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Marie Lu, ILA General Session Speaker, on the Importance of Writing to Remember

By Marie Lu
 | Jul 06, 2017

Marie LuFlashback to the summer of 1989.

I was four years old, and my father had finally managed to secure a hard-won student visa to study at Louisiana State University. While my mother and I waited for our chance to join him, I lived with my aunt and cousin in Beijing, a few miles away from Tiananmen Square, the heart of China’s government.

For many at the time, Tiananmen Square was the epicenter of a rising democratic movement breaking out all across the country. Throughout the spring of 1989, hundreds of thousands of young university students had gathered in the square to raise their voices against the government.

For me, the massive crowd in Tiananmen Square was a tourist attraction. We didn’t have much in our little Beijing hutong—no hot water, no air conditioner or heater, no private bathroom, precious little to do. So, to entertain us, my aunt took my cousin and me out to the square every weekend. I still remember looking on, one of my small hands in my aunt’s, the other clutching a melting popsicle, as the crowds grew steadily larger, as the students erected a white Statue of Liberty model in the square, as their leaders shouted into megaphones and the crowds answered with fervor.

The last day we watched the students was the day the government cracked down on them.

I remember going out to the square on the day of the massacre. My older cousin was throwing a fit that day, wailing after my aunt refused to let him wear his favorite red overalls—red being a revolutionary color that could draw unwanted, dangerous attention. So, as he stayed home in his tantrum, I accompanied my aunt to the square.

It was a warm, sticky day in early June, and the square was packed with people. There were already tanks in the streets, sitting quietly for their next orders. Soldiers stood in lines against the protesters, staring each other down.

The tanks waited and the soldiers waited. The students waited. And we waited, not knowing what would happen next.

I remember my aunt leaning down to me. Whatever she sensed in the air that I couldn’t, it made her say, “Let’s go home early. This isn’t a good day to be here.”

For years afterward, I would hear two different versions. One, the version from China and from family members, was that the protesters were rabble-rousers the state was forced to stop in order to preserve order. Two, the version from the rest of the world, was that these unarmed college students were gunned down for daring to speak their minds.

Being a child, of course, I didn’t know what any of it meant. I didn’t understand why my parents taught me not to speak of it, or why they’d always say this in a hushed tone, as if someone could hear us. I didn’t grasp the era they had survived, the things they had seen. I didn’t understand why I stayed home from kindergarten the next day because school had been canceled all across Beijing.

But I knew what a tank was. The image of them in the streets, waiting, has always stayed with me.

To read Marie Lu’s complete article, check out the open access March/April issue of Literacy Today, ILA’s member magazine.

Marie Lu, the author of the No. 1 New York Times best-selling series The Young Elites and the blockbuster best-selling Legend series, will speak at the Closing General Session of the ILA 2017 Conference & Exhibits on Monday, July 17. For more information, visit

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