Rally tomorrow @ NYPL, 11 a.m.

Update: Read Brian Montopoli's report on the rally at CBSNews.com.

On the steps of the New York Public Library: Hilma Wolitzer, A.M. Homes, Edward Albee, E.L. Doctorow, Honor Moore, Jessica Hagedorn, Steve Eisenberg, Don DeLillo, and Victoria Redel. More photos here.

Tomorrow at 11 a.m., on the steps of the New York Public Library, E.L. Doctorow, Don DeLillo, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Edward Albee, A.M. Homes, Honor Moore, and others will read briefly from Liu's writings and call for his release.

Liu was sentenced on Christmas to 11 years in prison for "inciting subversion of state power." Read the verdict; learn more about the case; then email Hu Jintao and tell him to release Liu Xiaobo.


When: New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2009
Where: Front steps of the New York Public Library, 5th Ave. at 42nd St., New York City
What time: 11:00 a.m.

With E.L. Doctorow, Don DeLillo, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Edward Albee, A.M. Homes, Honor Moore, and other PEN Members

Press who plan to attend should RSVP to sarah@pen.org


Liu Xiaobo's So-Called Crimes

Yesterday, the Chinese government sentenced writer Liu Xiaobo to 11 years in prison and an additional two years’ deprivation of political rights for “inciting subversion of state power.” PEN American Center President Kwame Anthony Appiah released this statement when the verdict was announced early on Christmas day.

As we have frequently noted, Liu is not only one of China’s most important and acclaimed dissident voices, he is also a PEN colleague. Liu was one of the founding members of the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC), and he served as the center’s president from 2003 to 2007 and afterwards continued to serve on its board of directors.

Yesterday afternoon, Liu’s colleagues at ICPC sent us the first bits of the official verdict of the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court—the exact passages from Liu’s writing that were judged to be subversive.

Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison for seven sentences from five articles he posted on the Internet and two sentences from Charter 08—a total of 224 Chinese characters. Here they are:

From “Further Questions about Child Slavery in China’s Kilns” (2007):

Since the Communist Party of China (CPC) took power, generations of CPC dictators have cared most about their own power and least about human life.

From “The CPC’s Dictatorial Patriotism” (2005):

The official patriotism advocated by the CPC dictatorship is a fallacious system of “substituting the party for the country.” The essence of this patriotism is to demand that the people love the dictatorship, the one-party rule, and the dictators. It usurps patriotism in order to inflict disasters on the nation and calamities on the people.

From “The Many Aspects of CPC Dictatorship”:

Thus, all of the tricks used by the CPC are stop-gap measures for the dictators to preserve the last phase of their power and will not be able to support for long this dictatorial edifice that is already showing countless cracks.

From “Changing the Regime by Changing Society” (2006):

Changing the Regime by Changing Society

From “Can it be that the Chinese People Deserve Only ‘Party-Led Democracy’?” (2006):

For the emergence of a free China, placing hope in the ruler of a “New Deal” is an idea far worse than placing hope in the continuous expansion of the “new force” among the people.

From “The Negative Effects of the Rise of Dictatorship on World Democratization” (2006):

[Nothing was actually quoted from the article]

From Charter 08 (2008):

“One-party monopolization of ruling privileges should be abolished….”; and

“…to establish China’s federal republic under the structure of democracy and constitutionalism.”

I can't imagine a clearer violation of the right to freedom of expression as it is guaranteed under both international law and China’s own constitution, than to send someone to prison for 11 years for subversion on the basis of these sentences.

In a statement released yesterday in London, International PEN President John Ralston Saul responded this way to China’s claims that international protests over Liu Xiaobo’s trial amounted to interference in its internal affairs:

“Liu Xiaobo's case is about agreed international human rights standards, not merely the internal affairs of China. China is signatory to international treaties and conventions, and cannot be given a free pass when it acts against its own and international standards.”

He is absolutely right. We have entered a new phase in the fight to win Liu Xiaobo’s release; stay tuned for more information about what you can do to help in the days and weeks ahead. Meanwhile, one of the first things we all can do is read more of the essays these supposedly subversive words are taken from in their full context. Human Rights in China has excerpts, with links to the full original pieces in Chinese, here.

Then we should repeat the offending phrases over and over and send them around the world.


Email Hu Jintao, tell him to release Liu Xiaobo

Liu Xiaobo, poet and dissident, will be tried tomorrow morning in China (8 p.m. tonight Eastern Standard Time) for “inciting subversion of state power.” He was charged after helping to write Charter 08, a manifesto calling for democratic reforms, and he faces up to fifteen years if convicted.

Over on the main PEN website, you'll find a very easy to use form for emailing Hu Jintao, President of the People’s Republic of China, and Cao Jianmin, the Procurator General, demanding Liu Xiaobo's release.

So help us flood their inboxes. And stay tuned.


“...past get-ready, almost at get-set...”

Stephen Burt’s review of Easy, Marie Ponsot’s sixth collection of poems, is in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. Burt closes the review with lines from “Dancing Day II,” which, along with “Dancing Day I,” closes our latest issue.

We’ve put both poems online, and I’ve posted the second one below, along with video of Marie reading an untitled poem by Scott Walt that received honorable mention for poetry in PENs 2004 Prison Writing Contest. Marie has worked closely with the Prison Writing Program for years, and her thoughts on the “inner exile” of prison appear in PEN America 9: Checkpoints.

Burt praises "Dancing Day II” as “tender, alert, self-ironized and finally unillusioned,” noting that its “coming event is at once the end of a life and the sociable delight of another night out.”

Dancing Day II

Once, one made many.
Now, many make one.
The rest is requiem.

We’re running out of time, so
we’re hurrying home to
practice to
gether for the general dance.
We’re past get-ready, almost at get-set.
Here we come many to
dance as one.

Plenty more lost selves keep arriving, some
we weren’t waiting for. We stretch and
lace up practice shoes. We mind our manners—
no staring, just snatching a look
—strict and summative—
at each other’s feet & gait & port.

Every one we ever were shows up
with world-flung poor triumphs
flat in the back-packs we set down to greet
each other. Glad tired gaudy
we are more than we thought
& as ready as we’ll ever be.

We’ve all learned the moves, separately,

from the absolute dancer
the foregone deep breather
the original choreographer.

Imitation’s limitation—but who cares.
We’ll be at our best on dancing day.
On dancing day
we’ll belt out tunes we’ll step to
till it’s time for us to say
there’s nothing more to say
nothing to pay no way
pay no mind pay no heed
pay as we go.
Many is one; we’re out of here,
exeunt omnes

exit oh and save
this last dance for me

on the darkening ground
looking up into
the last hour of left light
in the star-stuck east,
its vanishing flective, bent


“Reality cannot be copyrighted”

The other day an email was forwarded to me by David Shields, whose “Mimesis” appears in PEN America 11: Make Believe. The author of the email was another writer (and reader of the journal) who found “Mimesis” inspiring; it helped him, he said, to think about his own work.

Here’s an excerpt from the piece we published:
The novel has always been a mixed form; that’s why it was called “novel” in the first place. A great deal of realistic documentary, some history, some topographical writing, some barely disguised autobiography have always been part of the novel, from Defoe through Flaubert and Dickens. It was Henry James (especially in his correspondence with H.G. Wells) who tried to assert that the novel, as an “art form,” must be the work of the imagination alone, and who was responsible for much of the modernist purifying of the novel’s mongrel tradition. I see writers like Naipaul and Sebald as making a necessary postmodernist return to the roots of the novel as an essentially Creole form, in which “nonfiction” material is ordered, shaped, and imagined as “fiction.” Books like these restore the novelty of the novel, with its ambiguous straddling of verifiable and imaginary facts, and restore the sense of readerly danger that one enjoys in reading Moll Flanders or Clarissa or Tom Jones or Vanity Fair—that tightrope walk along the margin between the newspaper report and the poetic vision. Some Graham Greene novel has the disclaimer, “This is a work of fiction. No person in it bears any resemblance to any actual person living or dead, etc., etc. London does not exist.”
An endnote adds: “[Jonathan] Raban assures me that Greene’s disclaimer... exists, but I can’t find it.”*

“Mimesis” is part of Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, which will be published in February. The book consists of numbered sections of various lengths (the one above is roughly medium-sized; some are a few lines, some a page or two), and, according to the jacket copy, it “argues that our culture is obsessed with ‘reality’ precisely because we experience hardly any.” According to Zadie Smith, on the other hand, who wrote about the book recently in The Guardian, the book “argues passionately for the superiority of the messy real—of what we might call ‘truthiness’—over the careful creations of novelists, and other artists, who work with artificial and imagined narratives.” (Smith says the book is “thrilling to read, even if you disagree with much of it, as I do.”)

However one chooses to summarize it, the book certainly argues (hence that subtitle), and many readers will argue with it in return—something Shields clearly welcomes, striving as he does to provoke thought about fiction, writing, and modern life. Some readers, like the one I mentioned above, will feel not simply provoked but inspired: “Reality Hunger,” another reader writes, “has got me excited about thinking about novels and about the possibilities of fiction, in 2009 no less, and that’s more than worthwhile in my book.”

If, like some people, you can’t wait to read it, get started with what’s already out there: first, this 2006 essay from The Believer; then “Mimesis,” of course, in PEN America 11; and “All the Best Stories are True,” from issue #9 of A Public Space. After supporting those three literary magazines, you might check out two online excerpts: “Collage,” over at Kneejerk magazine, and “DS” (a PDF).

You should also check out this short essay by Shields, with video accompaniment, about a fight outside a Vietnamese restaurant, captured by videophone and uploaded to YouTube. Not to mention Shields’s contribution to the great “Year in Reading” feature over at The Millions, along with this footnote to that list from John Williams at The Second Pass.

Happy reading.

* A note about this note, and others from the book: Among the many subjects Shields explores are plagiarism and originality; one of the places he addresses those subjects is a preface to the endnotes—which he was apparently disinclined to include:
This book contains many unacknowledged quotations; it contains little else. I’m trying to regain a freedom that writers from Montaigne to Burroughs had but that we have lost. The uncertainty about whose words you are reading is not a bug, but a feature.... Who owns the words? Who owns the music and the rest of our culture? We do. All of us. Reality cannot be copyrighted.
Shields seems to be thinking along lines similar to Jonathan Lethem (who has written a blurb for Reality Hunger), who considered the matter in “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism.”


Human Rights Day 2009: the Good, the Bad, and the Hopeful

Most of us tend to measure a year's passage by our birthdays, but in the human rights world, each year is marked and measured by December 10: International Human Rights Day, the anniversary of the birth of the Declaration of Human Rights. Each December 10 has meaning, of course, but 2009 is particularly poignant.

We've witnessed the murders of more writers, journalists, and human rights defenders than we'd ever want to count this year, including Natalia Estemirova, the courageous Chechen activist who was abducted outside her home in Grozny and murdered on July 15.

We've also witnessed the mass arrests of writers and scholars in places like Iran, which responded to popular protests over this year’s election results by handing out outrageous sentences to people like Kian Tajbakhsh, who is now serving 15 years in jail.

And we've witnessed countries blatantly defying their own laws, such as in China's arrest and detention of our own PEN colleague, Liu Xiaobo, who is now spending his second Human Rights Day in silence.

Just two days ago, on the anniversary of his detention, Beijing police handed over Liu's case to the prosecution, which means that he may now be tried for "inciting subversion of state power" within the next month and a half. If convicted, he could face up to 15 years in prison.

In a statement PEN American Center released along with the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC), of which Liu is a former president, Tienchi Liao, ICPC's newly-elected leader, said:

“In order to protect their right to freedom of expression, our brave colleagues are willing to risk their physical freedom. But the authorities cannot put all people who want to express their own thoughts into prison. We are too many.”

And herein lies the good of this story, this troubling year of deaths and arrests and long sentences: people around the world are standing up even straighter, even taller, for their own rights, and are linking arms to protect and fight for the rights of others.

Liu Xiaobo's colleagues, who joined with him last year in signing Charter 08, today released another open letter supporting him. In it, the signatories challenged authorities to arrest all of them as well, for signing this groundbreaking declaration, for sharing the same ideas, for invoking their right to freedom of expression, guaranteed by their own constitution.

And so here at PEN in New York, we are commemorating Human Rights Day by paying tribute to all these brave men and women, in China and all over the world, who are using their pens, using their voices, to stand up for human rights, regardless of the consequences. We stand with them, we stand behind them, and we will continue to fight for them until all our pens, our voices, are free.

As of this morning, at great personal risk, 164 of the original 303 signatories of Charter 08 had added their names to the open letter, entitled "We Are Willing to Share Responsibility with Liu Xiaobo."

JOIN US in taking action for Liu Xiaobo: >> Send a letter to the Chinese government.

photo of Liu Xiaobo and his wife, Liu Xia, courtesy of the Independent Chinese PEN Center.


Translate these books

The latest issue of The Quarterly Conversation includes a wonderful feature called “Translate This Book!” The editors talked to “some of the top translators into English working today,” to “publishers big and small,” to “agents, journalists, and foreign-language authors,” and then compiled their thoughts on “the best books that still aren’t in English.” It's a great list, with illuminating commentary from those surveyed. Here’s Enrique Vila-Matas on a book by Rodrigo Fresán (whose very funny conversation with Jonathan Lethem ran in PEN America 8: Making Histories, along with part of Fresán's novel Kensington Gardens):
In El fondo del cielo (The Bottom of the Sky), Fresán writes the book that will come immediately after the era of apocalyptic books—the era that began with the Bible and the Aeneid, and culminated with postmodern books about the end of all possible worlds. It’s the book of the future, the book that begins to write itself when everything has ended: the story of two young people in love with planets, and of a disturbingly beautiful girl. Between Bioy Casares and Philip K. Dick, but with a voice all its own, it is both powerful and artistic.
Check out the rest.

As the eagle-eyed (and long-memoried) M.A. Orthofer points out, we did something similar in PEN America 2: Home and Away, asking members of PEN “What great books have never been translated into English?” We got great responses from Ariel Dorfman, Lily Tuck, Harry Mathews, Geoffrey O’Brien, and many others. (Dorfman, by the way, managed to sneak in another recommendation in our latest forum: Ayer ya es maňana, or Yesterday Is Already Tomorrow, by Eduardo Vladimiroff).

That forum led to PEN Recommends, an updated feature on the PEN website which lists books not yet translated into English.

Orthofer also flagged a response to the same question by the translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky in an interview for The Millions by Anna Clark. Surprisingly, Pevear and Volokhonsky—best known for their translations of Anna Karenina and other Russian classics—did not focus on Russian writers in their reply, but Italian ones, singling out Alberto Savinio, Cristina Campo, and Guido Ceronetti.

And yet another reply appeared on the film blog that Richard Brody—who won the 2009 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography* for Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard—maintains for The New Yorker. In The Quarterly Conversation, Turkish writer Murat Nemet-Nejat suggested Jean-Luc Godard's Histoire(s) du Cinéma. Brody seconds that suggestion before adding:
...another Godard-related book is desperately in need of translation: “En Attendant Godard” (“Waiting for Godard”), the journalist, novelist, and (later) screenwriter and director Michel Vianey’s account of accompanying Godard through the production of “Masculine Feminine,” in 1965-66. It’s the most illuminating and evocative book about movie-making I know; it came out in 1967 and has never even been reissued in France. (The author, who became a close friend of mine, died last December at the age of seventy-eight.)

* The deadline to submit a book for the 2010 award is Monday. Deadlines for other PEN awards are mostly in January. More information


The Private Lives of Trees

Over at Three Percent, Chad Post of Open Letter has been running a series of brief profiles with accomplished translators called “Making the Translator Visible.” Each post includes a photograph of the featured translator and a short Q & A. The idea was hatched by Chad and Megan McDowell, herself a translator—the first to be profiled in the series (note: that is not Megan on the right; see below).

Chad asks the translators for their favorite words (in any language) and the best translations they feel they’ve done so far. Megan McDowell’s favorite word is murcielago, Spanish for “bat” (a popular choice, it turns out), and the best translation she’s done so far, she says, is The Private Lives of Trees—which, as it happens, will be published by Open Letter in May and is excerpted in the new issue of PEN America.

The Private Lives of Trees is by the Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra (pictured above); it’s a beautiful, beguiling book that centers on a young, self-deprecating professor named Julián:
Lately he has started to think he should have been a dentist or geologist or meteorologist. For now, his actual job seems strange: professor. But his true calling, he thinks now, is to have dandruff. He imagines himself answering that way:

“What do you do?”

“I have dandruff.”
Julián has a stepdaughter named Daniela, and one night, while he waits for his wife Verónica to return home, he “distracts the little girl with a story about the private lives of trees.”
The poplar and the baobab are talking about the crazy people who visit the park. They agree, beforehand, that there are a lot of crazy people who go to the park. The park is full of crazies, but my personal favorite crazy person, says the baobab, is a woman with very long arms who came to talk to me one time. I remember it like it was yesterday, although it was long ago, I must have been barely two hundred fifteen or two hundred twenty when she came, you hadn’t even been born yet.

Immediately Julián realizes he has made a mistake: Daniela awakes from her doze, surprised by the poplar’s age, and especially because she thought that the poplar and the baobab had always lived together, that’s why they were such good friends, because they had spent their lives planted in the park together. To get out of it, he makes up a nervous string of dates, from which is gathered that the baobab is one thousand five hundred years old and the poplar barely forty. Daniela is still confused and Julián continues, conscious that he will have to work hard to recuperate the tale.
Zambra’s work has also been featured in Zoetrope: All Story and discussed at length in The Nation by the critic Marcela Valdes. His first book, Bonsai, won Chile’s Literary Critics’ Award for Best Novel; it was translated into English by the American writer Carolina de Robertis and published by Melville House. Zambra’s writing is lyrical and funny and smart; check it out.