This evening, the Pen American Center and The New School will host Chinese author and musician Liao Yiwu, one of China’s most exciting and most censored writers, in his first U.S. appearance. PEN President Kwame Anthony Appiah notes, “As it gets harder for independent-minded writers to leave China, an opportunity like this to hear directly from a great Chinese writer is an increasingly precious thing.”

Mr. Liao, 53, has been called the “Studs Terkel of China” for his vivid literary portraits of the lives of ordinary Chinese. He was denied permission to travel to New York for the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature earlier this year, but escaped to Germany via the Vietnamese border on July 6, 2011. He is visiting New York on the eve of the publication of his new book God Is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China, translated by Wen Huang, who will also be in attendance.

Liao was born in 1958, during the famine of The Great Leap Forward that killed more than 20 million people. He was almost one of its victims, facing near-death starvation as a child. He was forced out of school by the Cultural Revolution and in 1966, his father was branded a counter-revolutionary. His father was a teacher of Chinese literature and his mother a music instructor, both of whom passed their gifts on to their son.

After Tianamen: Arrest, Imprisonment and Continued Writing
Mr. Liao was imprisoned for four years beginning in 1990 for his epic poem “Massacre,” a condemnation of the government’s massacre at Tiananmen Square. With the help of a visiting Canadian friend, he made a tape, chanting his poem into an old toothless tape recorder.

He was soon after placed on the government’s permanent blacklist. He suffered torture and abusive punishment while in prison. From a fellow prisoner, an elderly monk, he learned to play the xiao, a Chinese bamboo flute. He also began to interview other prisoners about their lives.

He has endured constant harassment and threat of further incarceration since his release.

Though all his books are banned in China, he has continued to write. He is the author of the internationally acclaimed book The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up, which was banned in China soon after it was published in Taiwan in 2001. The book is a collection of interviews with people he encountered in prison and during wanderings in the southwest, and tells the unadorned stories of 27 people, among them a public toilet attendant, a persecuted landlord, and the men, known as corpse walkers, whose job it is to transport the dead back to their hometowns for burial.

In 2003, Mr. Liao received a Human Rights Watch Hellman-Hammett Grant, and in 2007, he received a Freedom to Write Award from the Independent Chinese PEN Center.

He has faced increased survellienance from the Chinese government and has been denied exit visas 17 times. He was forcibly removed from a plane in Chengdu in March 2010, after which he was placed under house arrest. He was allowed to visit book fairs in Germany last autumn only to face more restrictions upon his return to China.

Travel Restrictions and House Arrest
Liao, a board member of the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC) was scheduled to appear at this year’s PEN World Voices Festival in New York in April 2011. He had secured an exit visa to attend the festival as well at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May. However, just days before he was due to travel, authorities re-contacted Liao and informed him that he was once again barred from traveling outside of China. PEN was informed that Liao was also asked to sign a document agreeing that he would no longer seek to publish his “illegal” works overseas.

PEN denounced the Chinese government’s refusal to allow him to leave China. Festival Chairman Salman Rushdie said that the travel ban was “a blatant violation of China’s obligations to guarantee freedom of movement and expression” and that he was extrememly dissapointed that the world would not be able to hear from Liao. “One of China’s most censored writers, Liao’s groundbreaking writing has for years been off limits to his fellow citizens; now his government seeks to extend the long arm of censorship overseas. I think I speak not only for PEN and Liao’s enthusiastic readers in the United States but also for the writers from every continent gathering here next week when I say that we emphatically protest this travel ban, which does nothing to advance China’s image in the eyes of the world.”

“Words alone cannot express my outrage,” Liao Yiwu said in an email to PEN American Center at the time. “I’m a writer and never considered myself a political dissident. But Liu Xiaobo was right when he said, ‘To gain and preserve your freedom and dignity, there is no other way except to fight.’”

PEN wrote to Chinese authorities to appeal the travel ban, arguing that allowing Liao to appear in the U.S. “will send a strong message to the world about China’s interest in international literary and cultural exchange” and increase “respect and enthusiasm for China’s expanding literary achievements. PEN President Kwame Anthony Appiah requested a meeting with representatives of the Chinese Mission to the U.N. to discuss Liao’s situation, but no meeting was granted.

At the opening ceremony of the festival, Mr. Rushdie placed an empty chair on the stage to pay tribute to Liao’s involuntary absence. Liao then wrote Rushdie a letter, saying, “This prison-like state has confined me. I’m not alone…At a certain venue in Norway in 2010, an empty chair was set on the stage for my old friend Liu Xiaobo. I can only hope that my writings, which serve as testimony on China’s present and its history, deserve that empty chair at your opening ceremony.”

Free At Last
Facing increased fear that he may be arrested surrounding the upcoming U.S. publication of his new book by Harper One in August, Liao fled China in July. He left behind his mother, girlfriend, son, and two siblings for what he hopes is a temporary exile. According to the New York Times, Liao “slipped across the border into Vietnam…and then made his way, via Poland, to Germany, where he promptly declared himself an exile.” Jubilant, he said, “I’m ecstatic, I’m finally free.” Speaking neither German nor English and having no money with him, he relied upon his friends and publisher to help him find his way when he arrived, grateful for the support he has received from the international community but bereaved to have had to leave his homeland: “Germany, the U.S. and Australia have all welcomed me,” he said. “But the place I really want to be is China.”

Chinese writers and dissidents are currently facing the worst crackdown on freedom of expression in years with at least 48 writers in prison, detained, or put under house arrest—a number even higher than during the 2008 Olympic year.

The Independent Chinese PEN Center has been a particular target, with four members in prison, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. Sarah Hoffman, PEN’s Freedom to Write Coordinator, just told me that the situation is still very grim: “While many have been released from house arrest, there are still a significant number of writers in detention. We have counted 48 still in detention, prison, or house arrest in regions across China, including Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Xinjiang. There are four Independent Chinese PEN Center members still in prison.”

Tonight’s very special evening of music and words will include a reading from Liao’s forthcoming book, an on-stage interview, and a musical performance by him. If you’re in New York, click here to get tickets to honor the writer who continued to write despite all efforts to silence him. You can also read his moving piece entitled Nineteen Days, in which he describes where he was and what he was doing on June 4th every year since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.