Liu Xiaobo: Lover and Poet

By | July 5, 2017 at 2:05 pm | No comments | Blog, Profiles | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Charlie Foran, former president of PEN Canada, reflects on the cancer diagnosis and medical parole of Chinese writer, Liu Xiaobo.

Lover and Poet

So the Chinese government has applied its full authoritarian weight to the task of destroying another voice of conscience. So that voice belongs to a Nobel laureate, given the 2010 peace prize while in prison for publishing a document promoting individual rights and protections and calling for multi-party elections. So the document has come to early-days nothing and the laureate, ill with late-stage liver cancer that may have been allowed to take its course without proper treatment, has been granted medical parole. So nations of the world that boast of their commitments to these same rights and protections have said little about this fifth act of grotesquery, the way they said little about the previous four acts, and have done even less, it being just one voice, one tragedy, after all, and this being China, after all.

Put aside for a moment the Liu Xiaobo who authored Charter 08, or whose courage, hopefulness, activism and vision represented the best of the 1989 democracy movement, a generation for whom the word ‘doomed’ is inadequate. Put aside as well that the sixty-one-year-old Liu Xiaobo who is suddenly ‘free’ isn’t free at all, being inmate still of the much larger prison, the super-sized one. (Unless, that is, the government, wishing the further cover of a foreign death for their famous citizen, reverses course and allows him to leave China to receive medical attention.)

Instead, let us celebrate this great man’s greater, more lasting freedom, so terribly earned: to be back in the arms of his beloved. Liu Xia, herself a poet, painter and photographer, has been made to suffer almost as much as her husband. She has lived under house arrest, harassed and monitored non-stop, her health affected, a brother forced to pay for his blood ties – all without having ever been charged with anything. She has also had to live through the agony of these past seven years minus the companionship of her closest friend. The couple have no children.

He shouts passionately as a poet “no, no, no” to the dictators.
In private, he whispers gently to the dead souls of June 4, who,
to this day, have not received justice: “Yes, Yes.”

But they have had poetry, and they have it again now. The Lius wrote poetry together as a young couple and Liu Xiaobo used some of his three different stays in prison to continue writing poems to her, even when denied pen and paper. On accepting an award on behalf of her incarcerated companion a few years ago from her “not-free home in Beijing,” Liu Xia explained in a note: “Over the past twenty years, Xiaobo and I have accumulated hundreds of such poems, which were born of the conversations between our souls. In my eyes, he has always been and will always be an awkward and diligent poet.”

Lovers everywhere will recognize the tenderness and private communication behind her remarks. And Liu Xia, while acknowledging the Nobel Prize was for his activism, is no less proud of his creative work. She writes, “I feel that Xiaobo is using his intensity and passion as a poet to push the democracy movement forward in China. He shouts passionately as a poet “no, no, no” to the dictators. In private, he whispers gently to the dead souls of June 4, who, to this day, have not received justice, as well as to me and to all his dear friends: “yes, yes.”

Before you enter the grave/
don’t forget to write me with your ashes/
do not forget to leave your address in the nether world

Liu Xiaobo’s political poetry, much of it directly about the Tiananmen generation, has been published around the world. The poems are indeed full of moral passion and fury. “From the grins of corpses/you’ve learned/that it is only death/that never fails.” But it is his love poems, the ones often composed solely in his head behind bars, where his “awkward and diligent” poetry takes flight.

In 1999, while serving three years in a labor camp for publishing an article about China and Taiwan, Liu Xiaobo wrote: “Beloved my wife/in this dust-weary world/so much depravity/why do you/choose me alone to endure.” Elsewhere, contrasting their private happiness with the darkness of China, he assured her: “Dearest, I am your life prisoner/ preferring to be in your darkness always.”

Then there is the poem Liu Xia quotes in her acceptance note. “Before you enter the grave/don’t forget to write me with your ashes/do not forget to leave your address in the nether world.” Likely she selected the poem for its starkness and honesty. Now it seems prescient and almost too sad.

But that would be the wrong interpretation. Consider this: in summer 2017 Liu Xiaobo is with Liu Xia once more. They share an address in this world, at least for the moment, and they are free to recite poetry to each other. He also has pen and paper to compose more poems, if he wishes.

So many of us hope he does.

Charlie Foran, a former president of PEN Canada, is CEO of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship.

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