While researching the author of Dream of Ding Village, Yan Lianke, I came across this speech that he delivered to his graduate students at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. It addresses the prospect of celebrating the “end” of the COVID-19 pandemic, which feels relevant to our current situation following Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed’s announcement that the UAE has overcome the COVID-19 crisis.
Yan’s speech (presented translated into English) focuses on the concept of memory, a theme that we have traced throughout the majority of our readings this semester. He introduces the capacity for memory as a uniquely human trait:
“The ability to remember is the soil in which memories grow, and memories are the fruit of this soil. Possessing memories and the ability to remember are the fundamental differences between humans, and animals or plants. It is the first requirement for our growth and maturity. ”
He goes on to call on his audience (creative writing graduate students) to continue remembering their own personal experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, resisting the urge to buy into the collective narratives demanded by nations and other entities engaged in the act of writing histories. I found this to be a powerful reminder of the “real-world” relevance of many of the skills we’ve been developing in this class (or, more accurately, a reminder that the study and creation of literature is “real-world,” but that’s a whole other convo), and I would encourage you all to take a few minutes to read it (it’s short and engaging!)
He finishes the speech with the following advice to his students:
“If we can’t speak out loudly, then let us be whisperers. If we can’t be whisperers, then let us be silent people who have memories. Having experienced the start, onslaught, and spread of Covid-19, let us be the people who silently step aside when the crowd unites to sing a victory song after the battle is won—the people who have graves in their hearts, with memories etched in them; the people who remember and can someday pass on these memories to our future generations.”
This speech interestingly aligns with the narrator’s reflections in the last chapters of Defoe’s *A Journal of the Plague Year,* where he says that people tend to forget about things like epidemics. I, personally, tend to believe that this is generally true. Although, this is all just speculation. Might it be due to cultural differences between different regions? So that some parts of the world will remember, and preserve the memories of the COVID pandemic better (as in more accurately, more carefully).
It’s hard to preserve collective memories from corruption – especially when the state has control over speech and virtually all aspects of daily life. Even whispering would be hard. I wanted to share this novel form of whispering developed by Chinese netizens a while back – to record messages on blockchain transactions (https://theconversation.com/chinese-internet-users-turn-to-the-blockchain-to-fight-against-government-censorship-111795). Maybe this could be a form of digital whispering – but we can merely hope that as long as information stays intact, someone would find it.