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Fraser, Marian Botsford (English)

Marian Botsford Fraser

Marian Botsford Fraser

“… To Little Xia, Who Plays Games with Dolls Every Day …”

(from the subtitle of a 1999 poem by Liu Xiaobo)

by Marian Botsford Fraser, Chair, Writers in Prison Committee, PEN International

Several years ago, I first saw the photograph of Liu Xiaobo with one of Liu Xia’s dolls  perched on his shoulder. It’s a beautiful, tender image, the doll nestled against his ear, held close by his hand, and of course the smallness of the doll makes Liu himself seem larger than life. The pose, against a blank background, is almost heroic — like something you might see on a propaganda banner or poster. Both Liu and the doll gaze off into middle distance, and neither much likes what he sees there. And at the first fleeting glance, the doll looked almost like a child, until I looked more carefully and saw that it was, indeed, a doll. It is, notably, the only photograph in this exhibition with a full human presence; in several others there are fingers, and a hand, or actually a fist.

A significant feature of this particular doll is its open, twisted mouth — a howl, a silent scream. It’s a feature that is perhaps the signature of this collection, because it conveys so precisely what the collection as a whole portrays, the frustration, anger and helplessness of the innocent that cannot be articulated or heard. This aspect of the collection is echoed in the way that the images are constructed: the dolls bent into incongruous poses, sometimes wrapped or bound, and the use of homely, domestic materials — bits of cellophane, broken pieces of wood, soft wads of fabric, the rungs of a chair-back, a birdcage, little candles. This is how girls sometimes play with dolls: they contort their limbs, cut their hair, beat them up, throw them in the air. They make up elaborate, dark stories using the materials at hand.

As a counterpoint to this exhibition, we’ve seen published at the same time in English No Enemies, No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems by Liu Xiaobo (Belknap/Harvard, 2011). Chosen by Liu Xia, the essays are an overview of Liu’s writing and thinking over twenty years on a wide range of issues — Tiananmen Square massacre, the Han Chinese in Tibet, radical ultra-nationalism, the Chinese government’s Olympic Games “gold medal syndrome,” the exuberant anarchy made possible by the Internet.

As I read these essays while reflecting on Liu Xia’s photographs, I was struck by three things. First, that Liu Xiaobo writes a great deal about the children and young people of China. He mourns unceasingly with the mothers of those killed at Tiananmen Square; spelling out the names and circumstances of young people killed, expressing his guilt because “None of the conspicuous activists — like me — were killed.” He asks the difficult question: “Why is it that we scarcely hear the voices of the people who paid the heaviest price (Liu Xia’s dolls in their bed of candles), while the luminaries who survived the massacre can hardly stop talking?” He writes about the cult of “little emperors” imbued with “absolute egotism” created by China’s one-child population policy. His exploration of the 2007 scandal of child slaves exploited in the “black kilns” of Henan Province (like the dolls suffocated with cellophane) was one of the articles used in his 2009 trial as evidence of guilt of  “the crime of inciting subversion of state power.”

Secondly, Liu explores the roles of many players in “Culture and Society,” writers and intellectuals, erotic cinema, Western heroes like Havel, Ghandi and Jesus Christ. In one essay, he examines the crucial role of “egao” (variously translated as parody, satire, spoof, lampoon, prank) in undermining totalitarianism. “Truth-telling politics is the open challenge offered by a few fearless people of conscience. Joke-making politics is the private digging away at the base of the wall….” One of the numerous examples he gives of subversive humour in art is the “bald idiot” series of the artist Fang Lijun, which embody the principle, “ugliness is beauty” in characters with wide-open mouths and empty eyes. Liu Xia’s “ugly babies” with their big, glaring eyes and open mouths (not unlike Fang’s “Howl” portraits) are perhaps not as overtly satirical, but they are profoundly subversive. Using dolls, “babies,” in works of art about repression and powerlessness is a defiant parody of child’s play. It doesn’t provoke maniacal laughter, like some of the more cynical forms of egao that Liu enumerates, but it draws on similar wells of common, private experience and inspires a kind of pure fearlessness. Everyone plays with dolls, don’t they?

Finally, most obviously, is the conversation these two people are having about words in their work. Almost one-quarter of Liu Xia’s photographs use words, or books — towers of books, a doll squeezed into a corner of a bookshelf, a veil of words obscuring a doll from the viewer. The books are both a source of pride and intimidation; the dolls are tiny and vulnerable beside a pillar of books. For Liu himself, writers are his heroes and words are weapons, building blocks in his reconstruction of Chinese democracy. They are also his downfall; in 2009, he was condemned to 11 years in prison because of seven of his elegant, persuasive sentences, a total of just 224 Chinese characters.

Several commentators have made the point that Liu Xia prefers to be apolitical, not to be involved directly in the public critique of China’s regime. She was not an active participant in events at Tiananmen Square, nor a signatory to Charter 08. And yet she has been punished. Her work is banned in China. Since October, 2010, she too has been detained, contained, although never charged or convicted with anything. Her confinement within her Beijing apartment since October 2010 is almost a parody of the imprisonment of her husband, Liu Xiaobo. She might be the doll portrayed as trapped behind pictographs, looking out, like a woman at a window, or the doll in the bright metal cage, waiting, beside a lit candle. (This suite of photographs was done ten years before Liu’s current incarceration, but the pattern of confinement, visitation, exchange of poems, absence, silence, was already the story of their lives.)  These photographs have never been exhibited in mainland China.

In the final image of the collection, the howling doll is trapped between what look to me like two lion heads, door knockers, perhaps. He cannot get down until someone removes him, and then perhaps the door behind him will swing open. Until then, he is imprisoned and silenced. But Liu’s words can still be heard, seen, read aloud: “I look forward to the day when our country will be a land of free expression … a country where all political views will be spread out beneath the sun for citizens to choose among …. I hope that I will be the last victim in China’s long record of treating words as crimes.”

— Toronto, Canada, May 2012

PEN International logo

PEN International logo

Marian Botsford Fraser is the Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN International. She is a Canadian writer and broadcaster, the author of three acclaimed nonfiction books: Walking the Line: Travels Along the Canadian/American Border; Solitaire: The Intimate Lives of Single Women, and Requiem for My Brother. She is also a journalist and critic, writing critical and feature pieces for newspapers and magazines, including GRANTA, The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, The Literary Review of Canada, and MORE. She has written and produced numerous documentaries for CBC Radio’s IDEAS, hosted CBC Radio programs, worked as a CBC Radio announcer and writer-broadcaster, hosted educational TV shows on public issues. In the early 1990s she was co-ordinator for the Arctic Council project in Ottawa and did work for the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada and the Inuit Circumpolar Conference. She also does freelance project management and has worked as a communications consultant and speechwriter for government and non-governmental organizations.

Ms Botsford Fraser is Books Editor for the Canadian magazine MORE, the 2010 winner of a Canadian National Magazine Gold Award, and 2010 winner of the CBC Literary Prize for Creative Nonfiction.

PEN International logoMs Botsford Fraser has been an active member of PEN International since 1991, serving as President of PEN Canada (1994-95), member of the Ad-Hoc Committee of PEN International (1997-98) and the vice-chair of the first elected board of PEN International (1998-2001). She has undertaken three freedom of expression missions on behalf of PEN International—to Peru (1999), China (2011) and Bahrain (2011).

(This essay was written especially for the catalogue of the 2012 Hong Kong showing of the exhibition “The Silent Strength of Liu Xia” at the City University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Arts Centre. Text copyright © 2012 by Marian Botsford Fraser. All rights reserved.)

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