Outcast writer seeks stories in China’s quake zone
The people Liao Yiwu interviews exist on the fringe of Chinese society, and more than a few live closely with death. The mortician. The grave robber. The professional mourner, who now can’t be found.
All were from Sichuan province, the writer’s home and the center of China’s devastating May 12 earthquake. A month ago, it knocked Liao to one knee in his apartment compound. He struggled upright and started running; his home and family survived.
Now Liao is wandering the disaster zone, looking for its stories.
Liao’s writings, mostly banned in China but published in the West, often show those left behind by the country’s economic rise. His new collection will focus on how the quake, which killed more than 69,000 people, is upending lives.
“These deaths are going to change China, and Chinese history,” Liao, 50, said in an interview Friday at a teahouse near his home in Wenjiang, before setting off to explore more of the damage.
Many Chinese have focused on their country’s economic success, taking pride in its emerging global power and status. Now, Liao said, they’ll be more concerned with their own pain and destinies.
The Chinese government disapproves of the way Liao brings people from the country’s darker corners _ the political prisoner, the public toilet manager, the leper _ and publishes their stories. Some of the interviews have appeared in The Paris Review. A collection in English _ “The Corpse Walker” _ was published in the United States this year.
“He’s remarkable, sort of the Studs Terkel of China,” said Larry Siems of the PEN American Center, referring to the American Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and oral historian. The center, which is the U.S. office of the international literary and human rights organization, learned about Liao after receiving a submission from the writer’s U.S.-based translator and then tipped off Paris Review editor Philip Gourevitch.
“Above all, he is a medium for whole muzzled swathes of Chinese society that the (Communist) Party would like to pretend do not exist,” Gourevitch wrote in the book’s foreword.
In the quake zone, Liao found a woman whose daughter’s body was recovered from the most notorious of the many collapsed schools, Juyuan Middle School. The girl, locked in the embrace of another dead student, was found after parents had begged local officials to keep digging.
“The woman was sobbing and incoherent,” Liao said. “I just left the tape recorder on. Even if I can’t reach her again, this is the most memorable one.”
Of the growing public anger over the dozens of collapsed schools, Liao said: “This is a weak group fighting a gigantic government institution. They know they can fight, but they won’t get anywhere.”
Closer to the epicenter, a man told Liao how he woke from a nap and leapt clear of his collapsing building. Another man explained how he dug the bodies of five dead relatives from the rubble.
“Maybe it was cruel, but I asked him what he was thinking as he dug them out, and he said, ‘I didn’t think of anything,'” Liao said.
Liao and his work have been under government scrutiny ever since he publicly mourned those killed when the military crushed pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square 19 years ago. At the time, as one of China’s most popular young poets, he recorded himself wailing, chanting and reading his poem about the killings, “Massacre.”
The tape became popular, passing from person to person underground. But a four-year prison term followed.
While in prison, Liao started doing the interviews that would define his new work. Since his release, Liao has moved from place to place, taking odd jobs and doing more than 300 interviews with others in the world of low pay and uncertain pasts.
Liao’s stories merge his outsider’s voice with those of his subjects. He often visits a person several times and listens _ sometimes without notebook or tape recorder. He then condenses hours of conversation into a single story.
When asked to describe what he does, Liao took a pen and wrote it down: “Memory keeper.”
As he roams the region, Liao is searching for the people he interviewed in “The Corpse Walker.” He worries about the professional mourner, who described how he and his colleagues sustain the wailing at a funeral, even as those who knew the dead person grow weary.
“If you take time to observe us from the side for about an hour or so, you will notice that it is a well-orchestrated chaos,” Li Changgeng told Liao. “For example, when I sob, you wail. It’s like while you’re taking a break, I work the shift.”
In his 70s when he talked to Liao, the man said his work was disappearing as certain traditions fade.
“I can’t find him, which is really sad,” Liao said. “His whole life, he mourned for others. Now there’s not enough energy to mourn for all of these people.”