Liu Xia’s Heartbreaking Letter To A Friend, Written In Isolation

Liu Xia letter to friend

The New York Times’s Austin Ramzy has a story you should read about Liu Xia, painter/poet/artist and wife of (as routinely noted) jailed Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. The entire thing is worth your time, but we’d like to highlight a letter Liu Xia, who remains under house arrest in Beijing, wrote to an American friend in July. In a word, it’s heartbreaking.

Liu compliments her friend (identity withheld) on the friend’s “epistolary novel”: “When I find books that I love, I feel the author is writing for me alone, and feel a private joy.” Reading her letter, it’s difficult not to feel empathy, specifically that obverse analog of joy — sorrow. How many lonely minutes and hours is Liu neither reading nor writing, but engaged in the tougher undertaking of simply being?

Liu’s missive is a form of epistolary in itself, and includes a poem she wrote in 2011, plus anecdotes from previous trips to the US. “I’ll find a 1996 photo of me — maybe you Americans really can’t tell the age of Oriental people.” There is no romanticizing of the dissident’s life, or even the cause, which presses on in spurts and sputters. “I chose this life myself,” Liu writes, “so need to see it through to the end.” Neither is there self-pity or wallowing; instead, only a promise that the next correspondence will be “only about happy thing.”

The letter, translated by Perry Link, is reproduced below from Ramzy’s NYT Sinosphere post.

Dear XXX,

I’ve read your “epistolary novel.” If I imagine myself an outside reader, I can only wonder how or through what special power you manage to keep on writing when the protagonist for whom you are pleading is absent. It moves me.

I have always loved reading, and do much of it. Most of the books in our home are ones I personally purchased and brought here, and most of the hours in my life are spent in reading them. I describe myself as having grown up “feeding on books.” My reading has no specific goal; for me it’s rather like breathing — I have to do it in order to live. When I find books that I love, I feel the author is writing for me alone, and feel a private joy.

In the 1980s I, too, wrote fiction and film scripts. I have faith that there will come a day when that absent person writes another part of his (her) story.

Please tell XXX that the book I am currently “feeding on” is A History of the Gulag. Living in almost total isolation, I find the road before me populated by countless books. I hide among the books and meander in the world.

You can imagine how terrified I felt to face the world alone after they came to take Xiaobo away. I have had no choice but to accept that reality. I have been extremely tired.

Let me offer you one of my poems. Hah! This will be a challenge for your translator!

“Fragment 8”

The light of death
That often appears, as I gaze at my reading,
Feels warm.
I feel sad that I must leave.
I want to go to a place that has light.

That tenacity, mine for years,
Has turned to dust.
A tree
Can be felled by a bolt of lightning
And think nothing.

The future, for me,
Is a shut window.
The night within has no end
And the horrid dreams do not fade.

I want to go to a place that has light.

(Written in 2011)

“Eleven years” in duplicate now weigh on me, but I do not feel as depressed as when I wrote “Fragment 8.” This is because all of you have helped me to open the window and let the sun rise. I know that all of this is not the end — even if justice is too long in coming.

I chose this life myself, so need to see it through to the end.

In 1996, at the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C., I bought a postcard that showed a pile of shoes of Jewish people. Since then, innumerable Jewish people have been standing in my memory. I think that some day we, too, will have a memorial building to remember those people who are slipping out of the memories of Chinese today. We will. For sure.

I’ll tell you a funny story. In 1996 when I was in Boston a friend invited me to go out drinking. We went from bar to bar, but they always asked to see my passport for proof that I was of drinking age. I was 35 then, but had left my passport in New York. My hair was long then, so I bundled it up and then let it go, repeatedly, hoping this would make me look old enough to drink. Finally, around midnight, we did get a drink at an outdoor bar. I’ll find a 1996 photo of me — maybe you Americans really can’t tell the age of Oriental people. The memory makes me want to chuckle. (A photo here)

Next time, I’ll write only about happy things.


Liu Xia

July 26, 2013

Isolation Under House Arrest for Wife of Imprisoned Nobel Laureate (Sinosphere)

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