Dispatch from Oslo: Larry Siems

I had the honor of attending the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo today as an official representative of PEN American Center. The ceremony, with its empty chair representing imprisoned writer and laureate Liu Xiaobo, was stunning and perfectly pitched in an especially Norwegian way—austere and straightforward, principled and direct. There were three particularly sustained, heartfelt ovations: when Nobel Committee Chair Thorbjørn Jagland said, early in his speech, that the response of the Chinese government to the award has in a sense validated the award; when he said Liu has done nothing wrong and must be released; and when he placed the Nobel medal and citation on Liu’s empty chair. I sat near many of our Independent Chinese PEN Center colleagues and other legendary dissidents and activists, and right next to the daughter of Wang Bingzhang, a prominent pro-democracy activist now in his eighth year of a life sentence in China; you can just imagine what the ceremony meant to her and to them.

Two other huge highlights, post-ceremony: I visited a preview of the exhibition on Liu Xiaobo at the Nobel Peace Center that will open tomorrow. I was overwhelmed when I walked into the room, glanced over to the first wall you see, and there were three video monitors playing, from left to right, Liu Xia speaking in Beijing in March 2010, PEN’s New Year’s Eve rally, and Liu Xiaobo talking about freedom of expression. Across the room, flanking an enormous, beautiful photo of Liu, were two banners, one with Jeffrey Yang’s translation of Liu’s poem “Daybreak” and one with Don DeLillo’s text for Liu. There it was, for the world, so much of all of PEN’s amazing work.

Also touring the exhibition preview was Nancy Pelosi; as she was leaving she gave an impromptu press conference, in which she spoke with incredible humanity and passion about what this day means for so many who have worked (as she has) for so long to bring attention to China’s human rights record. Generous, eloquent, clearly moved by the ceremony and the exhibition, she did us all proud.

Here’s to Liu Xiaobo. Here’s to freedom of expression in China.

Larry Siems is the Freedom to Write and International Programs Director at PEN American Center.

Photographs, from top to bottom: Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony, Larry Siems; Nobel Peace Prize Exhibition at the Nobel Peace Center, Larry Siems; Torchlight Procession outside Oslo's Grand Hotel, where the laureate typically greets well-wishers, Marian Botsford Fraser.


More poetry by Liu Xiaobo

Today, The New York Times ran an excerpt from “Experiencing Death,” a poem by Liu Xiaobo, translated by Jeffrey Yang.
From a wisp of smoke to a little heap of ash
I’ve drained the drink of the martyrs, sense spring’s
about to break into the brocade-brilliance of myriad flowers

Deep in the night, empty road
I’m biking home
I stop at a cigarette stand
A car follows me, crashes over my bicycle
some enormous brutes seize me
I’m handcuffed eyes covered mouth gagged
thrown into a prison van heading nowhere
Read the rest. The poem is from a collection of elegiac poems remembering the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989, and Jeffrey will be translating the whole book for Graywolf Press, as reported today in the Star Tribune:
June Fourth Elegies is an intense collection, its translator, Jeffrey Yang, said Wednesday. It is divided into 20 sections, each relating to the June 4, 1989, massacre at Tiananmen Square.

“The way the book is structured, the poems were written kind of at the same time every year, when Tiananmen happened,” Yang said. “Each one is a kind of recollection of a certain aspect of June 4. They’re very elegiac. The original title of the book in Chinese is literally something like Remembering Six Four.”
You can learn more about Liu Xiaobo at www.PEN.org/liu. You can read more of his poetry here and here—at that second link you can also hear his poems read by Paul Auster, Edward Albee, Don DeLillo, and E.L. Doctorow. (That second group of poems was first published in PEN America 11: Make Believe.) An essay he wrote about the internet in China was published in the (London) Times. (Update: a collection Liu’s political writings will also be published in English next year, by Harvard University Press.)

You can also watch Liu Xiaobo himself discuss freedom of expression here, and here you can watch several PEN writers read both his poetry and the seven sentences cited by the court in China when sentencing him to eleven years in prison.

(Photo from December 31, 2009 rally at the New York Public Library by Brian Montopoli.)