Writers' Rooms: Madeleine Thien

Madeleine Thien

In recent months, my writing spaces have been rudimentary and wild and beautiful. This particular space is in the town of Kampot, on the southern shore of Cambodia. I am staying in Room Number Six, in a guesthouse called Little Garden, and my writing space is on the roof.

Each morning, I carry my pot of coffee on a silver tray up three flights of stairs. I re-arrange the wicker furniture to my liking, then I pour small puddles of water around the legs of my chair and table to prevent the battalions of ants from attacking. Morning rises over the river, legions of fishing boats push out, but, far from being serene and tranquil, my rooftop gathers the cacophony and bustle of Kampot town: ice vendors, gas delivery trucks, chattering birds, the hammering and drilling from the construction site next door, children playing 'kick sandal', moto-remorques laden with passengers, and, always, music. Song--chanted, recorded, karaoked, hummed, blasted--pervades Khmer life. Sometimes, when I'm working, every sound fades away and I hear nothing but the story I'm writing. The coffee grows cold, worlds fade into and out of each other. I'll look up from my laptop to see a man pushing a wagon piled high with jackfruit, pumping a child's squeaky toy to herald his arrival. This is the hot season when green mangoes flourish in the leafy trees; the season when, with each passing hour, the heat and humidity grow ever crueller. At midday, when the hammering ceases and the construction workers lay down their tools, I, too, cease my writing.

This writing space allows me to live in my head while, at the same time, tethering me firmly to the world. In the afternoons, I pedal my bicycle out to the surrounding countryside where life is harsh and unforgiving and full of stories. When Khmer New Year arrives in mid-March, I learn to dance the ramvong, I attend the temple rituals and join in the teasing hilarity of the Khmer year-end games. In the villages of my friends, I make my peace with the days that have passed and I, like them, tend my hopes for the coming year.

The buildings of Kampot are a haunting remnant of the wars that have torn Cambodia apart. Many are gutted or blackened by rockets, mortar and artillery fire. The old market, closed since the Pol Pot years, is a rusted, rotting heap. Like elsewhere in Cambodia, a great many people survive, precariously, from day to day; and many, too, grow prosperous and hopeful as the years of peace add up, slowly, into nearly a decade. In this writing space, there is no escape from the world. The world only draws one deeper into itself, its beauty and contradictions, its suffering and its offerings.

Many times, during this season, electric storms come and splinter the sky. I love these moments. Sometimes you can hear the thunder hours before the storm arrives. Sometimes the storms swerve away and leave the land dry and thirsty. Some days, I turn the tap and the writing comes and it feels miraculous. Other days, nothing arrives, but then I'm happy to shut my laptop, put away my books, and venture out into the heat of the world.


Madeleine was born in Vancouver in 1974. She is the author of Simple Recipes, a collection of stories, and The Chinese Violin, a children's book written in collaboration with artist and filmmaker Joe Chang. Her most recent book, Certainty, won the Amazon/Books in Canada First Novel Award and was a finalist for the Kiriyama Prize. Madeleine's work has been translated into 15 languages. She lives in Montreal.

For more information about Madeleine's books visit McClelland & Stewart.