Saturday, November 20, 2010

WiPC Chair’s Notebook 20 December, 2010 Freedom of expression…is the mother of all truth: 50th Anniversary Year ends with Nobel Peace Prize for Liu Xiaobo

Whenever I think of this year, the image that comes to mind is that banner of 50 emblematic cases on the pages of Because Writers Speak Their Minds. We had no way of knowing, when we started to build that list a year ago, that it was not only a rich collection of historical documents, but also a list of writers with currency and resonance, writers who are still speaking their minds with great power. The entire list has been translated into Chinese (by ICPC) and Japanese by Japan PEN and it was the focus of a beautiful, contemplative installation at Waseda University in Tokyo, along with an exquisite Empty Chair commissioned by Japan PEN WiPC.

The final four months of 2010 have been extraordinary for the WiPC. On September 16, PEN International hosted an important session at the UN in Geneva, on the subject of Religious Defamation, at which we showed eloquent video statements by four writers including Wole Soyinka (emblematic case 1965): "...since you have so many religions in the world, and there is only one humanity, that one humanity and the fundamental claims of humanity have to take precedence over the conflicting claims of religion."

During the historic Congress in Tokyo, an evening was devoted to the WiPC 50th Anniversary celebration; it included readings taken from the 50 Cases and translated into Japanese; also a reading in English of "The Wild Pigeon" by imprisoned Uyhghur writer Nurmuhemmet Yasin, for which Japan PEN commissioned as illustration a series of luminous evocative paintings (displayed on a large screen), and a performance by the legendary Japanese dancer Min Tanaka with guitarist Kazuo Imai.

On October 8th, we learned that Liu Xiaobo (2009) had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2010; one of his many prominent nominators was previous Nobel laureate Vaclav Havel (1979).

On the eve of the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, on November 15th, Aung San Suu Kyi (1991) was released from her long house arrest. Many centres around the world had events on this day, and I was delighted to be invited by Swedish PEN to Stockholm,
where winter comes earlier than it does to Toronto; there had already been a serious snowfall and children were skating on the little rink in one of the squares. Pellucid northern light played on the silvery waters of the harbour and stone of ancient buildings. Darkness fell at four in the afternoon, but there were torches outside doorways and candles in windows. The streets were hung with veils of festive lights.

At the Royal Dramatic Theatre. Per Wastberg (former PEN president, former Chair of the International Writers in Prison Committee, now Chair of the Swedish Academy, overseeing the Nobel Prize for Literature) told me this annual day was first suggested by Arthur Miller in the early 80s. Swedish PEN is one of the oldest PEN centres, founded in 1922, and in the room this evening there were four Chairs of the Writers in Prison Committee-Per Wastberg, Thomas von Vegesack, Eugene Schoulgin and me. Also the Syrian poet, Faraj Bayakdar (1988), and Afghan poet, satirist, writer and medical doctor, Samay Hamed, a key player in the rebuilding of Afghan PEN and the release of Parwez Kambakhsh (2008); Samay Hamed was the 2010 winner of Swedish PEN's annual Tucholsky Prize. (Kambakhsh was awarded PEN Canada's One Humanity Prize in October.)

Onstage there was a beautiful Empty Chair. Like PEN centres, in Scotland, Sydney and Japan this year, Swedish PEN had invited an artist to reflect on the meaning of this PEN tradition (begun in 1995 by PEN Canada). Norwegian artist Liv Due constructed a chair from rusted iron and glass and paper to honour the Eritrean journalist Dawit Isaak (2002). The readings, speeches (except mine), musical performances were all in Swedish, but the evening didn't need translation; it was powerful and familiar- four actors reading scenes from Harold Pinter's Mountain Language, a play by Harold Pinter, a reading from Soyinka's memoir, You Must Set Forth at Dawn, by a beautiful young black actor, poets performing in Arabic and Swedish. And finally, a renowned Swedish actress read two short poems by Liu Xiaobo.

And finally, on December 10th, the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, where the ideals that we share and have fought for in PEN-freedom of expression, democracy and peace-were celebrated; in the words of absent Laureate, Liu Xiaobo: Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity and the mother of truth. Winter, still; Oslo was very cold and the surrounding countryside blanketed in snow, trees etched in frost, restaurants in the intimate city centre filled with jolly Norwegians celebrating Christmas. On the morning of December 10th, Tienchi Martin, chair of ICPC, Yu Zhang, ICPC's general secretary and PEN president John Ralston Saul took part in a Breakfast Seminar, at which Scottish PEN's wonderfully expressive Empty Chair was prominently displayed; Tienchi brought Liu into the room, with these words: Liu Xiaobo's dinner on December 10, 2010 may look like this: boiled vegetables with sand, and a few pieces of fat meat as a special treat. He might have an extra piece of steamed bread, and his rice bowl could also be refilled today. In short, it is a privileged meal that will long be remembered, because it is a meal that will leave the stomach truly filled. After all, he is the first Chinese to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

In the afternoon, 1000 people gathered in Oslo's City Hall. The ceremony began with a Norwegian soprano singing Edward Grieg's exquisite Solveig's Song, a lament for an absent lover, which today seemed to be the song of Liu's wife, Xia, also prevented from attending by China. Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjørn Jagland cited Liu's writings, notably Charter 08 and the relevant sections of the China's Constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech to China's citizens and noted that Liu's award is in the tradition of Andrej Sakharov, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, and Aung San Suu Kyi, all of whose countries roundly condemned the awarding of the Prize to them. The speech was broken by four protracted standing ovations; the Chinese guests were clustered in rows and then there were row upon row of Norwegians, who seemed to all quietly share, without question, a commitment to human rights, of which this prize is the most public and global (and often controversial) symbol. The king and queen stood for every ovation. Then the citation and medal were carefully placed on an empty chair, a Nobel Committee chair, a soft blue tapestry stitched with white birds in flight. After several Chinese traditional songs were played on a violin, Liv Ullman read the lengthy "Final Statement" Liu made on the eve of being sentenced one year ago. Somehow the serenely aging, beautiful actor embodied the words of the slight, intense philosopher-poet, keeping clear the sense of something urgent and uncertain, written from a prison cell. In the reading, the aspirations of the Chinese people for democracy and the support of Westerners for our Chinese friends and colleagues were joined; many wept a little. Then, at Liu's request (the only instructions the Nobel Committee received from him concerning the ceremony), a chorus of children sang.

We all felt extraordinarily privileged to be in the room. There was something ineffably Norwegian about this ceremony-grace and dignity rather than formality, no pomp, even with royalty, just what we all happened to be doing in Oslo this cold Friday afternoon in December. Later, the torchlight parade had the same quiet certainty-simple phrases repeated in unison, wrapped and muffled people walking on snow, mittened hands wrapped around torches which illuminated ordinary faces, Chinese, some from other countries, most Norwegian, some holding small portraits of Liu, rounding the corner quite silently, led by banners, then standing and facing the portrait throw up on the façade of the Grand Hotel, over the balcony upon which the Laureate would normally stand for greetings and applause. The square was very full, people spilling up the staircases at one end. People lingered even after their torches burned down.

My very best wishes to all of you for a joyous holiday season. I look forward to working with you in 2011.

-Marian Botsford Fraser

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