06/06/2013 04:14 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2013

The Book I Wrote Three Times

Excerpted from FOR A SONG AND A HUNDRED SONGS, © 2013 by Liao Yiwu. Translation © 2013 by Wenguang Huang. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

I have written this book three times, thanks to the relentless obstructions of the Chinese security police.

I first started writing it on the backs of envelopes and on scraps of paper that my family smuggled into the prison where I was serving a four-year sentence from 1990 to 1994 for writing and distributing a poem that condemned the infamous, bloody government crackdown on the 1989 student prodemocracy movement in Tiananmen Square.

Even after my release in 1994, the police continued to monitor and harass me. On October 10, 1995, police raided my apartment in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, confiscating the handwritten manuscript of For a Song and a Hundred Songs. As a punishment for what they called "attacking the government's penitentiary system" with my writings, I was placed under house arrest for twenty days.

I started on my book again from scratch. It took me three years to finish a new version, which was seized in 2001, along with my other unpublished literary works. This time, the police also absconded with my computer.

Writers like to wax poetic and brag about their works in an attempt to secure a berth in the history of literature. Unfortunately, I no longer possess many physical products of my years of toil. Instead, I have become an author who writes for the pleasure of the police. Most of my past memories--the manuscripts that I have painstakingly created about my life, and my poems--are now locked away at the Public Security Bureau. In a grimly humorous twist, the police used to peruse my writings more meticulously than even the most conscientious editors.

Chinese career spies have amazing memories. A director of a local public security branch could memorize many of my poems and imbue them with more complicated ideas than I had originally intended. So in a sense, my writing found a way to the minds and lips of at least one eager audience.

Indeed, the police proved to have an insatiable need for more of my work. So after each successive raid, I dug more holes like a rat, and I hid my manuscripts in deeper and deeper crevices across the city, in the homes of family and friends. My furtive efforts to conceal my work called to mind those of the Nobelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose handwritten manuscript of The Gulag Archipelago had famously faced similar threats from the KGB. The only way to preserve his writings was to get them published.

In early 2011, after this book was finally smuggled out of China and scheduled to be published in Taiwan and in Germany, I again met resistance from the Chinese authorities. My police minders, who were occasionally stationed outside my apartment during the height of the Arab Spring, invited me out for "tea." In a nearby teahouse, they asked me to sign an agreement canceling publication. "Your memoir tarnishes the reputation of our country and harms our national interest," said a police officer who had read the confiscated manuscript.

"Why can't you write books about harmless romances, and we can get them published here and make you rich?" the officer added in a matter-of-fact way.

When I politely declined, the officer issued me a warning:If I disobeyed, they would either prosecute me or have me "disappear for quite a while," just as they had done with other writers and artists such as Ai Weiwei and Ran Yunfei.

I never signed the agreement and opted, instead, to leave my homeland of China. With the help of intrepid friends, I crossed into Vietnam and safely landed in Germany, just in time to promote the release of this chronicle of my life, which was twenty years in the making.

In China, the government continues to erase and distort the collective memory of the country to suit its all-encompassing political agenda. However, an individual's memory, with its psychic encoding and indelible scars of oppression, will forever hide a deeply etched record in blood and intellect. Its imprint, like history, can never be erased.