Reading Like a Writer: Do Not Say We Have Nothing, the Creation of Bodies, and a Vibrant Scene
In Madeleine Thien's Do Not Say We Have Nothing, the narrator pieces together her father's past, largely through the stories of Ai-ming, a Chinese student who flees to Canada after Tiananmen Square. Following multiple generations and spanning continents, the book encompasses more than I can summarize here.
Still, I'm going to look at a small and quiet piece of it, right before the narrator learns that Ai-ming once met her father.
"[Ai-ming] was making cabbage salad and had grated so much horseradish that I wondered whether the cabbage would actually fit.
I said that I didn't know if my stomach could handle that much horseradish.
She nodded distractedly and flung the cabbage in, tossing it wildly. Everything flew up in the air and rained down into the bowl. Ai-ming was wearing Ma's "Canada: The World Next Door" apron, and her winter coat underneath."
Even though the salad doesn't matter to the larger plot of the book, this scene tells us about the characters and their relationship. The texture also pulls us more fully into the story.
It's crucial in a story such as this one for the reader to feel physically present in the outside frame, which is where this scene is situated. Inside the framed story, there's a sweeping saga of a country and its people, the upheaval and violence of China's Cultural Revolution. Without smart scenes like this one, it would be easy enough to get bored in the outer story, which is a little quieter at this point, when the characters' actions are less life or death.
I'm a huge fan of using food to create this sense of physical presence, because it instantly evokes taste, smell, and texture. And those senses are often better ones for fiction than sight and sound—or if not better, different. The intimate senses, the ones that require a closeness to the body, are experienced more personally than the more distant senses. Thus, the experience of imagining them becomes more visceral. Specificity matters, too. The scene couldn't be as effective if she were merely making "salad," but the precise flavors of cabbage and horseradish cut into the reader's tongue. Horseradish is especially great for this, as it has such a strong taste and smell.
The scene also gives a distinct sense of the bodies of the characters. Grating horseradish is necessarily physical. There's a texture to it, as well as a motion. And it's a motion that takes muscle. Ai-ming is beginning to have a body. In the next paragraph, the narrator is worried about her own body—how her stomach will react to the horseradish. Then we get Ai-ming physically tossing cabbage around, using her arms to fling it. The coat she's wearing puts us in the room as well as in a body. Is it cold? We suspect it's not, but that Ai-ming is unused to the weather in her new home. Still, we feel her cold, as well as the probable constriction of wearing an apron over a winter coat.
Putting bodies in place is such a great strategy for fiction. It helps the reader to feel present in the space, and thus to invest emotionally in the story. But each of these body-building details is doing other things at the same time.
First, that flying cabbage: "She nodded distractedly and flung the cabbage in, tossing it wildly. Everything flew up in the air and rained down into the bowl." This gesture is specific and strange. Ai-ming has seemed rather reserved up to this point, frightened and small, but this action implies confidence, decisiveness. She's taking up space in this room and asserting her presence with bold and unexpected action.
When Ai-ming surprises me, I suspect that she surprises the narrator—and thus, that the narrator is not just making her up. Because her actions imply thoughts that I can't see and didn't even expect, I develop a theory of mind in relation to those actions; I infer a consciousness, a decision-making faculty, a will. The surprising act doesn't need to have meaning to the reader for it to signal that there's meaning inside the character. Even if we never find out just what makes her tick, we can see that she's freaking ticking!
The flinging, I think, becomes even stranger and more evocative of a will and a personality when we see the winter coat. To cook in a winter coat? To fling the cabbage despite such a thing being bunched beneath an apron? The detail makes her will stronger.
It also makes her more specific as a human being because wearing it is eccentric. Her getup is impractical for cooking, yet quite practical for keeping warm while protecting her (new) coat. At the same time, the coat reminds us that she's recently arrived and unused to Canadian weather. These are essential elements of her character, shown to us in a smart and efficient way.
But there's more to the scene than what we learn about the individual characters; it also does something really important regarding the relationship between these characters and how the reader experiences that connection.
When the cabbage "rain[s] down," it creates atmosphere, which encompasses Ai-ming and the narrator. There is cabbage in the air! When characters share a strange space or mood or atmosphere, it forges a connection that the reader can feel.
I also find a particular, though subtle, intimacy in the narrator's concern about her stomach's reaction to the horseradish. Of course, it's doing the things I mentioned before—giving her a body and bringing the reader into the scene through the taste and potential stomach upset of the horseradish. But the concern about her stomach is in response to what Ai-ming is preparing and it therefore creates a connection between these characters. Ai-ming is being herself, making what she makes, according to her own whims—the narrator reacts to that, inserts herself into the scene that Ai-ming is creating. Ai-ming cooks and the narrator will not only eat the food but her body will ache in its digestion.
It's also significant that it's a concern about the future rather than a bellyache in the now. Because the connection is one that occurs in the narrator's imagination instead of her body, the reader can fit into that space too—imagining along with her and actually participating in the connection.
Finding the perfect details—those that are specific, vibrant, even eccentric—can tap into something intense. It makes the reader experience—instead of just think about—the sensations, surprises, and connections of the characters.
Allison Wyss is teaching the following classes at the Loft this summer: Writing the Apocalypse and The Ins and Outs of Publishing in Literary Journals. Her stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters’ Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.