We Cannot Afford To Forget | Tammy Ho Lai-Ming
On Friday 29 June 2018, I organised a reading—a vigil of sorts—to honour the Chinese activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo ahead of the first anniversary of his death. Thirteen individuals from the city whose stock in trade is words were invited to read texts of their choice, in their preferred language, texts they felt might connect us to Liu’s ideas, beliefs and life. In Hong Kong, it is still possible to openly congregate to remember a Chinese dissident through recitation. Unsurprisingly, several of the readers turned to the manifesto Charter 08, which calls for democratic reforms and respect for freedom, equality and human rights, and of which Liu was a main drafter, and his final statement, “I Have No Enemies,” which contains the now familiar images—”I would still use my ashes to embrace you,” and powerful words that have inspired strength and integrity in others. One read a poem Liu wrote in prison, for his wife, Liu Xia: “The glitter of the outside world / scares me / exhausts me / I focus on your darkness— / simple and impenetrable.” One read two poems by Liu that focus on literary writers (Franz Kafka and Rainer Maria Rilke), reminding us that Liu was after all a poet himself, and a keen appreciator of literature.
One reader, Evelyn Char, chose an except from Liao Yiwu’s Testimonials. The book describes the heart-breaking and horrific treatment of political prisoners, including Liao himself, in a Chongqing prison after the crackdown of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. Liu Xiaobo was also detained and imprisoned because of his involvement in the Tiananmen protests, and he would dedicate the rest of his life to the memory of the protesters. The first sentence of his final statement reads: “In the course of my life, for more than half a century, June 1989 was the major turning point.” What particularly struck me in the excerpt selected by Char was the prisoners’ insistence on finding ways—creative, macabre, necessary—to write. To give an example, in Testimonials, Liao talks about a prisoner who pokes a chopstick into his open wound to collect the dark clotted blood to use as ink to write his mother a letter. When the task is complete, he’s in such agony that he’s almost half-dead.
To write is an act that we who are free and largely unthreatened take for granted every day, an act that has become at times even trivialised. But it is an act that is a tremendous luxury to so many in the world.
The English-language section in this issue of Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine is on the theme of Vigil, which refers to, among other things, keeping watch or praying, a peaceful demonstration, or religious observance. Silence seems to be the underlying principle—the belief that silence can conquer violence, triumph over adversity, overturn tragedy, alleviate suffering and express unyielding devotion.
When I first put out the Call for Submissions I had the June Fourth Vigil in mind, but I did not want the section to be entirely about the incident. The call was also intended to symbolise defiance and recall our freedom to write.
The poets featured here may be keeping vigil for different reasons, and the very word itself may mean different things to different writers. Susan Lavender’s “Lady Lie,” for example, speaks from the perspective of the Statue of Liberty: “For almost two centuries I kept a constant vigil day and night / And each time you arrived, you knew / I was your guiding harbour light.” Cheng Tim Tim’s “July 2017” describes the vigil held in Hong Kong in the wake of Liu Xiaobo’s death last year. Jamie Wang’s “To Sudan” draws our attention to the death of Gaia, the last male northern white rhino in Sudan. His death marks the first species being killed off due to Africa’s poaching epidemic. Jeremy Fernando and Céline Coderey’s “the languages which whisper in my ear” reminds us that a whisper—”like a silk brush”—when heard by just one person gains a notable audience. Gino Pastoriza Paradela’s “The Weed Flower”, ostensibly about the resilient plant, also depicts the power of quiet fortitude and patience. The poems in these pages—political, personal, reflective, elliptical, environmental—are all engaging and subtly transformative, and testament to the luxury and necessity of writing—a luxury that we cannot forget is a fragile one and which we are fortunate to have, even as we write, read and contemplate in silence.
/// POETS featured in the VIGIL section: Lian-Hee Wee ◍ Susan Lavender ◍ Phoebe Poon ◍ Cheng Tim Tim ◍ Kate Rogers ◍ Tijana Zderic ◍ Adam Radford ◍ Antony Huen ◍ Cherry Rao ◍ Reid Mitchell ◍ B.B.P. Hosmillo ◍ Isabela Banzon ◍ Alvin Pang ◍ Iain Lim Jun Ru ◍ Gino Paradela ◍ Isabelita Orlina Reyes ◍ Luisa A. Igloria ◍ Majeed Amjad ◍Huzaifa Pandit ◍ Jamie Wang ◍ Christian Benitez ◍ Jeremy Fernando ◍ Céline Coderey ///