Philip Gourevitch: Liao Yiwu Unbound
For the New Yorker, Philip Gourevitch writes about writer Liao Yiwu’s recent move to Germany:
Liao, who is best known in America for his book, “The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up,” is not only a true artist, but also a true patriot: while his work gets under the Communist Party’s skin—and has repeatedly landed him in prison—it is driven by a defiant love and celebration of China and its people. And for a while, in recent years, it looked like Beijing might have decided he could simply be ignored. Last fall, he was permitted for the first time to travel abroad, and he appeared at a literary festival in Germany, where “The Corpse Walker” was a bestseller. But in the wake of the popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East early this year, there has been a steady crackdown on independent voices in China, and when we last heard from Liao, in late March, he had just been visited by the police and prevented from making a long-planned trip to attend the PEN World Voices Festival in New York.
At the opening ceremony of the PEN Festival, Salman 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 [the ceremony for the Nobel Prize in Literature], 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.” In his response, Rushdie wrote to Liao, “Quite simply, we miss you.”
It is bad enough to have to miss a writer, and it makes it even worse to have to miss his writing as well. When the Chinese authorities grounded Liao in March, they also made him sign a declaration that he would not publish any “illegal” books abroad. Liao knew what the problem was: his magnum opus, a memoir of his ordeal as a Chinese political prisoner, was scheduled to be published this spring in Taiwan, and in translation in Germany.