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  • Editor's Note
  • Frank Stewart

At a conference in Southeast Asia recently, the writer Barry Lopez noted the importance of what he called good conversations, and especially conversations with those who are from other cultures and traditions. "Conversations are efforts toward good relations," he said. "They are an elementary form of reciprocity. They are the exercise of our love for each other, they are the enemies of our loneliness, our doubt, our anxiety, our tendencies to abdicate. To continue to be in good conversation over our emotions and terrifying problems is to be calling out to each other in the night. If we attend with imagination and devotion to our conversations, we will find what we need."

The telling of stories is of course fundamental in all cultures, beginning as far back as we have records; but talking about stories—the conversations that help us explore what is most pertinent about the stories that people tell—is equally ancient, fundamental, and necessary. The philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah refers to these conversations about narratives as a way of aligning our responses to the world with the responses of others. Because stories are often the repository of a society's values, good conversations about them may guide us toward an understanding of our own community's response to the difficult issues we face. Likewise, they may guide us to the reasoning behind responses of strangers, which otherwise might seem enigmatic to us.

Stories from elsewhere can carry us into the situations—the bodies, minds, and emotions—of other people in other cultures. They can make foreigners less foreign and more familiar, less abstract and more of a real, active presence in our world. Again, Appiah finds the word "conversation" a convenient term for the kind of reciprocity that can mark the beginning of understanding:

Often enough, as Faust said, in the beginning is the deed: practices and not principles are what enable us to live together in peace. Conversations across boundaries of identity—whether national, religious, or something else—begin with the sort of imaginative engagement you get when you read a novel or watch a movie or attend to a work of art that speaks from some place other [End Page vii] [Begin Page ix] than your own. So I'm using the word "conversation" not only for literal talk but also as a metaphor for engagement with the experiences and ideas of others. And I stress the role of the imagination here because encounters, properly conducted, are valuable in themselves. Conversation doesn't have to lead to consensus about anything, especially not values; it's enough that it helps people get used to one another.

Mänoa has been advocating such imaginative engagement for nearly two decades. Oftentimes, however, we have been aware that, to enable the most rewarding cross-cultural encounters, the storytelling techniques and situations of authors in other societies need to be given context. Sometimes it clarifies our understanding when we know how the impulses to write may differ, what authors strive to accomplish, the circumstances under which they write, the scope of their vision, and the beliefs and values they cherish.

With this in mind, Beyond Words presents more than two dozen authors from China, Tibet, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Malaysia discussing their particular approaches to writing. We have collected their words as they appear in essays, interviews, stories, and poems.

We have sought diversity in nationality, language, age, gender, and aesthetics. Some of the authors write to effect social justice, political reform, or freedom from an oppressive government. Others are more concerned with the inner movements of the heart, the relationships of individuals to one another, to family, or to their spiritual nature. Some adopt experimental forms and the mixing of genres, while others look to traditional spoken or literary forms. Still others write of the hazards and surprises of creating in other languages, or writing in countries with many languages and dialects. But whatever their means, the authors in Beyond Words are committed to the power of literature to transform readers, society, and themselves. The effort to write well, to be understood, to innovate, to celebrate, to comfort, and...