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A stage and screen writer considers what freedom means now.
My mother had a life plan for her two children. It was exceedingly simple and — at the risk of reinforcing stereotypes about Asian parenting — exceedingly Asian.
As she had identical twin daughters, one was going to become a doctor and the other a lawyer. But my mother wasn’t going to settle there. The lawyer was going to graduate from Oxford, and the doctor would specialise as a neurosurgeon.
My sister did manage some minor rebellions. Instead of Oxford, she went to Cambridge. But by and large, as a successful international trade lawyer, she has dutifully enacted the plan.
I would have killed people as a neurosurgeon. I have fidgety hands and a short attention span. My mind often drifts to big philosophical questions at the expense of the task directly in front of me. Funnily enough, the traits that would have made me a murderous imbecile in an operating theatre are probably what make me a decent writer.
The rigidity of my mother’s plan instilled in me a kind of pathological obsession with freedom. I desired freedom in my pursuits, freedom of movement, freedom of creative expression. Ironically, her attempts to clamp down on my artistic inclinations as a child only drove me further towards becoming an artist.
Having lost my freedom of movement and pursuits this year, I took renewed solace in freedom of expression. Even though my life as a nomadic international artist had been taken away, I still had access to a borderless universe of words, stories and ideas.
This pandemic has raised so many questions for me about how we conceptualise freedom as a global society. How far should governmental power be allowed to extend in a crisis? What freedoms are we willing to give up in exchange for the ease of new technologies? Which of our freedoms come at the expense of our ecosystems?
As artists we have to ask those questions without expecting concise or reductive answers. And I think we need to defend the right for artists around the world to be restlessly inquisitive, to ask difficult questions without fear for their safety or livelihood.
My mother grew up in a rural town in the Kanchanaburi province of Thailand. She would tell me stories of the extreme poverty she experienced as a child — how she had walked to school on scorching bitumen with bare feet because her shoes had fallen apart and she couldn’t afford a new pair.
While my mother’s plan for my sister and me felt oppressive when I was a child, as an adult I understand that it was intended to secure us freedom. The freedom that comes with economic security, self-assuredness, and professional success. Freedom from the oppression suffered by young women whose ambition and intellect are stifled by poverty, an oppression she never wanted us to experience. So while I’ve probably missed the boat on winning a Nobel Prize in Medicine or performing live brain surgery, I still think the plan has been a staggering success.
Anchuli Felicia King is the winner of this year’s Mona Brand Emerging Writer Award. Her plays, including White Pearl and Golden Shield, have been performed in Australia, the US and the UK.
This story appears in Openbook Autumn 2021.