Thien was born in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1974 to a Malaysian Chinese father and a Hong Kong Chinese mother. She studied contemporary dance at Simon Fraser University and literature at the University of British Columbia. Thien was a finalist for Writers' Trust of Canada's RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers in 1999, and in 2001 she was awarded the Canadian Authors Association Air Canada Award for most promising Canadian writer under age 30.
Thien's first book, Simple Recipes (Toronto: M&S, 2001; New York: Little, Brown, 2002), a collection of short stories, won the City of Vancouver Book Award, the VanCity Book Prize and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. It received the praise of Nobel Prize laureate Alice Munro, who wrote, "This is surely the debut of a splendid writer. I am astonished by the clarity and ease of the writing, and a kind of emotional purity."
Madeleine Thien in Bonn, Germany, 2015, interviewed by Dietmar Kanthak
Her novel, Certainty (Toronto: M&S, 2006; New York: Little, Brown, 2007; London: Faber, 2007), has been published internationally and translated into 16 languages. It won the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award, the Ovid Festival Prize and was a finalist for the Kiriyama Prize for Fiction.
Her second novel, Dogs at the Perimeter (Toronto: M&S, 2011; London: Granta Books, 2012) was a finalist for the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction and the 2014 International Literature Award - Haus der Kulturen der Welt. The novel won the 2015 de:LiBeraturpreis, awarded by the Frankfurt Book Fair and recognizing works of fiction from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. Shortlisted authors for the 2015 Prize included Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Shani Boianjiu, and NoViolet Bulawayo. Thien's novel, about the aftermath of the Cambodian genocide, has been translated into 9 languages.
In 2008, she was invited to participate in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, and the IWP State Department-funded 2010 study tour of the United States, which invited eight international writers, including Kei Miller, Eduardo Halfon, Billy Kahora and Khet Mar, to explore the unresolved legacies of American history. Her essay, "The Grand Tour: In the Shadow of James Baldwin," concludes the 2015 essay collection, Fall and Rise, American Style: Eight International Writers Between Gettysburg and the Gulf. The study tour was the subject of filmmaker Sahar Sarshar's documentary, Writing in Motion: A Nation Divided.
In 2013, Thien was the Simon Fraser University Writer-in-Residence. From 2010 to 2015, she was part of the International Faculty in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at City University of Hong Kong. She wrote about the Program's abrupt closure, and Hong Kong's crackdown on freedom of speech, in a controversial essay for The Guardian.
Her short story, "The Wedding Cake", was shortlisted for the 2015 Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award, the richest prize in the world for a single short story.
Her 2016 novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, won the Governor General's Award for English-language fiction, and the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize. It was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In advance of publication in the United States, it was named to the fiction longlist for the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction.
She is the common-law partner of novelist Rawi Hage.