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Manoa 13.2 (2001) ix-xiii
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Twice a year, Manoa's editors gather significant new writing from throughout Asia, Oceania, and the Americas, and focus on a particular country in the region. Guest-edited by Samrat Upadhyay and Manjushree Thapa, Secret Places features new prose and poetry from Nepal, a Hindu kingdom rich in cultural and topographic beauty but faced with especially difficult social, economic, and political challenges. Situated between the two most populous countries in the world and possessing formidable natural borders--the towering Himalayan range to the north and the tropical lowlands of the Tarai to the south--Nepal was geographically and politically isolated from much of the world until 1951. A democratic revolution toppled the hereditary dictatorship, and the nation has since opened its borders to outsiders. Even so, access remains difficult and Nepal continues to be sequestered.
As we were preparing this volume, Nepal was thrust suddenly into the international headlines. Tragically, on 1 June 2001, nearly the entire royal family--King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, Queen Aiswary, and nine others--were shot to death in the palace in Kathmandu; four more were wounded. The accused murderer was the king's son, Crown Prince Dependra, who died three days later of self-inflicted wounds. When the news of the massacre reached Nepal's citizens, the capital city erupted in grief and anger. Conflicting reports about the killings fueled conspiracy theories and rioting across Nepal, which in turn brought a temporary suspension of civil rights, censorship of the news media, and a crackdown on protestors. Co-guest editor Manjushree Thapa wrote from Kathmandu shortly after the massacre, "I'm afraid the darkness of the past few days has been deep, with democracy, free expression, free press, and free assembly coming under serious threat. We're facing a shoot-on-sight curfew and much contempt from the powers-that-be; indeed it sometimes seems we're on the brink of dissolution as a democratic country." Written in the days immediately following the palace shootings and included in Secret Places, co-guest editor Samrat Upadhyay's essay "A Kingdom Orphaned" further describes the initial reaction of Nepal's people to the massacre. [End Page ix]
The fate of democracy was a concern in Nepal even before the June tragedy, despite the fact that in recent years the situation has improved on several fronts. Indeed, publication of Secret Places marks the tenth anniversary of the free, multiparty elections held in Nepal in May 1991--only the second time in the nation's history that democratic elections had been held. (The first came in 1951, but multiparty democracy at that time lasted for fewer than ten years.) In 1990, pro-democracy demonstrations had compelled King Birendra to relinquish absolute authority and to sanction a parliamentary government under a new, democratic constitution. The transition was not easy, however. After the elections, factionalism and corruption resulted in government leadership changing ten times over the next ten years. In 1995, democracy was threatened further by an insurgent "people's war," launched by the Maoist United People's Front. Since the insurgency began, nearly two thousand people have been kidnapped, tortured, or killed; bombings, assassinations, and other human-rights violations are not uncommon on both sides of the conflict.
Writers in Nepal have been courageous in addressing the country's political and social concerns, including issues of individual freedom and the rights of minorities. And though the writing community is not large, authors work in a wide variety of styles and from various points of view concerning the role of literature in society. In her overview essay printed here, Manjushree Thapa discusses Nepal's contemporary writing community and finds common ground even among the more extreme positions. According to her, the mission of Nepal's authors has become twofold: to reach out to their own people--a society of dozens of languages, castes, and ethnic groups with varying levels of education and literacy--and to reach out to the world.
In fulfilling this mission, writers are encouraging a national dialogue about the dramatic social and political changes taking place in Nepal...