I wrote this letter three years ago, perhaps misunderstanding our student activist assignment to write letters of protest to oppressive regimes. Reading it now, my words seem so inadequate, especially given the recent news that Liu Xiaobo has died a prisoner of conscience. Did I even send it to the correct address? Likely, not. Was I mostly thinking of myself, my own woes, as I wrote it? Probably so, and struggling with how to reconcile my art with my activism. Reading it now feels a bit like a child’s school report. And yet, writing the letter changed me for the better. Rest in peace, Liu Xiaobo. (1955-2017). 

Liu Xiaobo

Dear Liu Xiaobo,

I am writing this letter to express my sadness and anger that you have been imprisoned, and also to extend a few humble words of support for your life and work as a poet.

I’m sitting in a café in Greenwich Village with two fellow writers. We met here today to each write letters as part of PEN’s Defending Writers campaign.

I can’t say that I’ve been an activist in my life. And yet, I have made a commitment to a life of poetry. In my mind, that is also a commitment to a life in search of the truth, and bringing that truth out into the light of day.

Wanting to learn more about you, I stumbled upon an essay by Nick Admussen, published in Boston Review a couple years ago. I read the words Lia Xia, your wife: “I have not come to view Xiaobo as a political figure. In my eyes, he has always been and will always be an awkward and diligent poet.”

As I complete my graduate work in the next couple of weeks, I will return to both those words and the poetry you have written. I will strive to be more “awkward and diligent” in my own poetry. I will also draw inspiration from these words, the final stanzas from your poem “Experiencing Death”:

Countless nights behind iron-barred windows

and the graves beneath starlight

have exposed my nightmares


Besides a lie

I own nothing

These lines draw something new into my world. Reading them changes me in some fundamental way I cannot yet understand—the power of lies. To recognize a lie can mean intellectual freedom. It can change a person’s life and a country’s future.

From New York, I send gratitude for your work and urgently call for your release from prison.

Yours truly,

Safia Jama


New York City