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Writers in China

I had a conversation today with Xiujing , a new swimming friend at the gym where I work out. She had finished swimming, I was about to swim, so we chatted at first about the water temperature and the number of other polar bears in our neighborhood braving the waters. Xiujing’s English is very good so I assumed, correctly, that she’s been in the United States for a number of years. She has a very hip haircut and wears funky glasses, a middle-aged hipster, I’d say. And why is she in America with China in the ascendant?

“I’ve wanted to live and work in America since I was a child,” she told me. "My family suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution. I wanted to read great literature, but reading was prohibited. I snuck books into the house, so dangerous, and read them under my covers at night. My parents are still in Bejing. My sister and I are both here and we go to visit them, but we will never live there again.”

I don’t know what Xiujing does for a living—we didn’t get that far—but I did ask if she’d ever heard of Ha Jin, one of China’s expatriate writers, and a great one (“In the Pond,” “Waiting”). She had heard of him but had never read his books. He, too, suffered during the Cultural Revolution and writes eloquently about it. During the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square, he was in the US studying. He never returned home and began writing solely in English.

As I write, there are about 44 writers and journalists in jail in China, some of them enduring long sentences. Quite often, the “Freedom to Write Committee” of American Pen Center( http://www.pen.org) part of International Pen, sends out a request for letters to be written to the Chinese Government on behalf of these incarcerated writers. Amnesty International works in a similar way. Often a writer is released, often not, or not right away. No one thought that the Berlin wall or apartheid would fall either.



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