The first English-language collection of poetry written by 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo is set for publication by Minneapolis-based Graywolf Press. The collection, entitled "June Fourth Elegies," Graywolf announced last week, will be translated by the poet Jeffrey Yang and presented in both English and Chinese.
"June Fourth Elegies" will give English speakers an opportunity to experience firsthand the hope and tragedy of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Liu, then a 33-year-old university professor, was one of the leaders of the non-violent protest that turned deadly when the Chinese Army opened fire. Yang described the manuscript to the Minneapolis Star Tribune: "The way the book is structured, the poems were written kind of at the same time every year, when Tiananmen happened, each one is a kind of recollection of a certain aspect of June 4. They're very elegiac."
Elegies, if you aren't aware, are poems written to commemorate the dead. The book, for obvious reasons, has yet to be published in China.
Liu was officially given the Nobel in a ceremony this past Friday, though his incarceration for "subversion of state power" prevented his attending. The Chinese government has called the award an "obscenity" and a "blasphemy," and has reportedly arrested more than 30 people for celebrating Liu's good news.
A few of Liu's poems are already available online in English, and they are well worth your reading. The poems were translated by Yang for PEN International, a group that fights for free expression worldwide (Liu himself is a member). You can read the poems here. They give us some insight into the coming book, which promises to be accessible and beautifully imagistic, as in these excerpts from "A Small Rat in Prison":
A small rat passes through the iron bars
paces back and forth on the window ledge
he even draws the moon from the sky,
"Elegies" is also sure to be powerfully heartfelt. Liu's wife said that when he learned about the Nobel he cried and dedicated the award to the "dead spirits of Tiananmen."
In a moving event almost exactly one year ago, American writers gathered on the steps of the New York Public Library to draw attention to Liu's plight. They read translations of some of Liu's poetry, which you can hear below:
- "Daybreak," read by the playwright Edward Albee
- "Longing to Escape," read by the novelist Don DeLillo
- "One Letter," read by E.L. Doctorow
In a 2006 interview with PEN international, when Liu was the acting president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, he appealed to writers throughout the world "to continue to pay attention to Chinese writers and to ... help them to obtain their freedom of writing." He continued, "If the Chinese people has the support of the whole world we work together to change China from a totalitarian state, from a state without freedom of writing into a free nation ... then it will mean to elevate the standard of civilization for the whole world."
The forthcoming "Elegies" will help to open the eyes of the English-speaking world to Liu's fight. Hopefully, by the time the book is published, Liu Xiaobo will be free to read the poems to us himself.
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