Under the aura of Saturn

by Bei Ling

ON DECEMBER 31, 1926, from her lodgings on the outskirts of Paris, the exiled Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, wrote a final letter to Rainer Maria Rilke, who had died three days earlier. Her letter began like this: 'Is this year to end with your passing? You yourself are the newest of years. (Beloved, I know you are in this letter before I write it.) I am crying, Rainer, you are streaming from my eyes.'[i]

In late December 2005, holed up in Taipei on my birthday, alone and joyless in my room, my mind was on edge without cause, or perhaps touched by presentiment. The weather was gloomy. At nightfall I walked along the storm-obscured bank of the Tamsui River. The next morning I turned on my computer and opened my email to find a letter from America: 'Bei Ling, your friend Susan Sontag passed away on December 28th.'

The day before, a fatal tsunami had descended on South-East Asia. The news from America signalled a mourning period with no end in sight.

Of all the things I regret in this life, the most unforgivable was not insisting on seeing Susan in Seattle in October 2004 when she was suffering from leukaemia. On learning she had won the Swedish Royal Order of the Polar Star, I wrote to congratulate her and received a reply from her assistant Annie: 'Susan is gravely ill and is unable to answer your letter. She is suffering from acute myelogenous leukaemia, and has been under treatment in Seattle for half a year. Henceforth ...'

I was shaken with foreboding. I immediately wrote to ask if I could pass through Seattle and visit her on my way to Taipei. Susan instructed her assistant to give me a warm greeting, and assured me she would soon recover and return to New York. She wanted me to wait until late December. I let myself be persuaded.

I am in mourning. And mourning is also recollection; a remembrance, in more than one sense, because many traces are lodged in my memory. As the late Derrida said when eulogising Paul de Man, 'to awaken memory is to awaken responsibility.'[ii] The responsibility of the living is to live up to the departed's wishes, to let the departed's spirit live on. The prideful poet Joseph Brodsky once spoke humbly of the English poet WH Auden (who had rescued him from tyranny), 'Everything I write is to please a shade.'


MY LIFE IN exile began in 1992. Having received a grant of $10,000 to establish a journal, with a stipend of $200 a month and a flat in Boston that doubled as an editorial office, I made preparations to put out a journal of literature and humanities called Tendency. Presumptuously, I wrote Susan Sontag a letter, attaching a prospectus and telling her why I wanted to start this magazine. I asked her to support us by lending her name to the board of editorial advisors. She answered quickly, giving her permission. In her letter she corrected our use of the terms 'writer and critic' instead calling herself a 'fiction writer and essayist'.

That was how we got to know each other.

Although I kept her informed of Tendency's contents, it was not until one Spring afternoon in 1996 that she invited me to her home for a chat. Fearing that my English was not adequate, I brought along the young scholar Tian Xiaofei to translate and fortify my courage. We found our way from Lower Manhattan, checking addresses along the way to her residence, until we stood before the weathered cliff-face of a building on 24th Street in Chelsea. We spoke to the guard, gained admittance, and rode a small elevator to the top. Susan stood tall and regal in black shirt and slacks, framed in the doorway that served as an entrance to her private domain, waiting to welcome us warmly. I recognised her beautiful features from photographs. Was this to be my 'pilgrimage'?[iii] She was sixty-three at the time.

Walking into her spacious rooftop apartment, I noticed dozens of framed prints by the Italian artist and architect Giovanni Piranesi. She led us into the kitchen where she received guests; a door stood open, giving onto the long curve of an imposing rooftop balcony with a spectacular view. She took us out on the balcony, from which we could see the Hudson River gleaming in the sunlight and the Manhattan skyline. We sat at her long dining table; she brewed coffee and asked whether we minded her smoking.

She served the coffee, resting a leg on the chair beside her, and lit her cigarette, beaming and pressing me with questions about China and everything I'd been doing.

Her piercing looks through wreaths of tobacco smoke were earnest and at times intimidating. We talked about her visit to China in 1973. She corrected my misconception that she was born in China, explaining that she was conceived there ('Made in China') but born in the United States. She spoke of China's special significance to her, her deep-seated complex about China and her wish to revisit. She described her father's death in the city of Tianjin. Susan was aware that I wrote poetry, and said that she was also wrote poetry, but unsatisfied with it, kept it from public view. Then Xiaofei turned bubbly and began talking of her doctoral studies in classical Chinese poetry at Harvard. I could not get a word in edgewise, so I sat back and listened.

During our meeting Susan praised Tendency, and began taking notice of its lonely position as a Chinese journal of letters trying to define its own intellectual concerns in the English-speaking world. She took great interest in my obsessive efforts to move the journal back to my homeland.

Thereafter, each time I returned from China, I dutifully called her to report my safe arrival. It was my habit to use her first name when telling her about my brushes with the security apparatus. She worried about me. Whenever I passed through New York, if she was there, we would find a way to meet, she always suggested having a meal in Chinatown, but I preferred going to her place. There I could drink coffee and talk with her, look at her collection of books and paintings, and gaze at the Hudson River from her balcony.

Susan was an unrivalled source of insight. She let you know exactly what she thought. Listening to her was more important for me than answering her questions. She always wanted to find things out from me. She wrote: 'When we meet, Bei Ling wants to talk about Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin, and about my time in Sarajevo, and I want to talk about literature and film and the possibilities of independent expression in today's China.'

She accepted my plan to do a special section about her, and we set up a time for an interview. To introduce her thought and works to the Chinese-speaking world would be a significant event and she helped me plan and choose material to include. She provided English manuscripts for every item we chose, including the first chapter from a work in progress – her novel In America. We also chose her memoir Pilgrimage, an account of her girlhood visit with Thomas Mann and chapters from Illness as Metaphor and On Photography, the short story 'The Way We Live Now', some essays, and her Paris Review interview.


SUSAN DEMANDED THE best. When I faxed the interview questions to her, she read them and told me, 'These questions are superficial. You need to go to a higher level.' I asked Yang Xiaobin, a Tendency editor in a doctoral program at Yale, to help me. In August 1997, we drove to New York. As always, we sat around her dinner table, I brought out a tape recorder and the interview began, carried forward by Susan's eloquence, and at times her flair for debate.

I stood up for intellectuals as exemplars of the dissident spirit; she criticised me for idealising the role of twentieth century intellectuals, enumerating their blunders and misdeeds: '... surely most intellectuals are conformists, like most people. During the seventy years of the Soviet Union, most intellectuals were supporters of the regime. Maybe the best ones weren't, but they were a tiny minority. Why else would they have had a Writers' Union, a Composer's Union, and so forth? And even Pasternak and Shostakovich made compromises. So many Russian writers, artists, theatre people, and intellectuals were murdered in the 1930s, up to the beginning of the German invasion of Russia. Of course, there is a heroic tradition of intellectual life, which has been especially glorious under modern dictatorships. But one mustn't forget the majority of artists, writers, professors – and if you use "intellectual" in the Soviet sense, we must add engineers, doctors, and other educated professionals – were quite conformist. I think it's too flattering to identify intellectuals with oppositional activity. Intellectuals in the last century, and this one just ending, have espoused the vilest ideas of racism, imperialism, and class and gender arrogance. And even when they espouse what we would think of as progressive ideas, the role of those ideas can change in new contexts.'

Given her quickness and clarity of thought, plus her ability to marshal evidence from many fields, I was simply not her equal in argument. Looking back, it seems she was right.

During our interview Xiaobin added fuel to the fire of her criticism of postmodernists and writers who claimed to belong to the 'avant garde' by alluding to Jean Baudrillard's belittling remarks about her. When he suggested that her visits to Sarajevo might have seemed like the gestures of a would-be redeemer, she shot back bitingly: 'A spectator from where? From a Paris cafe? From an apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts? If you had been in Sarajevo, or in any comparable situation where people are suffering, you would never ask such a cynical or naive question. If you help somebody who falls down on the street, do you really think your relation to that person is that of a redeemer? Such fancy words are just part of the current ideology which discourages people from any generous action. No one is a redeemer, no one is redeemed. You express your solidarity by putting your own life on the line with fellow human beings.'

How could I possibly forget the force behind her words?

Susan exemplified the victory of personality. At public events she appeared in black blouse and slacks, grace with an experimental edge. Her manner was captivating, a combination of feeling and intellect, of warmth through reserve. For many years the streak of white in her black tresses was a distinctive mark that came to be known as 'the Sontag look'. She put a vivid personal stamp upon her clothing, speech style, taste and opinions. We share an astrological sign and perhaps a common temperament: melancholy. Twenty-five years before, in her essay, 'Under the Sign of Saturn', she had felt the presence of Walter Benjamin and written a precise word-picture, detail by detail, to catch the image of this great writer. When interviewing her I read from the Chinese translation of that essay to let her hear the flavour it held for me. She sighed in acknowledgment: 'The sign of Saturn refers to my melancholic temperament. All of my works are touched by melancholy ... under the sign of Saturn, it is my hope this will not always be so.'

When I asked her if she wished to visit China again, her answer was an eye-opener: 'Of course I hope to go to China again. But I wouldn't go if I didn't feel it would be useful ... useful to me, intellectually and humanly – for instance, that I would understand better something that I should understand – and useful to some people there and to Chinese in exile. I'm not prepared to be a tourist in China. That seems to me immoral.'


IN AUGUST 2000, Issue 13 of Tendency was printed and published in Beijing. People say that thirteen is an unlucky number; that proved to be true. Not only did the issue land me in jail, it brought trouble and disruption to too many tied to me by blood or friendship. My brother was held as my 'accomplice' at the Haidian District Detention Centre. All my friends and distributors who accepted up to ten copies from me had their premises ransacked by police. The gutsy ones dealt with this calmly. The most timid went into hiding. The Beijing Public Security sent down an order: large numbers of 'people's police' were mobilised to confiscate the entire print run of this 'spiritual pollutant'.

I had printed two thousand copies of that thick four hundred plus page issue, featuring poems and essays by Seamus Heaney. Early in the month I went to Shanghai; mid-month I returned to Beijing. August 13 – again that number – was the day of my undoing. On a torrid afternoon I went downstairs in boxer shorts and a tee-shirt and walked into the guard's room of my apartment building on Heping Avenue in Beili. 'Hi old buddy, I'm going to read the Beijing Daily.'

I was immersed in the newspaper, to the delight of the old doorman, who dialled the precinct and uttered an agreed-upon code word: 'The load you wanted is here. Come pick it up.'

Before long the patrolmen arrived, checked the area for exits, and called in on their walkie talkies. Then they blocked the doorway and shouted at me, 'Where do you live? Let's have a look at your ID.'

They held me in the lobby for a while, grilling me with disconnected questions. I thought to myself, 'the precinct officers must be after me for something. It's probably no big deal.' But half an hour later there was a sound of brakes squealing at the front door, then a hubbub of voices and more walkie talkies. I could see that the guard's room was sealed off by a group of plainclothesmen. I knew the score. From now on, my fate was in their hands. 'Can I go to my room and put on some clothes?' I asked a patrolman.

A plainclothesman came in and answered for him. 'No need. Come along with us.'

'Can I ask who you all are?'

'Can't you tell? Let's go.'

Without letting me get in another word, they frog-marched me toward a patrol car. The first interrogation took place in the garage of the precinct office, where I was kept sitting in a chair through the night. During my second session the next day, the police accused me of having a bad attitude and covering up criminal activities. That afternoon I was escorted into the same jeep. Along the way, I asked a plainclothesman, 'Where are we going?'

'To a hotel.'

The jeep sped along a tree-lined road in the western suburbs, newly paved with asphalt slowing near a large, gray building. At the gatehouse manned by rifle-toting guards, a large sign hung on the iron gate: Beijing Public Security, Haidian Sub-Bureau, Qinghe Detention Center. My head reeled with the realisation of what I was up against.

The centre had formidable walls; concertinas of electrified barbed wire had the exaggerated grimness of an art installation. Even a mosquito would have been unable to fly through. Inside the office, I was forced to take off my high-prescription glasses. I baulked, saying, 'Without my glasses I can't ...' But one of the guards kicked my leg and barked, 'You think this is a damned hotel? You come in here alive, but maybe you go out dead! Squat your sorry ass down and clasp your hands behind your head.'

Peering with bleary eyes I heard the warden announce: 'Suspect Huang Bei Ling, implicated in illegal publishing and dissemination of illegal foreign journals, will be held in criminal detention pending formal charges.' I was escorted into Block 8, Cell 1.

For days I wore nothing but boxer shorts and a tee-shirt, without so much as a change of underwear. I was utterly dependent on my cellmates. I lost all contact with the outside world, and had no idea who might be implicated. I was not aware that my brother Huang Feng was locked up in the same jail. Did the outside world know of my imprisonment, and if so, could anyone secure my release? I was in the dark until fourteen days later, when the prison office announced: 'Charges will not be filed. To be released on parole to await further questioning. Return to your cell until you are escorted out.'

On the final morning, I filled out exit forms. In the lobby I ran into my brother, who was also being released. We quickly exchanged information, without even a chance to hug each other. I was led to a jeep again, which took me through a labyrinth of lanes. My familiarity with Beijing streets told me we were stopping at the Public Security Convalescent Home. Behind the non-descript gate was a Shangri-La of two-storey residences among the greenery. I was led from the jeep to a suite of rooms, where a police officer in charge of my case was waiting for me. I asked him, 'Is this going to be house arrest?' The officer said, 'Get a few days of rest here. Take care of your health and unwind from your fright. We'll clear things up for you.'

The convalescent home was located in the Western Hills of Beijing; there was a hint of coolness in the early fall air. I could close the bathroom door and be alone; I could wash myself without stripping down in front of others. I took my first hot water bath for two weeks. I slept in a bed. I could gaze at the view through a window, not look upwards at a small square of light and long for freedom. But not all was to my liking ... the moment I left the bathroom I faced long, intimate conversations with officers from Public Security.

That evening an officer from the Beijing Bureau suddenly declared: 'According to an agreement by the Chinese and American governments, you will be deported to America ...' This threw me into a daze and it took time to regain my presence of mind. It dawned on me that 'freedom' would mean leaving my own country. I said, 'All I want is for you to release me. I want to stay in Beijing.'

Before I could finish, the officer cut in, 'We can't have that. America is waiting for you, they want you right away. You need to make a contribution to Chinese-American relations. Tomorrow morning you must board a flight to America on the Chinese national airline.'

I was roused at 6 am and told to shave, 'to project a good image for our country'. Then it was soybean milk, fritter, and rice porridge, and back into the jeep to be driven through the just-waking suburbs of Beijing. Remembering familiar segments of the route, my eyes took in every street, every view, tree, and shrub. I saw old codgers walking with their old wives, and old single women, then boys and girls shouldering book bags on their way to school. This was my Beijing. Would it be the last of Beijing for me? Tears ran down my face; I did not trust my voice to speak. The security man riding along to 'protect' me had nothing to say. I was taken to my parents' house, where I said goodbye to them and my younger brother. I gathered up my luggage and was put under escort again, this time to the Beijing Airport, where I was placed aboard a plane bound for San Francisco.

And so it was that I was 'deported' back to America. As far as I knew, I was free due to the State Department and the American Embassy. I didn't know who had worked to save me. Not until I got news from my friend in San Francisco, not until I read Susan's Op-Ed piece for the New York Times, not until I learned from the American PEN Center of the concerted response by the international literary community, not until I called Susan, and went to New York and saw her did I know how much Susan Sontag had done for me.


ON MY THIRD day back in America the American PEN Center in New York was to hold a small press conference for me at its headquarters. I called Susan from Boston, telling her I would be in New York the next day. There was happiness in her voice as she asked me: 'May I get together with you? May I? I have an afternoon appointment, but I can call now and reschedule. Let's go to Chinatown first for a meal, and then I'll go to the PEN Center with you ...'

We agreed to meet at an intersection in Chinatown. Susan got out of a taxi, clad in a black, with a friend in tow, Paolo di Lonardo, her Italian translator. We were moved at meeting again after so long. She looked me over from head to foot and said, 'You look well, yes, fairly well. You haven't lost weight, have you? You weren't beaten, were you? It doesn't look as if ...'

She treated me to a welcome-back meal, grilled me with rapid-fire questions about jail and said, 'I never expected they would let you out so soon.'

As Susan described how she had worked for my release, I listened with feelings of gratitude, embarrassment and even self-rebuke. She said she was shocked to read the five-line notice of my imprisonment in the New York Times. After reading this she was unable to do any other work. The first few days, she contacted her Chinese friends, but none of them knew my situation. She got in touch with her American Sinologist friends, but they had not heard anything either.

I hadn't given Susan my phone number or address in China, nor had I contacted her from China. She did not know how to get in touch with my family, or even with Meng Lang (a co-editor of Tendency). Later, she got a second-hand account of why I was imprisoned through American PEN. Meng Lang put out an appeal for me, and PEN found out about my situation from Meng, who was in direct contact with my family in Beijing. So when news got to Susan, it had already gone full circle.

Her essay on August 19, 2000 described the situation: 'But alas, next to the Cuban story, at the bottom of the page, was something else. Only a tiny article, five sentences in all, brought me the heart-rending news that on that same Friday, in the afternoon, my friend, Bei Ling, the distinguished Chinese poet and editor, had been arrested in Beijing ... Bad things happen in August, mid-August especially. There is no moment in the year when it is harder to get people's attention, as I can testify, having done little else since last Sunday except call and email people who could possibly join me in bringing attention to Bei Ling's plight. There's the Democratic Convention, there is the riveting horror of the Russian sub. And as one knowledgeable Sinologist friend said, "You're running into Arrested Chinese Dissident Fatigue".'

I had been in prison a week when she wrote, 'The Crime of Spreading Ideas to China'. She sent this essay to newspapers everywhere; it was translated into seven languages and published simultaneously in over ten countries. The essay raised this point: is it too much to hope that the fate of one important literary figure, a legal resident of the United States, languishing at this moment in jail in Beijing, could be of interest to our government? Is it too much to hope that private citizens could be mobilised to speak out for this lone scholar and poet? To be sure, public outcry is only part of the story. In most cases where dissidents have been freed by their despotic governments, the key influence was behind-the-scene pressure by high-level government officials. But public outcry is a start.

Susan was well versed in strategies for getting people out of prison. The critical time to secure release is the early stage, when a criminal label has not yet been attached. She told me that she immediately phoned President Bill Clinton's office, because she knew Clinton, but he did not come to the phone, so she asked his secretary to tell him: the American government had a responsibility to get involved. As she put it in her essay, 'If there is silence about Bei Ling, one can only fear the worst for him – and for others in China (two days ago his brother, who lives in Beijing, was arrested). It is simply a green light to the Chinese government that it can act with impunity in such cases; indeed, that it can enlarge the scope of its persecution and intimidation of independent thought. If nobody responds, the message to the Chinese government could hardly be clearer.'

Susan phoned Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who was a friend, and asked her to help get me out of jail because 'America can and should concern itself with matters of liberty and freedom'. Albright assured her that she would give this her full attention. The State Department and the American Embassy made great efforts to negotiate with the Chinese government, asking for the release of my brother and me.

Around that time, the Chinese government was laying plans for a major exhibition that would tour America: 5,000 Years of Chinese Civilisation. Susan said that my arrest in Beijing cast an ironic light on such a magnificent showcase as she expected I would be sentenced, and was prepared to raise an ongoing appeal. She said that members of the American literary and cultural community planned to hold a protest meeting in early September, at the exhibition's opening, and call on China to release me. Subsequent activities were in the works as well ...

After lunch, Susan accompanied me to PEN's meeting centre on Broadway in Lower Manhattan. Staff and reporters greeted us and congratulated me on my release. The press conference was held in the auditorium, moderated by PEN's acting director Michel Roberts. Susan sat next to me at the front. The questions touched on Tendency's aims and content: 'Why should it be printed in Beijing? How did that lead to my arrest? What was the reaction of intellectuals and cultural figures in China? What is the system for controlling publications?' As the questions got more numerous and more specific, the holes in my English started to show. Seeing that I was in trouble, Susan whispered, 'You don't have the English to tell the reporters what you think. Why not say your answers to me? When I understand your meaning, I'll restate it in my own words.' And so Susan served as my 'interpreter'. I spoke to her in my 'Beilingian' English, and she restated it with additions. When I missed the point of a question, she clarified it for me. She could not bear to see a writer belittled or misunderstood.

When the conference was over, Susan rose immediately and said, 'I must get back to work.' She asked me to call her in the evening, to make sure I had a place to stay, or find out if I needed anything. With that she said goodbye to all and quickly left the building.


IN APRIL 2001, in New York on business, I called from a pay phone, and Susan's assistant answered. I asked whether Susan was there and she said Susan was working, and told me to leave a message. I was preparing to leave a message when Susan's voice came on the line. She had been getting so many calls lately she hardly dared to pick up the phone. But she was happy I had called. With gaiety in her voice she told me: she was being awarded the biennial Jerusalem Prize for Freedom of the Individual in Society. I did not recognise the long name, so I reacted slowly. Susan thought perhaps I didn't know, so she explained the prize was awarded by the Jerusalem International Book Fair to writers whose work explores individual freedom. Since its founding in 1970 it had been awarded to many influential writers: Jorge Borges, Simone de Beauvoir, Graham Greene, Milan Kundera, Zbigniew Herbert and Samuel Beckett. From her voice I could tell how highly she ranked the prize.

I gave her my hearty congratulations and said I knew of the prize. Ten years before, in China, I had read Milan Kundera's acceptance speech, 'When People Think, God Laughs'. That remarkable speech had helped open up my world-view. Susan continued, 'For more than a week I've been thinking and writing and revising for the speech I'll give in Jerusalem.'

I worried about her going to accept the prize in Israel, the region was at a bloody standoff. Susan's much-publicised trip would surely trigger widespread objections. Friends and human rights organisations advised her to refuse the Jerusalem Prize, to protest the killing of Palestinian civilians by Israeli troops.

Her speech, 'The Conscience of Words', will surely endure. Every sentence hits the mark; every word carries weight; it is a penetrating exposition, by a writer of conscience, about literature's complex relations to politics, freedom and humanity: 'What writers do should free us up, shake us up. Open avenues of compassion and new interests. Remind us that we might, just might, aspire to become different, and better, than we are. Remind us that we can change. To confer an honour is to affirm a standard believed to be held in common. To accept an honour is to believe, for a moment, that one has deserved it. (The most one should say, in all decency, is that one is not unworthy of it.) To refuse an honour offered seems boorish, unconvivial, pretentious ... The idea of collective responsibility, as the logical basis of collective punishment, is surely not justifiable, neither militarily nor morally. I am speaking of using disproportionate weapons against civilians ... Unless Israelis stop planting communities in Palestinian territories, dismantle their settlements and withdraw the troops massed to protect settlers, there can be no peace in this region.'

This was one of the important speeches of her life. If the National Book Award in 2000 affirmed her status as a novelist, then the 2001 Jerusalem Prize affirmed her literary conscience and her lifetime of concerned action.

In 'Under the Sign of Saturn,' she wrote, 'A classic feature of the Saturnine temperament is the especially harsh estimation of one's own motives.' She lived in the realm of sensibility: on one hand she was brimming with passion, but her passion was subject to self-restraint. She made high demands on herself. Sometimes when we were on the phone, though the subject was important and we talked with enthusiasm, as soon as we reached the half-hour mark, her internal alarm would go off, and she would bring the conversation to an abrupt halt. As she wrote in her analysis of Benjamin, 'If work can become a self-compelled activity with anaesthetic effects, then melancholy can be transformed to heroic will.' She had a favourite expression: 'I have to get back to work.' Even when we met at her place, when the visit exceeded an hour it would trip her inner timer, and she would break in with, 'Excuse me, I have to get back to work.'


OWING TO MY blundering attempt at independent publishing, the new life I had begun in Beijing was taken from me. The condominium I had nearly bought in Badaling Township, near the Great Wall, and the semi-reclusive life I looked forward to in the northern countryside turned into an empty dream. The dreadful thing was that my return to the motherland was cut off for the foreseeable future. Was there to be a 'return of the exile'? The exile had found it hard to return and I was again deported to the 'paradise' of America. I had difficulty adjusting, and fell into depression.

I told Susan about my agony. She listened and understood. She considered my exile to be an act of fate. An exiled intellectual should not only show concern for his motherland, but also for politics in his land of residence; he should engage his thinking in its cultural and spiritual development. Susan and I talked about Joseph Brodsky, whom we both admired. Her eulogy for Brodsky has a sentence I particularly relish, 'His home was no longer Russia, it was the Russian language.'

Susan's advice to me was this: 'Face the reality that you can't return to China. You should treat this as your fate, as Brodsky did. You need to take time and master English.' She also reproached me for not trying hard enough to have my translated works published in American and European periodicals. She felt an exiled writer ultimately had to do this to stay influential in his adopted country. She also kept reminding me, 'Have you written? Have your written new poems?'

In those years, she worried about my livelihood, and asked what I relied on to survive, 'What can I do to help you? I know I can help you.' In Autumn 2000 she applied to the American PEN for a US$2,000 stipend from its emergency relief fund. Later, over my protestations, she personally led me there to collect it. Susan was a severe judge, but she vouched for the quality of my works. She wrote recommendations to get my works published in journals and newspapers. She urged her good friend Steve Wasserman to phone me and commission an article for the Los Angeles Times Book Review. She recommended my poems to the literary editor of The New Republic. She introduced me to the editors of intellectual journals, gave me their phone numbers, and asked whether I had called them. She would always say, 'Don't be embarrassed. Call them up directly and tell them that Susan Sontag told you to make the call.'

Later, certain overseas Chinese writers asserted that a literary journal-inexile should stand for 'pure literature'. Behind my back they assailed Tendency for having political backing, and they even made efforts to sabotage it. In the American cultural community, in front of the poet Allen Ginsberg and other advisory editors, they made damning insinuations about Tendency, yet dared not engage me in open polemics. It was easy to rebut their attacks. I needed only to point to the content of great journals such as the New York Review of Books, Paris Review, the Times Literary Supplement and Letter International: don't these journals engage with the politics and thought of our era, both in America and worldwide?

Susan was in total agreement. She said it was self-deceptive to argue that a journal for exiles should be 'purely literary'. China's literature, culture and thought reflect its social realities, and the cowardly writers who think to escape such realities are engaging in self-hypnosis. While I was in jail, she affirmed Tendency's guiding principles and defended my role as its editor. She wrote in the New York Times: 'To give an idea of the range of the magazine, the summer 1996 issue contained translations of three essays and several poems by Joseph Brodsky, as well as a critical article on Brodsky and an essay on the problems of translating Brodsky into Chinese; a special section on religion (both Confucianism and Christianity) in modern China; a group of essays on Chinese poetry in the 1990s; a play; as well as essays on "the third world intellectual", on overseas Chinese woman writers, on the reaction of German intellectuals to the fall of the Berlin Wall and on the problems of "intellectuals in a closed society". The closed society, of course, is China today.'


SUSAN EXPRESSED GREAT regret when Tendency ceased publication. The most conscientious of its advisory editors, she assisted me in choosing topics. She recommended good writers and their works. She provided her own works without compensation, for us to publish in translation. Later, she kept hoping that Tendency could resume publication, and was even willing to help with fundraising. But I had suffered a debilitating blow, and my collaborators had gone on to new pursuits. The newly founded Tendency Press took up time as well, and though my heart was willing, I lacked the strength to keep the journal going.

To encourage me, Susan read aloud comments by a poet who had translated my poems. She kept urging me to give thought to writing new poems.

But I failed to do so. She hoped I would write the book I had planned, and she agreed to write a preface for it. Yet up to the time of her passing, I had not finished it. In 2002, when I was chosen to be writer-in-residence at the New York Public Library, Susan congratulated me warmly. Up to then, she had worried over my finances, not knowing how I could survive on the little I had.

As the political, cultural and spiritual atmosphere of our era worsened steadily, she grew more consumed by worry; more committed to voicing concerns over current affairs, and to exposing the dark side of national policy. Our friendship shifted from her worrying about me to me worrying about her, as if our sympathies were balanced on an invisible pair of scales.

On September 11, 2001, America suffered an attack by terrorists hiding within its borders. Susan was in Germany when it happened, and she granted an interview to the Messe Frankfurt on her views about terrorism. Later she published an article, first in the Frankfurt paper and then in The New Yorker, titled, 'Our strength will not help us'. As an American and a New Yorker, she expressed grief, but she criticised President Bush's Middle East policy. The article contained a telling evaluation of the terrorists who crashed hijacked airplanes into the twin towers, 'In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue), whatever may be said about the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards.' This sentence stirred up a storm and angered many. Hers was arguably one of the most individualistic voice to emerge in the aftermath of 9/11, and the American public – especially New Yorkers – focused avidly on her dissenting voice. She then hurried back to America and proceeded to the ruins of the World Trade Center, to survey the heart-rending spectacle. In response to that terrible shock, she was moved to clarify and rethink her earlier viewpoints.

In September 2002, on the anniversary of the attacks, she and President Bush both wrote for the New York Times. In 'Real Battles, Empty Metaphors' she remonstrated against the President's anti-terrorist postures: 'I do not question that we have a vicious, abhorrent enemy that opposes most of what I cherish – including democracy, pluralism, secularism, the equality of the sexes, beardless men, dancing (all kinds), skimpy clothing and, well, fun. And not for a moment, do I question the obligation of the American government to protect the lives of its citizens. What I do question is the pseudo-declaration of pseudo-war. These necessary actions should not be called a "war". There are no endless wars; but there are declarations of the extension of power by a state that believes it cannot be challenged ... America has every right to hunt down the perpetrators of these crimes and their accomplices. But this determination is not necessarily a war.'

In keeping with her long-standing ideals, she cut through the smokescreen of indignation. She was seeking the true picture, the underlying nature of things, and before cancer struck its last blow, she published her last long essay in the New York Times Magazine, 'Regarding the Torture of Others'. This dispatch carefully analyses photos from the infamous Abu Ghraib prison which show mistreatment of prisoners by American soldiers. In this tight, well-documented piece, she looks authority in the face and anatomises its language. In her usual biting style, now full of emotional intensity, she argues that in an era awash with media imagery, visual documents can still have undeniable moral impact. In the final paragraph Susan's words hit home like tense drumbeats: 'In our mirror-like hall of numbers, these photos will not disappear. Yes, it seems a picture is worth a thousand words, and though our leaders may choose not to look at them, many thousands of such digital photos and videos will emerge. There is no stopping them.'

Right up to the final years of her life, Susan was protecting the 'conscience of words'. As she admitted in her acceptance speech for the Jerusalem Prize, 'If I must choose between truth and justice ... of course, I do not wish to choose ... I would choose truth.'

On January 18, 2005 – her seventy-first birthday, Susan was buried according to her wishes at Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris. Her grave was heaped with flowers, and friends from around the world were present at the interment of her ashes. Her grave is adjacent to those of Baudelaire and Roland Barthes. She has joined the long procession of great departed writers.


Translation by Denis Mair


[i] From Letters:Summer 1926. Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetayeva, Rainer Maria Rilke, with preface by Susan Sontag. Quoted in New York Review of Books, September 2001.

[ii] The New Republic [Derrida's eulogy of Paul de Man]

[iii] Referring to Susan Sontag's essay about her youthful visit with Thomas Mann: 'Pilgrimage'by Susan Sontag, The New Yorker, December 1987.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 18: In the Neighbourhood © Copyright Griffith University & the author.