Sichuan Novelist Releases Oral Histories Before Quake

Liao Yiwu, who spent four years in prison for his work protesting the killings at Tiananmen Square, wrote a compilation of oral histories about life in Sichuan. The book was released a month before the deadly earthquake rocked the region. Liao gives host Andrea Seabrook his count of the earthquake and discusses the book The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up.

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

One of the survivors of the earthquake is a man who spent a decade talking to the people of Sichuan Province about their lives. Think of them as the Studs Turkle of Sichuan. His name is Liao Yiwu. The dissident writer spent four year in prison for his work protesting the killings at Tiananmen Square. He has frequently been harassed, detained, and censored.

Last month he released a book called The Corpse Walker. It's a compilation of oral histories about people at the bottom rung of Chinese society. Philip Gourevitch is the editor of the Paris Review which published some of Liao's tales, stories of a human trafficker and a public toilet attendant, stories from the side streets and back alleys of Sichuan Province.

Mr. PHILIP GOUREVITCH (Editor of Paris Review): I don't think that Liao Yiwu could have imagined a fate of this that this earthquake felt, but I think he knew very much that as he was recording these stories and these voices, he was recording voices that otherwise would be lost to the memory of China and of the world. They would never otherwise be heard.

SEABROOK: With the help of his translator, Wen Huang, we reached Mr. Liao at his home outside the provincial capital Chengdu. I asked him what happened on Monday when the earthquake hit.

Mr. LIAO YIWU (Author of The Corpse Walker): (Through Translator) The whole world is like a person suffer from epilepsy and the whole world was shaking violently, and everybody was rushing down from the stairs, and people were screaming. And then I heard these loud thunderous noise, it's like firecrackers.

You can't imagine how scared people were. Those people who are rushing out of the building, some didn't wear shoes, and some didn't even wear clothes. They didn't even know that they didn't have anything on. They were just so scary. They were as scared as birds.

SEABROOK: Liao says the sounds of shattering glass mixed with the screams of women and children. He spent three nights alone in his empty apartment building, no power, new cracks down the walls.

Mr. LIAO: (Through Translator) During the past several days when I'm lying down here in this empty building, I've been thinking about the lives of honorable people. I have been recording the lives of honorable people for many years. Let me tell you how I started on this. If it hadn't been for the life in prison, I probably wouldn't have the opportunity to get in touch with these honor people and record their lives. I used to be a poet welcomed by the Chinese Authority. But then prison was as catastrophic as this earthquake to my life. By staying in prison, I was able to know these honor people. I was able to understand their pains and their sufferings and they became the source of my inspiration and the resources for my writing.

SEABROOK: As I spoke with Liao Yiwu, he returned to one character again and again, the professional mourner. This was an elderly man who had learned to wail and chant at age 12. At traditional funerals, the professional mourner is paid to sustain his wail as family members weaken with grief.

Mr. LIAO: (Through Translator) With such a large number of people killed in earthquake, you may have 1 or 100 or 1000 professional mourners; it won't be enough to cry over these dead people.

SEABROOK: Hum. Have you been able to reach any of the people who shared their stories with you since the earthquake?

Mr. LIAO: (Through Translator) Since the earthquake, I haven't been able to get in touch with them. For example, the professional mourner, he actually lives nears the border area of Beichaun County which was hit the hardest by the earthquake. If he's still alive, he should be in his 80s, and it's very hard to get a hold of him.

SEABROOK: Liao Yiwu feels fortunate that his home escaped the worst damage, that his neighbors weren't killed.

Mr. LIAO: (Through Translator) When I see on TV that these children, they're crying under the debris and then screaming, when I see these things, I felt so guilty as a writer. I wish that I could be there where the epicenter of the earthquake is and try to help people and to witness first-hand how these lives just disappearing right in front of your eyes.

SEABROOK: Poet, novelist, and screenwriter Liao Yiwu. His book is The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up. He spoke to us by cell phone from his apartment building outside of Chengdu. Wen Huang is Liao's friend and translator. He spoke to us from Chicago.

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