Joanne Leedom-Ackerman is a novelist, short story writer, and journalist. She is the editor of The Journey of Liu Xiaobo: From Dark Horse to Noble Laureate (Potomac Books, 2020). Leedom-Ackerman is vice president emeritus of PEN International and served as chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee while Liu Xiaobo was imprisoned. She later served as the International Secretary of PEN International in the same years Liu Xiaobo was president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC).
What has changed (or not changed) about your writing life at home?
Everything has changed for my writing habits. I’ve moved out of the city—Washington, DC—to the Eastern shore of Maryland. My writing habits always included spending most of my writing time at a restaurant (or several) restaurants. Having started my career as a journalist, I do well with ambient noise around me; I concentrate only on the writing, not other distractions. Also I don’t like to cook. Someone fills my coffee cup. I eat modestly, tip well. If the restaurant gets too busy so that I’m taking up a table they need, I go across the street. I know where all the plugs are in my favorite spots and I’m friendly with the waiters and waitresses. All of that changed in a day.
Now I make my own breakfast. I’ve eaten the same breakfast for three months. It takes me approximately two minutes to make—coconut yogurt with blueberries, raspberries, and a handful of slivered almonds scattered on top and a cup of decaf coffee. I go outside, sit by a river and think then come back to the kitchen, make a cup of cinnamon tea and return upstairs where I sit in a chair by a window that looks out on the river. From a catalogue I found a small portable desktop with short legs that fits into the chair so I pull that around me. It holds my computer and a sheet of paper. I have a small table beside me with books and papers. I sip my cinnamon tea, balanced on a warming pod on the window ledge, and I write until the afternoon when I start to get hungry again. I make my lunch—the same lunch for three months—a bowl of tomato soup, rice crackers with chips of cheddar cheese melted in the microwave, a handful of grapes, sometimes a hardboiled egg and a frozen yogurt bar. I go sit outside and listen on audible for 20 minutes to James Michener’s Chesapeake, the 900-page novel about the history of this area where I’m now living. Listening scene by scene I figure should take me through the current crisis. Back upstairs in my chair with my cinnamon tea I write till around 5:30 p.m. when our two dogs who follow me around all day tell me it’s time for a walk. My husband and I take them together and share our day. He cooks dinner; I clean up; we watch a movie, or half a movie, then I spend the evening reading. The routine and the quiet has been surprisingly productive and oddly satisfying. I’m not certain I’ll go back to my old habits, or maybe to some combination.
What do you hope readers will take away from the collection, The Journey of Liu Xiaobo: From Dark Horse to Nobel Laureate?
My recent book is an edited volume: The Journey of Liu Xiaobo: From Dark Horse to Nobel Laureate. I’ve had the privilege of editing the English language edition published by Potomac Books. Liu Xiaobo was the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel Prize for Peace, but he was imprisoned by the Communist Chinese government and not allowed to attend the ceremony. He died in custody. Liu Xiaobo was an excellent writer—poet and essayist—and thinker and activist, justifiably called the Nelson Mandela of China which is why the Chinese government feared him. Xiaobo was active in PEN and was one of the founders of the Independent Chinese PEN Center which allowed writers inside and outside of China to communicate and work together. I knew many of his colleagues from my work as the International Secretary of PEN and Chair of International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee. I was honored to be asked by Liu Xiaobo’s colleagues to edit the volume. Potomac Books has done a beautiful job publishing it. There are 75+ essays from eminent China scholars and writers who knew Liu Xiaobo, including the Dali Lama. I hope readers will see in the book the courage of the man and of the Chinese citizens who worked with him. In his final statement Liu Xiaobo declared, “I have no enemies; I have no hatred.” In spite of how he was treated and regularly imprisoned by the government, he insisted that he and others needed to act as the citizens they wanted their country to have and to be, a nation with freedom and without hatred.
Do you have any pets? Are they enjoying your company?
We have two rescue dogs, getting on in age. They have grown up together. Abby is part golden lab, part beagle and Abner is part black lab/chow/pit bull. They are best of friends and follow me around during the day, but at night they separate, for Abner insists on sleeping on our bed, and Abby will stay outside my husband’s office till he’s ready to go to bed, then she will sleep on the landing, watching over the house.
What were you doing last year at this time? How do you think you’ll look back on this time next year?
Last year at this time my son Elliot Ackerman’s book Places and Names: On War, Revolution and Returning had just come out. I was headed to a bookstore to celebrate and listen to him. This year’s virtual book events have allowed authors to have a wider audience and not have to travel as much, but it has also kept readers and authors apart. I look forward to returning to bookstores, and I also hope virtual events will continue.
What are you working on now?
I’m editing a novel and am also in the midst of writing up the last thirty years of my time with PEN in blog posts: PEN Journeys. I’m currently writing PEN Journey 32. PEN celebrates its Centenary in 2021. I’ve been involved in various roles—as President of PEN Center USA West during the fatwa and Tiananmen Square, then I moved with my family to London where PEN International is headquartered. I worked with the International office, was elected to chair PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee and later elected International Secretary of PEN International. Because I was a bit of a packrat, I usually just put all the papers and documents from meetings in a drawer rather than sorting and throwing papers away so it turns out I have a fairly full archive of those years and am able to reconstruct at least my memories and the activities at the time. International PEN President Jennifer Clement asked me if I’d write up some of these in advance of the Centenary. PEN is a complex organization with over 140 centers in over 100 countries so it is difficult for anyone to write a history of the whole organization. Because I usually posted a blog once a month, I thought, well, I can write two blogs a month, one memory at a time and slowly make my way through the history I know, sort of a serialization of memories. I began last May. Now with the isolation, I’m accelerating and trying to post a blog a week. At least among writers around the world connected to PEN, the narratives seem to be received well, setting out a timeline, sorting the many memories we all share, underpinning them with facts and setting the context of the times and events. We are a big family, many of us working together over decades and continents. For me it is a way to pay tribute to the work of many friends.