By Dipti Kumar
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
It was the perfect setting to talk about the freedom of expression in the literary community. The Brooklyn Public Library’s main branch at Grand Army Plaza was the backdrop for members of the PEN American Center to organize a literary protest for free expression in China.
More than 200 supporters turned up with placards in one hand and cameras in another. “Where’s my passport” read one of the placards.
PEN International is an organization of writers that advocates for freedom of expression and defends those who are persecuted for their views.
As the sun set in the distance and the temperatures dropped, supporters huddled together on the steps of the library to listen to readings of the works of persecuted Chinese authors by renowned American writers including Sergio De La Pava, Jennifer Egan, Chang-rae Lee, Victoria Redel, Jacob Weisberg and filmmaker-journalist Alison Klayman.
They were reading statements and poems provided by jailed artists and writers Ai Weiwei, Liu Xiaobo, Liu Xia, Liao Yiwu, Woeser, Zhou Qing and scholar Ilham Tohti. Each of their pieces reflected the censorship of speech in China.
The readings revealed the inhumane treatment of those who dared to speak up against the Chinese government.
“I also have a dream for China: I hope that someday any Chinese citizen can criticize its president or premier publicly without being singled out as an oddball,” wrote Ha Jin, who is based in the United States and expressed his support for the others.
While some of the writers are under house arrest, others have been taken away from their family and are being held incommunicado.
A letter that was read by Sergio de la Pava highlighted the current plight of jailed scholar Ilham Tohti.
“If I say anything that deviates from my morals after my arrest, know that those are not my words,” wrote Tohti, who was arrested in January and is being held in seclusion while his family is being monitored closely by the Chinese government. Tohti, who is a member of the Uyghur ethnic minority, is being charged with “separatism.”
PEN has selected Tohti as the recipient of this year’s PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.
Members and supporters then wore handcuffs and marched toward the Brooklyn Museum, where artist Ai Wei Wei’s work will be displayed from April 18.
In a move to defy the Chinese government, which seized Ai’s passport and barred him from leaving the country since 2011, organizers projected a pre-recorded video message by him onto the Brooklyn Museum facade.
“As an artist, I think free expression is a very essential foundation for any type of activity,” said Ai in his video.
Sending out a clear message to the Chinese government was the final installment of the evening. The New York City Light Brigade stood with LED-illuminated banners that spelled “Free Expression” in both Chinese and English.