A Picture Worth a Million Words

Democracy

 

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Credit: Published by The Associated Press, originally photographed by Jeff Widener

 

 

After an afternoon with Jeffrey Sachs and a moving evening with Bilal, Terricabras, and Guibert, I needed a drink. So I headed to Joe's Pub for Defiance and raised a glass (or three) in solidarity with and celebration of the democratic revolutionary movements of 1989. Aside #1: For those of you academically minded, I had the pleasure of attending a symposium on the effects of the 1989 movements at The New School last year. It was put on by The Transregional Center for Democratic Studies. Aside #2: Let us also not forget other significant ‘X9 anniversaries like Galileo's telescope (1609), Darwin's Origin of Species (1859), the Cuban Revolution (1959), and my birth (1979). Regarding China specifically, 2009 is an auspicious year: it marks the 90th anniversary of the student-led protests that led to the establishment of the communist movement, the 50th anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising, and the twentieth anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Which brings us to tonight's event, inspired by Tank Man-that mysterious, spontaneously defiant, brave soul who momentarily stopped tanks from cruising into Tiananmen Square. It is an indelible, stirring image. The poster for democratic revolution. It is one of my all-time favorite photographs. Over a one-year period, from July 2007-July 2008, I engaged in an experiment I called "52 Weeks, 52 People of Inspiration." For one week I would post a photo of an inspiring individual on my computer, hoping their tenacity and spirit would inspire me to do great things in my life as well. One of those images was Tank Man (the only anonymous person to make it to the list).

 

For much of the evening this image lorded over the readers and audience, a constant reminder of the beautiful struggle still not accomplished in so many places. Did not the spirit of the night capture the essence of what PEN is and seeks to promote? PEN is the world's oldest "international literary and human rights organization." So, tonight, we had an elegant mix of international writers, human rights activists, and readings of past and present voices speaking to the never ending rebellion against tyranny. Joe's Pub was graced by the presence and recitations of a myriad of writers. Yet once again, at an event with back-to-back readings African voices were absent. How, on a night that celebrates the spirit of 1989 could we not have at least a South African on the agenda!?!? Dear PEN, please correct this recurring oversight. Most of the readers recited some appropriate poems, a few chose selections of fiction. Suketu Mehta and Jameel Jaffer deviated from this trend: Mehta shared an excerpt from Gandhi's autobiography while Jaffer read an affidavit from a military prosecutor-turned-advocate of an innocent Pakistani languishing in Guantanamo Bay for the past seven years. Readers were to choose material inspired by the Tank Man image. What does it say that the overwhelming majority of material shared with the audience was fiction and poetry? Highlights for me included readings by Jose Dalisay, Suketu Mehta, Hwang Sok-yong (via interpreter), and Paul Verhaeghen's stirring selection from Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz. I'll end with my own contribution, from a passage I came across in Milan Kundera's The Joke: "Death, you have been long in coming. And yet it was my hope to postpone our meeting until many years hence. To go on living the life of a free man, to live more, love more, sing more, and wander the world over..."

 

Originally posted on May 1, 2009 on PEN American Center's blog.