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Manoa: A Conversation with Playwright Catherine Filloux

Watercolor drawings in this volume are by Camille Assaf, costume designer for the U.S. premiere of Lemkin’s House in 2006.

The following is excerpted from the new MĀNOA edition, Eyes of the Heart: The Selected Plays of Catherine Filloux (Vol. 29, No. 1).

For twenty-five years, Catherine Filloux has been writing plays about human rights and social justice. She has also been a spokesperson for the value of theater as a force for social change. She has given readings and workshops and overseen productions in Cambodia, Sudan, South Sudan, Iraq, Morocco, Northern Ireland, Italy, Belgium, and Bosnia. Her more than twenty plays and librettos have been produced in New York, across the U.S., and in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, and her essays have appeared in such leading theater magazines as American Theatre and Drama Review.

Most recently, she was honored in New York City with the 2017 Otto René Castillo Award for Political Theatre. Her new play Kidnap Road was presented by Anna Deavere Smith as part of NYU’s Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue in 2016. For her long career of activism in the theater community, Filloux received the 2015 Planet Activist Award. Her play whatdoesfreemean?—about women and mass incarceration in the U.S.—will premiere in 2018, produced by Nora’s Playhouse. She is also the librettist for three produced operas—including Where Elephants Weep, which premiered in Cambodia—and has been commissioned by the Vienna State Opera to write the libretto for composer Olga Neuwirth’s new opera, Orlando, to premiere in 2019.

A former Fulbright senior specialist in Cambodia and Morocco, Filloux is an artist-in-residence at La MaMa Theatre, a member of the Vassar College faculty, and a cofounder of Theatre Without Borders.

The following conversation took place in July 2017.

MĀNOA: You’ve been writing plays for a long time. What in your background led you to concentrate on issues of human rights, social justice, and equality?

CATHERINE FILLOUX: French was my first language, and when I learned English I consumed it with joy. I grew up on the border between San Diego and Tijuana, and was very familiar with that border and with Mexico. My father grew up in France during the Nazi occupation when the country was split into zones. My mother’s French-Belgian-Corsican family lived in Algeria, North Africa, for three generations before her. I inherited the privilege of being a citizen of the world. And we were strangers in a strange land.

When I first went to Cambodia in 2001, it was almost a decade after I had begun writing about the genocide. What Cambodian women refugees had told me for years made it seem as if Pol Pot—his real name Saloth Sar—was in the room with us, though we were in Bronx, New York. Why did he do it? I wondered. Why were they now here, these women whom I grew to love, in this strange land, where they told me Spanish would be a better language to learn than English, since the Bronx was a Dominican neighborhood. And also Dominican were the Sisters who ran St. Rita’s Refugee Center in the Bronx, where we all met.

When I landed for the first time at the airport in Phnom Penh, I could feel the wandering ghosts, kmauit, as I got on the back of a moto and entered the sea of motos that formed the most extraordinary Zen flow of traffic I’d ever seen.

MĀNOA: You have had plays produced, held workshops, and spoken about theater and human rights all over the world. And Theatre Without Borders, which you cofounded, is devoted to supporting theater worldwide. How would you compare the ways that socially aware theater such as yours—dealing with very difficult social and legal issues—is received in some of the countries you’ve been to? What has been the reaction to these kinds of plays?

CF: I’ve experienced productions of my plays translated into languages including Arabic, Bosnian, French, Guatemalan Spanish, Khmer (Cambodian), and Kurdish, in a variety of international venues. I’m always struck by the flexibility that is required when a playwright crosses borders. In the U.S., a playwright’s words are not to be altered; however, I’ve found that compromise and having an open mind are key attributes. One lives in between languages, always hoping to find better connections and associations for translation and not always succeeding. However, this itself is part of that artistic process.

MĀNOA: Most of the plays in Eyes of the Heart deal with the unequal status of women, who are the main characters in all the works except Lemkin’s House—and there, women also figure prominently. Do you feel a responsibility to portray the global condition of women in your work, and do you think that too little attention has been given to women in theater, especially with regard to human rights?

CF: I wrote the play Mary and Myra in the year 2000, and in 2016 I saw a production in Salt Lake City, right before the presidential election. The timeliness of this story was apparent. History repeats itself. Plays may influence and offer the tools to help people make distinctions between truth and lies, and to nurture intellectual and emotional freedom. Myra Bradwell was written out of history by her adversary, Susan B. Anthony, and needed to be resurrected. And Mary’s reputation was maligned by biographers. Theater places stories in front of hearts and minds, as a sentient being, as an experience that is living and transforming. In my play, Mary Todd Lincoln says to Myra Bradwell, “I believe you mean well with your causes. But you fight so often with the opposite sex you’ve become it.” And Myra responds, “I have fought endlessly for justice, placing the law ahead of myself on every occasion, and they have ignored me, trampled on me, placed obstacle after obstacle in my path. I am furious! Give me the secret about your son.” When I saw Mary and Myra recently, I remembered how its first director commented that Myra’s lines sounded perhaps a bit too much like the playwright. I smiled to myself when I heard the play so many years later.

I read that Raphael Lemkin was home-schooled by his mother. This inspired me in writing the end of my play Lemkin’s House. Plays and theater can raise awareness regarding challenging subjects—creating a space for dialogue—and a commitment to the power of language and the power of healing. Theater can have a responsibility to foster civic discourse and to spark people to think critically. It can offer ethical queries and put marginalized communities onto center stage.

MĀNOA: War and violence are important issues in your plays. How are you able to put such large, difficult subjects on the stage, especially using so few actors? How does your passion for these subjects affect your daily life?

CF:  I see myself as a witness in my theater work. In terms of theatrical language, I like to design a kind of poetry, which lives and breathes through action and characters onstage. The poet Wallace Stevens says, “The poem must resist the intelligence / Almost successfully.” The language of theater onstage and the audience are involved in a collaboration—a co-creation. I believe theater as an art form exists every time differently—it lives and breathes in a community. When Albert Camus, the French and Algerian author, says theater is, “The night when the game is played,” he means each time with a different outcome, like a sports match. And for me, theater pieces are prisms, which cast different lights for each audience member: everyone imagines and interprets the plays differently, which allows a shared personal experience.

MĀNOA: Thank you for your work.


Eyes of the Heart is a collection of six plays by award-winning playwright Catherine Filloux: Eyes of the Heart; Kidnap Road; Lemkin’s House; Mary and Myra; Selma ’65; and Silence of God. The plays have both national and international settings. Subjects include key figures in the history of human and civil rights; genocide; crimes against women; international human rights law; U.S. Civil Rights Movement; and Women’s Suffrage.

Browse this issue on Project MUSE. Order a single issue or receive this special issue as part of a subscription to Mānoa here.

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Interview: MĀNOA Editor Frank Stewart

In late June, the team behind the MĀNOA journal won the Ka Palapala Po‘okela Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for its book-length special project, Curve of the Hook: An Archaeologist in Polynesia, from the Hawai‘i Book Publishers Association. Curve of the Hook features the life of Dr. Yosihiko Sinoto. The full-color volume was designed by Barbara Pope Book Design and translated by Madoka Nagadō and MĀNOA editor Frank Stewart.

MĀNOA began here in the Mānoa Valley, where the University of Hawai‘i is situated, nearly 30 years ago. Dedicated to storytelling in all forms, MĀNOA frequently crosses the boundary between journal and book. Below, editor Frank Stewart details how MĀNOA began, the importance of place, and the narratives that connect us all.

You founded the journal with Robert Shapard. Can you share with us MĀNOA’s origin story?

In 1987, University of Hawai‘i President Albert Simone wanted to expand the number of journals published by the University of Hawai‘i Press. He offered five-year start-up funds to three prospective journals and invited proposals. My colleague, Robbie Shapard, and I submitted an outline for MĀNOA: A Pacific Journal of International Writing. The two of us saw that there was no journal anywhere that focused on contemporary literary writing exclusively from Asia, the Pacific, and the Americas, and we felt that such a journal could best be produced at the University of Hawai‘i. Our proposal was approved, and we published the first issue of MĀNOA in fall 1989. Barbara Pope signed on as art editor. Howard Goldblatt was our first guest editor, contributing a feature on new Chinese fiction. UH Press Production typeset it, and Journals contracted the printing.

MĀNOA founding editors Frank Stewart (left) and Robert Shapard (right), 1994. Photo courtesy of Frank Stewart

MĀNOA’s subtitle is “A Pacific Journal of International Writing.” What role does place play in MĀNOA?

The subtitle is important. It makes clear that MĀNOA is published in the Pacific. Our editorial perspective is distinctive to Hawai‘i; our home is the Pacific hemisphere. In Honolulu, we are closer to Tokyo and Auckland than to New York. This means that neither Asia nor Oceania is exotic to us, and so we don’t treat writing from there as strange and mysterious. We chose to put “writing” in the subtitle rather than “literature” because we publish work that isn’t limited to what is conventionally meant by that term: we include, for example, chants, rap lyrics, oratory, graphic narratives, and film scripts. We are “international” in that we don’t view writing as confined in regional cages; we want to present writing from everywhere as belonging to the world as a whole.

Every issue of MĀNOA features visual art alongside prose and poetry. Why do you think it’s important, and how do you pair artists?

Visual art is a powerful form of narrative. Juxtaposed with writing, art quickens the imagination and intensifies both the word and image. We are concerned primarily with storytelling, and the visual art in MĀNOA tells its own narrative—rather than simply illustrating the writing—and makes its own statements about people, culture, history, and other elements in each issue.

The last decade of issues and books produced by MĀNOA.

In your field, what issues or questions are particularly relevant now? How is MĀNOA part of that conversation?

In 2017, we no longer have to persuade people that knowing individuals who are seemingly different from ourselves is good and necessary if we are going to live together ethically on the same planet. The best writing expands and deepens our sense of familiarity and kindredness. Those are the kinds of stories we want to publish—often in new translations—whether they’re from Pakistan, Mongolia, Tibet, Indonesia, or the Philippines. And we’re particularly aware that indigenous works from Hawai‘i, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, French Polynesia, and other Pacific Islands are sorely underrepresented in English-language publishing. We want to help change that.

Is there an issue that you’re particularly proud of?

Our summer 2016 special project, Curve of the Hook: An Archaeologist in Polynesia, presents the life and work of Dr. Yosihiko Sinoto, who changed the way the world regards Polynesia and Polynesians. His story not only links people and cultures across the entire Pacific, but also shows that relationships of outsiders with island peoples need to be ethical and to respect their sacred sites, beliefs, and languages. His life story inspires us to look below the surface and over the horizon—something every project of MĀNOA attempts to do. Our winter 2016 issue, Red Peonies, presents two novellas by Zhang Yihe, a Chinese woman imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution. Now in her seventies, Zhang Yihe advocates for freedom of expression in the PRC.

Curve of the Hook received the excellence-in-nonfiction award from the HBPA on June 22. Accepting the award were Frank Stewart (left) and Akihiko Sinoto (middle), son of Dr. Sinoto. Eric Komori (right) wrote the introduction. Photo courtesy of MĀNOA.

MĀNOA recently received a $10,000 grant from the NEA. How does this help sustain MĀNOA and what can readers look forward to?

The University stopped underwriting the new journals after three years instead of five. So since 1991, MĀNOA has survived because of its staff’s efforts to attract funds from sources such as the NEA. Grants sustain us one year at a time, but after nearly thirty years, we are optimistic. We’re looking forward in the next few years to publishing powerful new work from Cambodia, Burma, Brazil, and from minority poets in China writing about the natural environment. Every issue is an adventure.


About the Journal

MĀNOA is a unique, award-winning literary journal that includes American and international fiction, poetry, artwork, and essays of current cultural or literary interest. Beautifully produced, MĀNOA presents traditional alongside contemporary writings from the entire Pacific Rim, one of the world’s most dynamic literary regions.

Purchase & Subscribe

Purchase a copy of Curve of the Hook here.

MĀNOA subscriptions for both individuals and institutions are available here.

Review of Story is a Vagabond (MĀNOA 27:1)

Manoa 27:1 Story is A Vagabond, Intizar HusainAsymptote Journal features a compelling review of Story is a Vagabond: Fiction, Essays and Drama by Intizar Husain, published by MĀNOA: A Pacific Journal of International Writing (27:1, 2015) and UH Press.

One of Pakistan’s most distinguished writers, Intizar Husain was born in India in 1923 and immigrated to Pakistan during the Partition. An internationally acclaimed writer, critic, and translator, he has published seven volumes of short stories, four novels, and a novella, as well as travelogues, memoirs, and critical essays. Despite his importance to world literature for over six decades, Husain’s writing is little known in English translation. Story is a Vagabond is the first collection in English to show the breadth of his thoughtful, innovative, and compassionate work.

Reviewer Aamer Hussein writes that the editors of this special issue managed “a level of translucence through which Husain’s distinctive intonations echo and resound.” Read the review online here.

Order your copy of Story is a Vagabond from UH Press.

Browse content online via Project MUSE.

Subscribe to MĀNOA: A Pacific Journal of International Writing

MĀNOA summer 2016 volume in motion

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MĀNOA editor Frank Stewart , right, with Bishop Museum archaeologist Eric Komori.

MĀNOA editor Frank Stewart met with Eric Komori, archaeologist at Bishop Museum and principal of Tom Dye & Colleagues to talk about upcoming volume: Curve of the Hook: An Archaeologist in Polynesia. Continue reading