Ai Weiwei: Why Do the Powerful Fear Poets?
Below is Ai Weiwei’s acceptance speech from PEN America’s 2018 LitFest Gala upon receiving our Artistic Expression Award. The full list of winners, hosts, and honorees can be found here; the transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I just realized I’m lacking a word for “good guys.” I have a lot of bad words for other types of people. But standing in front of you, I am just simply speechless. Beautiful people, beautiful language; I feel very honored to be a part of you, so thank you so much. Talking about words, my son is nine years old. Because we were forced out of China, he’s studying in Germany. And the first English words he spoke were, “No more, Ai Weiwei.” First sentence. I think that’s a very important sentence.
My father is a writer, a poet, and I can’t say that anybody loves literature and poetry more than him. But even when I was growing up, the year I was born, he was being crushed. Criticized. He was among those 300,000 literary people sent to hard labor camps. Thinking back, it is very interesting: Why were those powerful people afraid of a poet? And then when I grew up, he was forbidden to write words. They sensed that it was not enough to punish him, to ask him to clean their public toilets. But because he is a poet, he survived. He made the toilet very clean. I always say it’s better than Donald Judd’s sculptures. That’s something I admired about him. If you are poor, if you are artist, you are always creating your own language, no matter what kind of condition you are in. There’s no punishment worse than the punishment that he was given. He studied in Paris. He joined the revolution. His poetry influenced the whole generation of leaders in China. But then, his words were punished.
Words matter. This is the most powerful thing we can do in life: clearly write down what is in your heart, communicate with people clearly, and bear responsibility for what you have in your mind. The only thing I blame my father for is that when I was growing up, he would not let me read books because he knew I would become a writer, he knew that I would hurt myself. So he would not let me write. So this is one instant in life where I feel not so good about him. Otherwise, I could have been a great writer.
Watch Ai Weiwei’s acceptance speech: