In the United States, the word freedom is talismanic, introduced from kindergarten as the American creation myth and held up by politicians and news commentators, rightly or not, as the premier American export. We own the idea—so the subtext goes—and the rest of the world struggles to become like us. So when I hold in my hand the Winter 2012 issue of Mānoa, called On Freedom: Spirit, Art, and State, I wonder how each piece and photograph defines freedom: does the definition conform or aspire to the American definition, and is it first and foremost political?
M?noa is published by the University of Hawaii Press, and “strives to bring the literature of Asia, the Pacific, and the Americas to English-speaking readers.” The cover of the issue is a photograph by Linda Connor of a monk, looking almost dashing in sunglasses and standing with his arms crossed under clouds gathering for a storm. Right then and there Mānoa suggests a multifaceted picture of freedom: the monk seeks an inner spiritual freedom, and his posture hints at defiance; but the storm threatens overhead, and he cannot do anything to stop it. Inside on the facing page, there is a photograph of a man peering out from behind a small barred window, his face complete framed by a stone wall that appears to be part of a structure. The photograph, also by Linda Connor, is called “Kashmiri Summer Worker.” Is he free to leave? The man looks directly at the camera, and his eyes are hopeful.
Woeser’s essay, “Garpon La’s Offering,” is a fresh take on the classic narrative of an artist’s eventual triumph over the suppression of his creative freedom by political forces. Gar “is sacred music dedicated to the Dalai Lama and performed only during special, high ceremonies.” Woeser tells the story of Garpon La, a master Gar musician who had joined the troupe as a boy before the Tibetan uprising against the Chinese in 1959, was imprisoned in a labor camp for 22 years before being rehabilitated by the Chinese authorities in 1982. The subject is the stuff of melodrama, but the essay reads like a conversation, interspersed with Woeser’s own thoughts, interruptions, and hesitations. It is a gentle indictment, and a quiet celebration.
Other pieces explore the boundaries of personal freedom in the face of economic and social circumstance. In “The Snow of Memory,” Mutsuo Takahashi’s mother leaves in search of her own freedom after her husband’s death. Phil Choi recalls the choices that the women in his family have made in “Choosing Burden,” including an aunt who passed the burden of raising a second child to her mother, thinking it would be temporary. The prisoners of Zhang Yihe’s “Death in Prison” barter away the dead person’s belongings: within the prison’s four walls, what little freedom there is must be snatched and stolen. “Stand Up and Whistle” by Andrew Lam is my personal favorite: the narrator’s uncle escaped from war-torn Vietnam, but an affliction of his body follows him everywhere in America.
“Our horoscopes are poor,” wrote Tin Moe in a selection from The Years We Didn’t See the Dawn. Moe was imprisoned by the military dictatorship in Burma on account of his opposition to the regime, and he eventually escaped to the United States, where he died. The excerpt’s fatalism echoes the entangled temple bells in another of Linda Connor’s images: what begins auspiciously cannot last. Moe recalls:
Along the shore,
Gathering up fallen blossoms,
Drinking water from the spring, this joy I had;
But having is but for a moment
Not having is for a lifetime.
Tess Gallagher’s “Blind Dog/Seeing Girl” describes a dog who can neither see nor hear, but the girl lets the dog travel without a leash so that the dog collects “mistakes and self-forgiveness.” The dog’s handicaps limit where they can go, but the girl insists on protecting the dog’s freedom. Unlike the aunt in Choi’s essay, the girl chooses to shoulder the burden because she intuits that “. . . we are each / lost, and beholden / to the other . . .”: the one who is physically freer forfeits her freedom willingly, and is rewarded.
The choice of freedom as a theme is a delicate one, especially for a journal dedicated to literature from and about Asia, the Pacific, and the Americas. It is difficult to come to the issue without fearing that it would teeter on the edge of cliché, simplification, and propaganda. But the strength of Mānoa lies in its juxtaposition of work that was translated into English and work originally written in English. Those who set out to write for their compatriots are not tempted to exoticize or over-explain, and the American writers in this issue exercise admirable judgment in molding their perceptions of the overseas into their work. That is also honest and true. To tell it like it is: that, surely, is a measure of freedom.