As the early spring chill of dusk set in over Grand Army Plaza, the winged goddess of Victory looked on at the hundreds gathered at the foot of the Brooklyn Public Library’s captivating entranceway pillars. At seven o’clock, on the evening of April 10th, Victory stood on high, steadfast, from her bronze crown bedecked with the Soldiers and Sailors, Defenders of the Union. Organizers of the PEN-American Center event, Literary Protest for Free Expression in China, began on a similar note, in full regard, and with a fine exhibition of freedom.
While not yet victorious, supporters of PEN-America, and of the right to free expression the world over, stood, aligned with Victory, in the name of six Chinese writers who remain unjustly detained as Ai Wewei’s unmistakable portrait multiplied on the library steps. China’s preeminent global artist, Ai Weiwei lives under extreme government surveillance, and was then unjustly barred from travel outside of China during his retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, which opened April 17th 2014.
The event proceeded triumphantly, and solemnly, for the freedom of Liu Xiaobo, Liu Xia, Liao Yiwu, Woeser, Zhou Qing, Ilham Tohti, Ai Wewei, and for all of the unnamed writers, and artists, who struggle with such incapacitating social oppressions.
“There are over forty writers on PEN’s case list who are currently detained, in prison, or on trial in China,” said Jacob Weisberg, chairman of the Slate Group, board member at PEN America Center, and author of The Bush Tragedy, who opened the event as the first speaker. “Six are members of the independent, Chinese PEN Center, including the poet and essayist Liu Xiaobo, another is a member of the Uighur PEN Center, yes there is a Uighur PEN Center, Ilham Tohti, and many people list began their advocacy in 1989 during the student-led democracy movement, whose 25th anniversary we’re commemorating this year.”
Liu Xiaobo then served an eleven-year term in prison after the Chinese government accused him of separatism. He is nearly a household name, as close as any contemporary Chinese writer has come in new American letters. However, his international fame, and recognition as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, among other outstanding claims, including the 2009 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, never overshadowed the strength of his criticism, the clarity of his prose, nor the authenticity of his verse.
In October of 2009, PEN America published four poems by Xiaobo, all addressed to Liu Xia, Xiaobo’s wife. Written in the fall of 2009, Xiaobo’s Longing to Escape expresses the double-edged sword inherent in the writer’s lifeblood. “…I long to lie at your feet, besides / being tied to death this is / my one duty…”.
Here, Liu Xia, as Xiaobo’s most vital source of love, can be read as a metaphor for the freedom to express, as well as for the bittersweet realities of social progress, as to the universality of mortal strife. Liu Xia is also a prominent poet, then under extra-legal house arrest since the arrest of Xiaobo, and immediately following his reception of the Nobel Peace Prize over three years ago. Despite suffering a heart ailment, and depression, Xia continues to exemplify a voice of free expression.
“While so many activists are imprisoned for speaking out, we often forget that families are the ones who pay the heaviest price,” Jennifer Egan said to an eager crowd, who stood, many as activists holding signs in honorable solidarity. “You can imagine how terrified I felt to face the world alone after they came to take Liu Xiaobo away. I have had no choice but to accept that reality. I have been extremely tired. I have chose this life myself, so need to see it through to the end.”
Egan, who herself won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for her fiction work, A Visit from the Goon Squad, recounted a petition Ha Jin wrote on behalf of his absence especially for the event, and Liu Xia’s letter to a friend published this January in the New York Times. She spoke with a collected, however piercing gravity, as hundreds of literary protestors all listened eagerly to the words of the most notable of their literary and political colleagues. Liu Xiaobo, and Liu Xia, shared in the event’s vocalized platform with Liao Yiwu, Woeser, Zhou Qing, and Ilham Tohti who are also stigmatized in China as dissidents, and separatists, and who now continue to bear testimony among the countless detained, and exiled, Chinese intellectuals.
Before the event was led onward to hear a never-before-seen video message from Ai Weiwei projected onto the Brooklyn Museum, authors Chang-rae Lee, Victoria Redel, and Sergio De La Pava forwarded the leading voices in Chinese literature, as they now face inexcusable forms of government suppression. The Tibetan-Chinese works of Woeser, as with the Uighur perspective in Ilham Tohti, provided the event with an authentic, vibrantly diverse representation of Chinese literary culture.
Finally, Ai Weiwei’s voice resounded through the streets at the Brooklyn Museum, relaying a clear message to Chinese officials that art, and words, will not be suppressed. Articulated through light, Ai Weiwei carried his succinct, exclusive message to New Yorkers, to Americans, and to the global community:
Thank you for coming and supporting free expression. As an artist, I think free expression is a very essential foundation for any kind of activity, and also freedom of expression is to encourage every individual to question their sanity, and to become more creative. So, these are very, very essential values for artists to protect, and to fight for, and it will never come as a gift, but rather through our artworks, our words, our lines, our music, and the poetry, and all those expressions together can discuss what a human, or humanity is about. So, only by doing that can we have a better society, we can work together, and we can have more discoveries about ourselves.
Thank you for this act, this is very important, not only in China, but elsewhere in the world. So, we’re together fighting for freedom of expression. In my case, I don’t have the rights to travel now, I don’t have my passport, and I’m still under a kind of self-detention, which is not right. We have to encourage the individual to become a part of the society through free expression, to question the society, and to bear responsibility, and to contribute our ideas, or our thinking about what kind of society we’re living in, and what kind of future we’ll have. Thank you for coming, and thank you for your contribution.