On 4 June 1989, as Chinese government tanks mowed down students in Tiananmen Square, 29-year-old writer Liao Yiwu was at home in a south-western province of Sichuan writing a poem that would change his life. ‘Massacre’ was a direct response to the horrors that were unfolding in the capital. Knowing the poem would not be published, Yiwu taped himself reading it and distributed the recording in underground circles in China. Eight months later, after making a follow-up film called ‘Requiem’, the poet was arrested with a group of collaborators while boarding a train to Beijing. He was imprisoned for four years.
This week, on the eve of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, a highly personal essay by Yiwu – now a dissident writer living in Germany – was published on internet sites around the world, including PEN America. ‘The Tanks and the People’ details the devastating impact of political oppression in China. Included in the essay is a particularly harrowing English translation of Yiwu’s 1989 poem:
Shoot through their skulls! Scorch them! Let their juice burst out. Let their souls burst out. Squirt it on the traffic bridges, on the tower, on the railings! Let it splatter on the road! Shoot it into the sky and make stars! The stars are running away! The stars are growing legs, running away! Heaven and earth turning around. All humanity wearing shiny hats. Shiny, shiny steel helmets. An army group storming out of the moon! Shoot! Strafe! Shoot! This is great! People and stars falling together. Running together. Don’t know each other. Chase them into the clouds! Chase them until the earth opens, shoot and shoot into their flesh! Make another hole for the soul! Another hole for the stars! …
In this week of commemoration, which the Chinese government has arduously fought to forget within its own borders, this free-verse translation is notable for the way it captures the eviscerating quality of the original recorded poem. Recently, Yiwu gave a reading at the New York Public Library. The print version brings that agonised, ritualistic chanting and howling to the page and pays homage to Yiwu’s influences: the Beat Generation poets and, in particular, Allen Ginsburg’s seminal ‘Howl’. In a week where the world is reminded of the Chinese government’s continued ambition to rewrite the people’s memory, ‘Massacre’ is a powerful memorial for that brutal night twenty-five years ago.
In Australia this week, a group of writers, publishers and critics have aired concerns following the Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s recent announcement that well-known conservative commentator, Gerard Henderson, will chair the non-fiction judging panel for this year’s Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.
Black Inc. director Morry Schwartz and publisher Chris Feik are leading the debate, calling for a ‘new transparency’ around the awards. Given Henderson’s political pedigree and his record for criticising writers, commentators, journalists and scholars with whom he does not agree, there is concern that the integrity of the awards is now under threat. Schwarz and Feik argue that the appointment of Henderson politicises ‘what has until now been an apolitical award based on merit’. They are calling for a list of all entries to the non-fiction award to be made public. Reading the roll-call for the PMLA judging panels, it is hard to argue with the contention that, as Susan Wyndham noted in the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Tony Abbott has remade the $600 000 Prime Minister’s Literary Award in his own image’.
The literary prizes awarded this week have caused less controversy. The publishers of Seizure announced the four winning novellas in their 2014 ‘Viva La Novella’ competition. They are Nicole Smith for Sideshadow, Hoa Pham for The Other Shore, Julie Proudfoot for The Neigbours, and Daniel Davis Wood for Blood and Bone. The novellas will be published as part of Seizure’s Stepping Stones project, which aims to support emerging editors. The winners were announced at the Emerging Writers’ Festival in Melbourne.
Jessica Hart won the inaugural Nakata Brophy Short Fiction and Poetry Prize for Young Indigenous Writers. She was selected for her poem ‘Land Mountain’ and was highly commended for another poem, ‘Nouveau’. The prize is administered by Overland and Trinity College at the University of Melbourne.
Also making news this week was the announcement of the shortlist for the Kibble and Dobbie Literary Awards. The 2014 shortlist for the $30 000 Kibble Award, which recognises the work of an established Australian female writer, consists of Debra Adelaide for Letter to George Clooney, Melissa Lucasshenko for Mullumbimby, and Kristina Olsson for Boy, Lost: A Family Memoir. The 2014 shortlist for the $5000 Dobbie Literary Award for a first book by an Australian female writer includes Fiona McFarlane for The Night Guest, Kate Richards for Madness: A Memoir, and Jill Stark for High Sobriety: My Year Without Booze. The winners will be announced 23 July.
This week’s Sydney Review of Books features outstanding essays, which we hope you will enjoy reading over the long weekend. Susan Lever’s ‘Artists Against Fascism’ is a review of N by John A. Scott, a major new novel that imagines an alternative history for wartime Australia – one that has some striking contemporary resonances and which, Lever argues, deals with the themes of ‘art-making, particularly reading, storytelling and imaginative invention’. In the context of the Tiananmen Square anniversary, we also include Gretchen Shirm’s reading of Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li, an expatriate Chinese writer now resident in the United States. Shirm interprets Li’s novel, which moves between the fateful events in Beijing in 1989 and twenty years later, as an allegory of China’s ongoing silence about Tiananmen.
We continue the Chinese theme in ‘From the Archives’ with Linda Jaivin’s reflections on contemporary China in ‘A complex beast’, and a lyrical short essay by Nobel Laureate Mo Yan, ‘Coming from tradition, returning to tradition’.