It is a sad state of affairs when a government chooses to imprison one of its own thinkers for attempting to challenge the regime they live under. International PEN, one of the longest established human rights associations, campaigns for writers’ liberty throughout the world, pressing for the protection of the freedom of speech. It was represented at the St Andrews poetry festival, Stanza, by its Scottish division, with a moving reading of some of Liu Xiaobo’s poems. The Chinese writer and literary critic, currently imprisoned for demanding that China adhere to the Human Rights Charter, was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, but was prevented from collecting it. In the Council Chamber of the St Andrews Town Hall last Saturday, a group of people gathered to listen to words smuggled out of prison.
Very much like at the 2010 Nobel Prize ceremony, one could sense his presence by his absence, with an empty chair at the front of the room magnifying the resilience of words separated from their author. The chair, handcrafted by a group of Scottish students and embellished with images and quotes from persecuted writers as well as carved wooden hands holding a pen, has rapidly earned fame as a symbol for the silence of writers who cannot be silenced. Versions of the chair also stand in Tokyo and Oslo.
Liu Xiaobo’s story not only draws attention to China’s uneasiness about domestic criticism. The fact that he was convicted to eleven years’ imprisonment on Christmas Day of 2009 meant that the government sought to avoid international news reports. This is why readings such as the one in St Andrews are vital in the dissemination of voices that would otherwise be smothered. Yet the selected poems at the reading, whilst alluding to politics and including imagery of imprisonment, were not political denunciations, but love poems written by Liu Xiaobo for, and occasionally in conjunction with, his wife, Liu Xia, who is currently under house arrest. As tender expressions of longing, affection, and desire, they paint a picture of an ordinary, loving couple forced into extraordinary conditions.
The reading was a reminder of how important it is to remember the worth of literature as social and political commentary and admonishment. Writers are usually the first to speak their mind, and an incarcerated writer is a clear indication of a repressive regime’s fear of criticism. Cases such as Liu Xiaobo’s highlight a state’s weakness rather than strength.