Rant: Stop Pissing on the Galle Literary Festival

23 February, 2010

Ugh, when I read articles like this which was posted on the Literary Saloon, it makes me spit at the mouth and grow horns on my head. So I’m going to rant and get it out of my system.

Frankly, all literary festivals are indulgent. You need to make time to go there, pay money to listen to authors and maybe even have to buy some books and spend even more time queuing to get them signed. But you know what, like all the arts, we need it. It’s one of the many things that make life worth living. It’s food for the soul. I’ve only recently started to go to literary festivals and haven’t even made it to the big ones in the UK such as Hay, Cheltenham or Oxford, but I’ve had the good luck to have parents living in Sri Lanka and my annual holiday home is in January because I can’t take Christmas off. So imagine my delight when I found out about the Galle Literary Festival.

It’s still in its infancy (4 years), and I’ve only been twice, but each year, there is more topical diversity, larger audiences and, most importantly, the organisers have made sure that there is more given back to the community. There are year-long programmes benefiting the children of Galle, and during the festival there are opportunities for them to interact with the visiting authors. And all provided gratis. I think the organisers have done a tremendous job amid very harsh criticism. Especially from people who have come and enjoyed the festivals themselves. Like at any festival, you’ll get your it-crowd who are only there to be seen and photographed, but the majority of people there love books. Otherwise why would you sit through hours and hours of people talking about things in which you have no interest? I certainly wouldn’t.

And going back to the article above, I love Ian Rankin and his books featuring John Rebus. They gave me the first taste of Scottish noir and I raced through them all when I was supposed to be writing my thesis. And Rankin is a brilliant writer. But I wouldn’t say that he’s the only A-list writer at the festival this year. I mean both Michelle de Kretser and Mohammed Hanif were short-listed for the Booker Prize. I don’t really have to say much about writer and biographer Claire Tomalin (who has won 4 major prizes including the Whitbread Book Award and was also shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize) and novelist and playwright Michael Frayn (who has won 5 major prizes including the Whitbread and was also short-listed for the Booker Prize) who are giants in the English literary world. And Wendy Cope? She’s one of the best poets writing in English that we have (and she has won 2 major awards and was short-listed for the Whitbread Poetry Award). And let’s not forget Shyam Selvadurai who also has 2 awards to his name and was shortlisted for the Giller Prize. I’m exhausted listing all these awards and I haven’t even named them all.

I suppose in this case, A-list means best-seller and not critical. I’m not panning Rankin, because I think he is an intelligent, sophisticated and literary writer (whatever that means and I don’t really want to go into the whole literary/genre controversy here), but I guess for some people, books that don’t exist on bestseller lists aren’t really A-list. But I doubt that’s how book lovers would rate authors. In fact, I didn’t go and see Ian Rankin talk because his session clashed with that of another up and coming author. A literary festival is somewhere where you go and learn about new authors as much as the established ones.

Frankly, calling these authors C and D-list, then writing an article that doesn’t even discuss the literary events apart from a few (and there were many extremely interesting events suited to all tastes) and concentrating your article on all the non-literary events (which I agree were brilliant and only enhanced the literary festival) just shows that maybe some people do only read nursery rhymes (and Ian Rankin). Obviously that hasn’t stopped them coming to the GLF every year and enjoying themselves. In fact, maybe they want to put people off to ensure tickets for next year’s festival.

During the GLF this year, Sunila Galappatti, the director of the festival invited one of GLF’s vocal critics on stage so that they could discuss what bothered him about the GLF in public. After almost an hour of arguing and getting nowhere, she asked him why he was here. And his reply? Because he liked coming to the festival. If you like it so much, why are your pissing on it?

I don’t think there can ever be a perfect festival. And in a highly literate country like Sri Lanka (over 90%), having a festival in English excludes a large percentage of people seriously interested in literature but who may not be so fluent in the language. And even if you do understand English, the festival is still closed to you. I understand the frustration. The price of tickets and rooms are just too high for local Sri Lankans and yes, if possible, something should be done to even it out. And this year, the organisers have provided a lot more free events, both literary and musical.

But the GLF is an international literary festival celebrating literature in English. Instead of going on and on about how insulting this festival is to Sri Lanka and its people (hello, the GLF is generating a lot of tourism and revenue for the country), why don’t these unhappy people organise a literary festival in Sinhala and Tamil? You won’t even have to invite these ‘imported’ authors. And you can get rid of all the expats and foreigners. Perfect.

But that doesn’t really solve anything, does it? The GLF doesn’t have to be the sole literary festival in Sri Lanka. What it’s done is opened the template to what a literary festival can achieve. And it’s modelled itself on the literary festivals that are so popular and successful abroad. And if Sri Lankans can take that and make something that can be enjoyed by everyone, then surely, that must be a good thing.

This GLF bashing seems to be a perrenial pastime for many journalists and attendees. And part of the reason is the language politics that still dominates Sri Lankan politics today. David Blacker, a Sri Lankan author, discusses this more eloquently here.

Anyway, enough with the ranting. I had a great time at the Galle Literary Festival this year. And I chose to go because I wanted to meet some of my favourite authors whose words have enriched my life and given me an insight into the world. And maybe I’ll never get the chance to meet them again, but to me, it was totally worth it. And yes, that includes spending my hard-earned cash.

*I have not been paid to advertise or promote the GLF.

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7 Responses to “Rant: Stop Pissing on the Galle Literary Festival”

  1. Mystica Says:

    I think the gentleman who trashed the festival does not understand what a tiny proportion of the general population apart from just speaking English, have any kind of English literary background. I think its very courageous of the organisers to do this year after year in the light of this. The scope for locals to get involved this year was limited as it was a bit of bad timing – the presidential elections were on and Sri Lankan politics are generally not quiet and well behaved. The security situation would have put off some people (including myself) from attending as we would have felt a wee bit unsettled. But to diss the entire festival is not worthy – I think its great that the festival is being held in a country where there has been such a lot of turbulence and despite the odds against it – to have an English literary festival in a country where English is not a medium of language amongst the general population, is most courageous on the part of the organisers.

    • chasing bawa Says:

      Yes, I agree, the timing wasn’t brilliant with the elections. I just hope that when things settle down and slowly go back to normal for a lot of people, that we’ll have more diverse events that celebrate art and literature in Sri Lanka. I still think that the GLF puts Sri Lanka on the literary map and introduces Sri Lankan authors (albeit the ones who write in English) to readers. But this is all good as interest in Sri Lankan literature will hopefully increase leading to more translations becoming available worldwide. So I hope.

  2. Tony Says:

    Some people just like to criticise and feel important, so I wouldn’t worry too much!

    Wait, I’ve just realised that that describes the majority of my blog posts 😦

    • chasing bawa Says:

      Ha ha, there’s nothing wrong with your blog posts! I always feel I must think more deeply and write better reviews everytime I read them.

      Criticism is good if you can walk away with something productive or deepen your understanding, like in your blog posts. And how will we learn anything if we don’t criticise, right? It’s just the manner in which you do it. Even if you didn’t like something (and everyone’s entitled to their own opinion), not giving any credit for the good bits isn’t really fair.

      I kind of feel bad for ranting now (as I don’t normally rant), but I just couldn’t help it.

  3. Mystica Says:

    Dont say that about ranting because if it needs to be said, it has to be said! also we are not politicians depending on the goodwill of all and say only what people want to hear.

  4. Dee Says:

    well, this year was my first and I just went for a few talks and lots of free events because frankly I couldn’t afford it too much after buying half the books. So we made the best of it and hung out on Saturday and then spent the rest of the weekend in Hikka. A wonderful weekend overall.

    I teach elocution to kids part-time and we see how parents struggle to make their kids fluent in English although they don’t speak a word of it. I think the Lit fest just needs a few more years and maybe give a helping hand to the people with less disposable income (like me! hehe) and it should be a success. I don’t care about A, B grades of writers, we should celebrate literature, but it still needs to be accessible to all.

    • chasing bawa Says:

      Hello and thank you for your comment! I do think it takes a while for something like a literary festival to find its feet, especially when it’s in a country where it hasn’t been done before and in a language that isn’t native to the majority. But then one literary festival isn’t the be all and end all of literary festivals in Sri Lanka (I hope not anyway!) And I totally agree that it needs to be more accessible. The more people that enjoy it, the better, right? I think pricing is a key issue here (and that includes the price of books!), but I was impressed with how many free (and really good events which included many talks) there were this year.

      I’m interested to know whether English is compulsory in schools in SL or is it a subject one learns until GCSE/O-levels and can then drop?


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