The Galle Literary Festival 2010

18 February, 2010

was brilliant. Unfortunately my parents couldn’t make it as our dog was poorly (although much better now) so I went to Galle with some old family friends who kindly kept a room for me at Mama’s Guest House – a small guest house in the middle of Galle Fort with a roof restaurant serving some fantastic rice and curry and a beautiful view.

This year I was eagerly awaiting talks by two of my favourite writers, Michelle de Kretser and Shyam Selvadurai who were both charming, erudite and very, very nice. They spoke about their books and early life in Sri Lanka before their families had moved abroad, scenes that are familiar to many families of the diaspora.

In preparation I re-read Selvadurai’s Cinnamon Gardens which was beautifully written (and got that signed!) and am excited to learn about his new work which will be a re-telling of the Buddhist Jataka tales (about the lives of the Buddha) which I confess I don’t really know much about (very embarrassing since I grew up in several Buddhist countries and my family is sort-of Buddhist in a non-religious way.) But then I never went to Sunday school (and yes, I mean Buddhist Sunday school) and am probably more versed in biblical stories due to my Western education. So I’m looking forward eagerly to Selvadurai’s next book.

Mohammed Hanif and Ru Freeman were two authors I had heard a lot about but never read so I’ll be looking out for their books, A Case of Exploding Mangoes and A Disobedient Girl. You can check out Ru Freeman‘s wonderful and erudite post on the GLF 2010 here.

I also went to a poetry reading by Wendy Cope who was a great raconteur and had us all in stitches. I don’t read much poetry but Cope’s poems are funny, simple and go straight to the point, and were the first poems that made me want to go out and buy some poetry. And she dispelled the myth that the world of poetry is all love and roses with no bickering or bullying. It’s a cut-throat world (as we’ve seen with the Oxford Professor of Poetry fiasco).

Louise Doughty gave a wonderful talk about her Romani heritage, a subject which is simultaneously fascinating and tragic and which made me want to seek out her books. Did you know that a lot of Roma have simple surnames such as Smith and Lee but flamboyant first names?

Claire Tomalin and Michael Frayn gave talks that were entertaining, serious and illuminating. I’ve been a fan of Frayn’s since reading and watching the play Copenhagen about the lost weekend in which the quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg visits Copenhagen to meet his mentor Niels Bohr during WWII after the capitulation of Denmark to the Nazis. Historians of science have always puzzled over what the two scientists discussed, with Bohr knowing full well that Heisenberg was working on the Nazi nuclear weapons programme, and which led to a break in their friendship. Tomalin spoke of Dickens and his mistress and all the other women who have been swept under the carpet of history. Fascinating stuff.

What was really great about going to a literary festival is not just to hear your favourite authors talk about their books and lives, but to also be exposed to new and previously unheard of authors who you may not automatically pick up in a bookshop but whose world view and words entice you to try out their writings and you come away with a new list of books for your wish list.

I enjoyed a wonderfully mellow evening at The Closenberg Hotel, a tuk tuk ride away from the Galle Fort as Ashok Ferrey, together with some friends, read from his new novel Serendipity. We sat in the garden surrounded by bougainvillea and overlooking the sea, and we didn’t mind the mosquitoes so much because we were laughing too hard. The Closenberg is somewhere my family always stopped by for tea and lime-juice every time we drove down south so it was nice to become reaquainted with the historic hotel.

Some of my favourite moments at the 2010 GLF included a talk given by Richard Boyle about books published about Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then called) from the mid-sixteenth century to the present. Although he focused on books in English (there are probably as many books in Dutch and Portuguese as parts of Ceylon were ruled by both countries for many years) it was interesting to see the impressions that the people of Ceylon gave to the foreigners who tried to subdue and rule them. Even the infamous Aleister Crowley had made a pit stop in Sri Lanka!

And the other two memorable events weren’t book-related but gave a flavour of the cultural heritage of Sri Lanka. There were two free outdoor concerts by the Ravibandu Vidyapathi Drum Ensemble and the Chitrasena Dance Company that were the highlight of my 4 days in Galle. The performances were a brilliant fusion of the traditional with the modern. Surrounded by twinkling floor lights, we saw the drummers and dancers in the dark under the giant trees in the central Law Court Square. It was a magical ending to a brilliant festival.

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2 Responses to “The Galle Literary Festival 2010”

  1. Nymeth Says:

    It definitely sounds like the festival was brilliant! I so wish there were events like this near me.

    • chasing bawa Says:

      It looks like literary festivals are having a boom and different ones are cropping all over the place. I went to one in the Southbank in London last July which was also excellent. So you never know, there may be something brewing near where you are.


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