate that comparison.”

The duo’s novels both help cultivate diversity and tell the story of people living through the worst of times. Although Davies is British and Thien is Canadian, both appreciate and celebrate their heritage through their writing. The two are independent writers and have only recently begun touring together, but the themes of their novels complement each other well.

What was their final advice for aspiring writers?

“Patience,” Davies said. “The one thing talented young people lack is patience.”


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