The Poet in an Unknown Prison
In response to China’s Charter 08 (January 15, 2009)
On April 16, the PEN American Center named the Beijing-based writer and dissident Liu Xiaobo the recipient of the 2009 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. The award honors international literary figures who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising or defending the right to freedom of expression.
Liu is a literary critic, activist, and poet who participated in the pro- democracy movement in China in the spring of 1989. After the Tiananmen crackdown he spent two years in prison, and since then has been often harassed by the police and imprisoned several times for his political activism and writing. On December 8, 2008, he was arrested for signing Charter 08, a declaration calling for democracy, human rights, and an end to one-party rule in China, which has now been signed by over 8,500 people throughout the country.[*] Since his arrest Liu has been held without charges or trial at an unknown location in Beijing.
The following remarks were sent to PEN by Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, and read at the award ceremony in New York on April 28.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a pity that both my husband Liu Xiaobo and I could not be present this evening to receive this award.
Twenty-six years ago, both of us were writing modern poetry. It is through our poetry that we became acquainted and eventually fell in love. Six years later, the unprecedented student democratic movement and massacre occurred in Beijing. Xiaobo dutifully stood his ground and, consequently, became widely known as one of the so-called June 4 “black hands.” His life then changed forever. He has been put into jail several times, and even when he is at home, he is still, for the most part, not a free man. As his wife, I have no other choice but to become a part of his unfortunate life.
Yet I am not a vassal of Liu Xiaobo. I am very fond of poetry and painting, but at the same time, I have not come to view Xiaobo as a political figure. In my eyes, he has always been and will always be an awkward and diligent poet. Even in prison, he has continued to write his poems. When the warden took away his paper and pen, he simply pulled his verse out of thin air. Over the past twenty years, Xiaobo and I have accumulated hundreds of such poems, which were born of the conversations between our souls. I would like to quote one here:
Before you enter the grave
Don’t forget to write me with your ashes
Do not forget to leave your address in the nether world
Another Chinese poet, Liao Yiwu, has commented on Xiaobo’s poem: “He carries the burden of those who died on June 4 in his love, in his hatred, and in his prayers. Such poems could have been written in the Nazis’ concentration camps or by the Decembrists in Imperial Russia. Which brings to mind the famous sentence: ‘It is barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz.'” Such statements are also characteristic of the situation in China after 1989.
I understand, however, that this award is not meant to encourage Liu Xiaobo the poet, but rather to encourage Liu Xiaobo the political commentator and initiator of Charter 08. I would like to remind everyone of the close connection between these two identities. I feel that Xiaobo is using his intensity and passion as a poet to push the democracy movement forward in China. He shouts passion-ately as a poet “no, no, no” to the dictators.
In private, he whispers gently to the dead souls of June 4, who, to this day, have not received justice, as well as to me and to all his dear friends: “yes, yes.”
Finally, I extend my deepest gratitude to the PEN American Center, the Independent Chinese PEN Center, and everyone in attendance at this event tonight.
—Liu Xia, April 17, 2009, at my not-free home in Beijing
[*]See www.nybooks.com/articles/22210 for a translation of Charter 08, together with a postscript by Perry Link [“China’s Charter 08,” NYR, January 15]; and www.nybooks.com/articles/22654 for remarks by Václav Havel on presenting the Homo Homini Award to Liu and other signers of Charter 08 in Prague, as well as the text of speeches given by two of the signers of Charter 08 at the award ceremony.