The man who writes under the pen name “Don’t Speak” chose not to today at the Nobel Prize in Literature press conference in Stockholm. Before an international audience at the Nobel Museum, Mo Yan remained silent on many issues of the day, both political and personal.
Surely this new worldwide attention could daunt even those most gifted with words. But there was much anticipation about whether China’s famous author would speak out about freedom of expression, the future of writers in his country and the fate of Liu Xiaobo.
Now there is no more cause for speculation as Mr. Mo was ardent, and often annoyed with journalists when pressed, in his decision to keep silent and refrain from commentary on the situation for writers, dissidents and free thinkers in his country.
After a few pleasantries about the weather in Scandinavia’s capital – which is currently covered in two feet of white powder – the Nobel Committee called on me.
My question? “Mr. Mo, You have said that winning this award is a ‘victory for literature, not for politics’ yet many other writers in China are simply not allowed to freely express their thoughts. Do you believe this honor will allow you to advocate for greater freedom of expression in your country, and if Liu Xiaobo could hear you right now, what would you say to him?”
His response: “Indeed I said that the Prize is a victory for literature, not politics, because this is the Nobel Prize for Literature. A lot people have been guessing about the political tendencies of the Nobel Prize and I think it doesn’t exist. About Liu Xiaobo, right on the same day the award was announced, I issued my opinion about this and I think you can go online and do a search. About whether China has freedom of speech, it is a very difficult question. If you understand Chinese, then you can go online and see for yourself whether China has it.”
I am reasonably well-versed in Internet search engines. However, one need not read Mandarin or Cantonese to know about the fierce oppression of writers and intellectuals in China. And Mr. Mo surely knows that as well.
A follow-up question from a Swedish television host asked Mr. Mo if there was still censorship in China and whether he was for or against it. He answered that he was “against all censorship.” He went on to mention that “every country in the world has censorship,” and that when he sought his exit visa from China to Sweden he was reviewed and asked many questions, and that even going through security checks at airports was a form of censorship.
“I have never given any praise to censorship and I believe that in every country of the world censorship exists. The only difference is in the degree and the way it is done,” he said. He made no differentiation between censorship in China and what some may call security protocol in others. It was all the same to him. A simplistic view, perhaps, but not surprising for a man who has toed the Communist Party line for years.
Today he was often eloquent about his role as a writer in Chinese society, reflecting on his life as the son of a farmer and the humble roots which shaped him. He recalled being in Stockholm 11 years ago and said that when a friend showed him where the Nobel Prize was conferred, his friend told him: “Write well and maybe one day you will be standing here.” Mr. Mo said that he thought at that time, “Yes, I should write well and work hard” and added “Indeed, I am standing here now.”
He was humble in advance of receiving the award and said that he had a feeling of joy but also felt that he was “not up to the mark” as “there are many good authors who should get the prize, and I need to improve.”
Yet this humility did not extend to others in worse situations than his own. Toward the end of the extensive press conference, Mr. Mo was again asked a follow-up to my question about the fate of Liu Xiaobo. Mr. Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, has recently said that they still do not have their freedom and compared Mr. Mo’s winning the Prize to her husband’s award. The reporter asked Mr. Mo directly, “How will you use your influence to help him get freedom?”
Mr. Mo, perhaps correctly, responded that that the effects of winning the Nobel Prize in Literature and the Peace Prize are quite different, especially in China. Yet, the space for intellectuals is increasingly shrinking in China. So I posed my next inquiry from that point of view – “For those who wish to write, think and speak of things on their mind, how do you feel about their right to do so?’ He again refused to comment on the fate of Mr. Liu and said that “Time is precious, and I am not going to repeat myself, and I hope you don’t insist.”
Yet, there was insistence and he was reminded of it. Recently, 130 Nobel Laureates signed a petition to call for the release of Liu Xiabobo. When asked if he would join their ranks, Mr. Mo said: “I have always been independent. I like it that way. If I am forced to do something, I will not do it. When I want to speak, I will speak. When I am forced to express my opinions, I will not do it. That’s what I’ve been doing the last decade.”
And indeed, he did not speak. He recalled how he came to write under his pen name and how as a child he used to speak “too much” and caused his parents trouble. He said that his parents educated him to “speak little.”
One may think that as a former journalist Mr. Mo feels an obligation – or values an opportunity – to ask questions and answer them. Yet, he did not.
Speaking about the universal human experience of telling and listening to stories, he said that his goal was to ”reveal the truth, beauty and kindness” of people. What an admirable goal! However, there are so many inside China who wish to do just that but cannot due to government control and censorship.
The final question of the day was again a follow-up to his remarks in October that he hoped that “Liu Xiaobo would soon be free.” He was asked to share his personal opinion on the matter now. His reply? “We’ll leave it for time to judge.” He was not even willing to share his own thoughts on the matter.
Indeed, there will be plenty of time for judgments, commentary and analysis. Yet, nearly two years after Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in absentia, Liu languishes in prison, likely unaware of the events that transpired today.
There are many who may argue that literature is separate from politics and that writing is separate from expressing ideas about government. Yet, Mr. Mo chose not to speak out for his fellow countrymen and intellectuals. Another man who decided to do the very simple – yet sometimes impossible – task of putting a pen to paper and writing down his thoughts chose another path and as a result had to flee China and obtain citizenship in France.
In 2000, Gao Xingjian of China received the Nobel Prize for Literature on its 100th anniversary, yet the Chinese government saw the honor as a hostile act. Mr. Gao said that “It’s in literature that true life can be found. It’s under the mask of fiction that you can tell the truth.”
Mr. Mo will join the ranks of giants on Monday. He will join William Butler Yeats, Sinclair Lewis, Pearl Buck, Herman Hesse, Albert Camus, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Boris Pasternak, Jean-Paul Sartre, Mikhail Sholokhov, Samuel Beckett, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, Seamus Heaney, Herta Mueller. These were distinguished writers, thinkers and intellectuals who took the risk of picking up a pen. Writing was inside of them and they needed to share it with the world.
Many of them chose to speak aloud as well. And dared to tell the truth. So, perhaps this is a cautionary tale. Or maybe we have yet to see what this will mean for art, literature and commentary in unfree societies. Mo could have defined the living memory of a generation and of a country.
It is clear though, that on this cold winter day in Stockholm, Mo Yan chose to sit still and be silent.
Although he may not see it as his responsibility or calling to advocate for the plight of other writers or intellectuals, but he has made a powerful statement to the world by not doing so.
My most memorable class in high school was Advanced World Literature. I remember similar snowy days in Minnesota, not unlike the Stockholm of today, when I read these works, which inspired and awed me. We were assigned to read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Prize in Literature acceptance speech. During his 1970 lecture, he spoke of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, calling it the ‘’best document in 25 years,’’ warned of the evils of detached observation, and called writing the ‘’simple step of courageous men.’’
He also posed this question, which is especially valid today: “Shall we have the temerity to declare that we are not responsible for the sores of the present-day world?”
Mr. Solzhenitsyn certainly did not claim to have the answers, but had the courage to ask the questions. He concluded: “I am cheered by a vital awareness of world literature as of a single huge heart, beating out the cares and troubles of our worlds, albeit presented and perceived differently in each of its corners.”
With literature, and with art, this is possible. Literature is not separate from politics. Writers are not outside of the political sphere. We are all yearning to be heard. And when Mr. Mo stood on the world stage, he chose to be silent.