When the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature was announced in the early morning of October 11, I met the news with worry. Here was a Chinese writer, Mo Yan, a celebrated novelist, one whose body of work certainly is worthy of the prize, and who “has created a world reminiscent in its complexity of those in the writings of William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez, at the same time finding a departure point in old Chinese literature and in oral tradition,” as the citation from the Swedish Academy states. But I immediately felt concern for Mo Yan’s well-being, indeed, for his safety. The last time a Chinese national received a Nobel Prize, it did not go well for him. Or his wife. Or his family. Or his friends. Or his colleagues and supporters. Or for diplomatic relations between China and Norway.
My worry turned to surprise, however, and skepticism. The Chinese government and the Chinese people have embraced this news, and Mo Yan and his work. The Communist Party hailed this year’s Nobel Prize as a triumph for China. The Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, even stated, “the Chinese people have waited too long” for such an honor.
In truth, if they were allowed this information, the Chinese people have only waited two years since the last Chinese national received a Nobel Prize. That one was for peace, won by Liu Xiaobo while he was—is—serving an 11-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.” His current prison sentence is his fourth. A leading activist during the Tiananmen Square protests, he is also one of the authors of Charter 08, the manifesto calling for fundamental human rights. A poet and literary scholar, Liu has become the foremost symbol of the struggle for human rights in China. And yet few in China know his name, so severely and so totally has the state erased him from the media, from collective memory, from the country’s official history. Liu is now better known outside of his own country.
This past April, Graywolf Press published Liu Xiaobo’s June Fourth Elegies, a powerful series of poems commemorating those lost at Tiananmen Square in the protests of June 4, 1989, and the ensuing violence and government crackdown. The book contains Liu’s 20-year record of grief and guilt as each year after Tiananmen, up through his latest arrest and incarceration in 2008, he faithfully writes a new elegy to those killed or imprisoned or otherwise silenced. Expertly translated from the Chinese by poet Jeffrey Yang, an esteemed editor at New Directions Publishing, and including a new foreword by the Dalai Lama, June Fourth Elegies reads not only as literature but also as historic document. These poems are outcries of rage, grief, and guilt, and they provide a raw account of Liu’s life under house arrest, under government surveillance, and in work camps and prisons. “Those who flee freedom live on/ but their souls die in fear,” Liu writes in one elegy. “Those who thirst for freedom die/ but their souls live on in resistance.”
Publishing can be an act of resistance, of allowing a voice to be heard, even when extreme forces are pitched to ensure that voice is silenced. Liu is still in prison. His wife, Liu Xia, is still under strict house arrest. His family and friends are under surveillance. It is a profound injustice that most in China are unaware of Liu’s struggle for fundamental rights. For American publishing, it’s an extraordinary reminder of how essential to our awareness and understanding translation can be.
Mo Yan—his name a chosen pen name, meaning “don’t speak”—has been criticized for failing to take a political stand, for being too acceptable to the Communist Party. Instead, he prefers often to write more veiled and historical narratives. Surely that is the bargain in his own mind he has had to strike in order to survive as a serious artist in China. But the day after the national celebration for his Nobel Prize, Mo Yan spoke in solidarity with Liu Xiaobo: “I hope he can achieve his freedom as soon as possible.” This statement was quickly and entirely struck from any public record by Chinese state censors.
That the Chinese authorities will continue to erase Liu Xiaobo from its peoples’ awareness is clear. What is less clear, now, is how safe Mo Yan is, let alone if in December he will have the freedom to travel to Stockholm to accept his Nobel Prize. At the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, Liu’s absence was symbolized by an empty chair set for him. Will there be another empty chair set for Mo Yan?
Jeffrey Shotts, senior editor at Graywolf Press, edited Liu Xiaobo’s June Fourth Elegies.