At PEN’s “Bringing Down the Great Firewall of China: Silenced writers speak on the eve of the Olympics,” prominent PEN members Rick Moody, Francine Prose, Paris Review editor Philip Gourevitch and others came together to give voice to the works of leading dissidents and writers imprisoned by the Chinese government. The near-capacity crowd in Tishman auditorium also got to hear the voice of one particularly ardent audience member…
The evening’s moment of truth came when dramatist Edward Albee took the stage, drawing a parallel between two countries that he felt suppressed their citizen’s freedom of speech: “The United States of America, and the Peoples Republic of China.” A conspicuous latecomer, sensing that the moment was ripe to test this statement, pumped his fist and shouted: “Long live the People’s Republic of China! Long burn the Olympic torch!”
Albee attempted a dialogue with the protester (after all, the evening was about giving voice to the silenced), but when the latter’s end devolved into ever-louder chants of “Long live the People’s Republic of China! Long burn the Olympic torch!” and “PEN is CIA!” he was escorted outside of the auditorium, where he was allowed to continue his protest.
Albee didn’t miss a beat: “I’m so glad I live in a country where people are allowed to say exactly what they feel.” After the applause subsided, he continued his reading of Shen Noulian’s “Nightmare.”
The heart of the evening was garnering support for the over 40 writers and journalists currently held in Chinese prisons for various attacks on their freedom of speech. Hu Shigen’s “How Big a Character is Xin” spoke for many of the silenced. The piece ends with the author in a prison cell, dreaming of letters from all over the world falling towards him like snowflakes. In the dream, he tries to open the letters, but finds they are blank.
Chen Pokong, in his message from the Independent Chinese PEN Center, urged the outside world not to turn their backs on the struggle for freedom of speech in China once the Olympic athletes have returned home. Members of the audience received a set of ten postcards pre-addressed to imprisoned writers, printed with the phrase “you are not forgotten.”