American Writers and Artists Stand For Free Expression at Brooklyn Protest

(NEW YORK) ­­– Nearly 200 writers, artists, and activists joined PEN American Center at Brooklyn Public Library last night to protest the Chinese government’s relentless efforts to undermine free expression ahead of a new retrospective by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei opening at the Brooklyn Museum on April 18. Billed as a “Literary Protest for Free Expression in China,” the event featured readings of the works of persecuted Chinese authors by high-profile American writers including Sergio De La Pava, Jennifer Egan, Chang Rae Lee, Victoria Redel, Jacob Weisberg, and filmmaker Alison Klayman. PEN American Center, Brooklyn Public Library, and Friends of Ai Weiwei sponsored the event with support from the Asian American Writers Workshop and Phil & Co.

Event organizers then defied the Chinese government by virtually bringing Ai, who has been barred from leaving China since 2011, to the Brooklyn Museum in a never-before-seen message from the artist projected onto the museum’s exterior. “As an artist, I think free expression is a very essential foundation for any type of activity,” Ai says in the exclusive new video. “It will never come as a gift, but rather through our artworks, our voice, our lines, our music, and our poetry, all of which together can discuss what humanity is about.”

Nearby, the NYC Light Brigade delivered PEN’s message to the Chinese government: “Free Expression,” spelled out in both Chinese and English in massive letters on the museum steps.

“We came out on a night when spring was in the air and flowers were blossoming to read the words of writers who cannot breath freely, and whose words and ideas cannot bloom,” said PEN Executive Director Suzanne Nossel. “As China expands its global reach, the forces that our colleagues and fellow PEN Members are up against have stiffened.  Governments, corporations and even creative institutions are deepening ties to China.  Those willing to speak out are fewer, and more important.”

Nossel spotlighted the case of Ilham Tohti, calling on participants to help make his a household name.  Long harassed by Chinese authorities for his outspoken views on the rights of China’s Muslim Uyghur minority, 44-year old Tohti was arrested by authorities at his home in Beijing on January 15, 2014.   The arrest occurred in front of Tohti’s two youngest children, aged 4 and 7, who were forced to sit silently and watch as their home was ransacked and their father taken away. An official arrest indicates Tohti has been charged with “separatism” and is being held incommunicado at a detention center thousands of miles from Beijing in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, without access to a lawyer. In March, PEN named Tohti the 2014 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award recipient.

“We want the Chinese government to know we’re watching, and those two little boys to know that they, and their father, are not alone,” Nossel said.

There are more than 40 Chinese writers, artists, and intellectuals on PEN’s caselist, all of whom are currently detained, awaiting trial, under house arrest, under invasive government surveillance, or living in exile.


Founded in 1922, PEN American Center is a community of 3,500 American writers working to break down barriers to free expression around the world. Learn more at

Contact: Sarah Edkins, 212-334-1660 x116, sedkins[at]