It is easy to take the act of writing, the pleasure of reading for granted. As easy as it to presume the liberty to speak, the liberty to listen, the liberty to weave disparate views into a workable and strong social fabric. But freedom of speech and the associated freedoms that come with it – the freedom to hear disparate views, to challenge to power, to name abuse – can never be taken as given. They are rights that have been hard won in every country where citizens have the right to speak out. In countries where freedom of expression is denied, it is always the first step towards democracy. When Aung Sang Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in Burma in November, 2010, her first statement paid tribute to the fundamental importance of freedom of expression.
This past Sunday, March the 20th, the Berlin-based Peter Weiss Foundation of Art and Politics commemorated of the Anniversary of the Political Lie. (The first political lie was the weapons-of-mass-destruction whopper that led to the invasion of Iraq.) There is a surfeit of political lies to choose from each year, but this year coordinated worldwide readings were held to pressurize the Chinese government to release Liu Xiaobo, the writer and activist.
The South African PEN Writers in Prison Committee and Poetry International South Africa joined with more than 90 organisations around the world to protest Liu Xioaboa’s ongoing detention. A number of South African writers with firsthand experience of prison shared their own writing.
Liu Xiaobo is currently the world’s only winner of the Nobel Peace Prize still held in detention. In 2009, after co-authoring ‘Charter 08’, a manifesto calling for greater freedoms and democracy in China, He was sentenced to eleven years in prison on a spurious charge of ‘inciting subversion of state power’. 1936 was the last time neither the winner, German journalist and pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, nor any of his family members, could go to Oslo to collect the Nobel Peace Prize. They were all barred from leaving Nazi Germany. This is an uncomfortable historical twinning.
Liu Xiaobo’s family and supporters have been continuously harassed since the prize. His wife, Liu Xia, has been under house arrest and has, by all accounts, suffered great psychological stress. The poem that was read around the world on Sunday was a moving and intimate tribute by Liu Xiaobo to his wife’s suffering and his own deep loneliness.
You sit there all day long
Not daring to move
For fear that your footsteps will trample the dust
You try to control your breathing
Using silence to write a story.
What does it mean to show solidarity with writers who are not free to say what they want, whose stories are told in enforced silence? What is the point of gestures? Liu Xiaobo wrote that ‘in a dictatorial country, open letters signed by individuals or groups form an important method for the civilians to resist dictatorship and fight for freedom.’
The voices of writers are quieter and more measured than the klaxon blare that is the voice of the repressive state. It is this persistent quietness that undemocratic governments cannot tolerate. In China, in Apartheid South Africa, in Turkey, in parts of South America, in the swathe of protesting countries in the Arab world, in Russia, the voices of writers, of journalists, of citizens have been met with brutal and incommensurate force. . Like the bully in the playground a government that as turned on its own people will drive its boot into the face of those it has temporarily felled.
Writing that comes from the thinking heart has a great the power of reflection. A measured voice, the considered quietness that comes from writing and reading and speaking the truth is not silence. It mirrors injustice and that enrages parasitic, brutal and paranoid governments.
Writing delineates the villainy of tyrants as it reveals the poignancy of intimacy, normality, gentleness experienced as a miracle. Liu Xiaobo’s poem to his waiting wife does just that. No wonder the Chinese government is afraid of him.
Just let yourself fall asleep in the dust
until I return
and you come awake
wiping the dust from your skin and your soul.
What a miracle – back from the dead.