Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

THINKING ABOUT GERMANY, LIAO YIWU, AND EMPTY CHAIRS

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Three years ago I was invited to participate in the Berlin Poetry Festival. I have many fond memories of that trip and still consider it one of the highlights of my writing life. It's a powerful thing to travel internationally in order to share your work with people -- with readers and writers -- from around the world. The invitation was an honour. The experience was unforgettable.

Today in China there is another poet who has been invited to a literary festival in Germany. His name is Liao Yiwu. Unfortunately, he will not be able to attend his conference in Cologne. The Chinese government, which has been cracking down lately on people they consider dissidents, will not allow Liao Yiwu to leave the country.

For those of us in Canada, similar restrictions would be unthinkable. I am no fan of Stephen Harper or his politics, nor am I afraid to say so. You may disagree with me, as is your right, just as it is my right to disagree with you. We live in a democracy, and we enjoy certain freedoms, not the least of which is the freedom to criticize our government. It is perhaps the most important freedom we have in a democratic state. We take these freedoms for granted, I think, often enough that it bears some reflection.

Just last week, we in Canada celebrated Freedom to Read Week. It was entirely overshadowed in the media by the spectacle of the Olympics, but let's think on it now. The freedom to read is the freedom to acquire knowledge. The Athenians who invented democracy understood the importance of knowledge. For them, the word "citizen" meant someone who is informed about affairs of the state, who is concerned about policy and how it affects his neighbours. Knowledge was what endowed a person with the right to participate in a democracy, to have "citizenship." The opposite of citizenship in Athenian democracy was "idiocy", and the opposite of a citizen was an "idiot." Though that word has a different meaning now, at the time it reflected a civic ignorance based on selfishness. The "idiot" was not concerned with policy or how it affected the well-being of his neighbours; he was only concerned with himself.

Anyone who has ever attended an event at Toronto's International Festival of Authors will remember that the
PEN Canada empty chair is always placed on the stage to represent a writer who could not attend because of oppression somewhere in the world. This has always struck me as an example of good citizenship. We are a global society now and our neighbours are everywhere. I wonder if an empty chair will be placed on the stage in Cologne in honour of Liao Yiwu.

Mr Liao is the author of, among other things, The Corpse Walker (published in China as Interviews with People from the Bottom Rung of Society), The Fall of the Holy Temple, Report on China’s Victims of Injustice, and the poem "Massacre" which recounts the events of the Tienanmen Square uprising and for which Liao spent four years in prison. Until today I was not acquainted with any of these works, but now I find I have a compelling desire to read them, to know what Liao Yiwu wants us to know.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Paul Vermeersch

Paul Vermeersch is the author of The Reinvention of the Human Hand (McClelland & Stewart, 2010) and three other collections of poetry. He is also the editor of The I.V. Lounge Reader and The Al Purdy A-frame Anthology.

Go to Paul Vermeersch’s Author Page