Las Vegas Sun

October 22, 2017

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Memories, beauty survive oppression, pain

Man detained in hard labor camp writes book in local program for persecuted authors


Leila Navidi

Er Tai Gao cobbled together diary entries he stashed in his shoes and clothes while a laborer in China’s lao gai system of camps to produce “In Search of My Homeland,” a memoir HarperCollins plans to publish parts of this year. Gao finished the book while in Las Vegas’ City of Asylum writing program.

Las Vegas-based author Er Tai Gao’s memoir traces its origins to scraps of paper, dog-eared and yellowed with age, that he keeps in a nondescript photo album, each sheet tucked behind protective plastic.

Minuscule Chinese characters blanket the pages, recounting Gao’s experiences as a forced laborer in China. He risked his life to preserve these memories, hiding the pieces of his makeshift journal in his shoes and in the linings of his jacket to conceal them from informers and prison guards.

Five decades after Gao began his secret writings in the lao gai, China’s system of labor camps, he finally has the opportunity to share his stories with a wider audience. This year, HarperCollins plans to publish an English translation of a portion of Gao’s memoir covering China’s Cultural Revolution and surrounding years.

Gao said a company in Taiwan has agreed to print, in Chinese, his complete memoir, which includes the 73-year-old author’s recollections of his childhood and his arrest following the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Gao’s success is a small victory for Las Vegas too, proof that a city lampooned as a cultural wasteland can serve as a literary incubator.

He finished his memoir, “In Search of My Homeland,” while a writer-in-residence from 2003 to 2006 in Las Vegas’ City of Asylum program, which gives persecuted authors stipends, lodging and health insurance.

Launched in 2000, City of Asylum in Las Vegas operates under UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute, a literary think tank.

The program “says something about the maturity of Las Vegas as a community,” said Carol Harter, Black Mountain’s executive director.

“It sends a message to the whole world that we are in the business of trying to protect free expression.”

Rainmaker Translations, another Black Mountain program, shared the $10,000 cost of translating Gao’s work with the University of California at Irvine’s International Center for Writing and Translation.

Eric Olsen, former executive director of the International Institute of Modern Letters, a UNLV-based nonprofit that was absorbed by Black Mountain in 2006, helped Gao negotiate publication of “In Search of My Homeland,” setting up meetings with translators and a HarperCollins representative.

“It’s an interesting story of one man’s struggle to live a life of integrity rather than a lie ... I think it compares very well with Eli Wiesel’s ‘Night,’ ” said Olsen, co-founder of Las Vegas-based publisher BrightCity Books.

“We should always care about the individual who stands up against tyranny and tells the truth, who says what the tyrants don’t want to hear and don’t want anyone else hearing, who don’t want anyone else even thinking. Such individuals and their stories have, through the ages, served to inspire and remind the oppressed that they don’t have to take it.”

Gao’s memoir exposes the underbelly of a country whose influence in international matters has grown in recent years along with its economy.

In an essay published in 1957 Gao argued that beauty is subjective, challenging the prevailing communist view of beauty as objective in nature. He was sent to a prison camp that same year and spent much of the next two decades doing hard labor, a common punishment for intellectuals whose ideas ran afoul of the ruling regime.

At Jiabiangou, a camp in China’s northern Gansu province, he dug irrigation ditches in a wasteland where passing sandstorms quickly erased a day’s work. Fellow laborers perished from hunger, unable to stay alive on meager rations of turnips, boiled cabbage and dry foods such as cornflour buns and sorghum pancakes.

Even outside of jail, fear permeated daily life — fear, always, that someone, a colleague, a friend, would accuse you of being a “counter-revolutionary,” an enemy of the Communist Party. Paranoia reigned.

Throughout those years, Gao kept his fragmented diary, completing some writings on cigarette wrapping papers.

“The more people who know about what happened, the more likely it will be that what happened will not be repeated — that society will not regress,” Gao told the Sun in Chinese. “In China, there are no museums documenting the atrocities the communists perpetrated. So this is all that’s left — these writings.”

But Gao’s memoir is not only about horrors. He also captures brief moments of humanity within the confines of a totalitarian society — men swapping stories over a secret meal of gazelle meat, a prisoner obsessed with keeping clean a blue coat his mother had made.

Robert Dorsett, one of two translators for Gao’s book, said part of what makes the writing unique is that even in the direst of times, Gao, an artist and a poet, took note of beauty in the world.

While doing hard labor, he took joy in nature, reveling in the beauty of sunsets and snow-covered mountains. And of course, he took time to write.

“His famous aphorism is: ‘Beauty is the symbol of freedom,’ ” said Dorsett, who is working on a play based on “In Search of My Homeland.” “The creation of art, then, is a human being’s most important means of defiance against oppression.”

In Southern Nevada, Gao continues to find that beauty. He likes the desert landscape, the expansive wilderness reminiscent of the breathtaking panoramas he admired in the labor camps.

“In the lao gai, life was extremely difficult,” he said. “But the surroundings were marvelous, very beautiful. There, the beauty of nature stood in sharp contrast to the ugliness of society.”

Gao and his wife Maya entered the United States as refugees in 1993. The political climate in China hasn’t changed much since then, Gao said.

So for now, Las Vegas is a fine place to be — “a city with lots of vitality, an openness,” he said. He and Maya, a mail processor at a local post office, have purchased a townhome here.

And he is penning memoirs of his time in America. In a city with a small literary community, his writings make him — for not the first time in his life — an unusual voice.

Charlotte Hsu can be reached at 259-8813 or at [email protected].

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