The Galle Literary Festival 2011
15 February, 2011
So, how was it? I can almost hear you all cry. There were a few cancellations (Damon Galgut’s boycott was for Reporters Without Borders but both Orhan Pamuk and Kiran Desai couldn’t make it for visa reasons – apparently you can’t re-enter India or something like that although the Indian Embassy in Sri Lanka did their best to cooperate so I’m not sure what all that was about. Apparently there’s no official boycott story here according to Festival Curator Shyam Selvadurai although gossip was rife in the Sri Lankan papers) but frankly it didn’t bother me or anyone else at all once the festival started because this year’s Galle Literary Festival was the best one so far. Being the 5th anniversary, the organisers really did everyone proud in creating a wonderful programme. They even started charging for the festival programme which is a good thing as all the money will be going back into the year-round community projects they are running.
Last year I went to the GLF sans my parents (but with some family friends) because our dog Puccini was poorly. This year they came with me because sadly Puccini’s no longer with us. Of course, I went to as many literary sessions as I could but my mother spent the 4 days walking around Galle Fort sketching and my father went on a little trip to Hambantota to check the progress of the new highway, airport and cricket stadium. Go figure.
There were lots of interesting authors to choose from but this year the highlights for me were Tash Aw, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Lawrence Hill. I’d booked to see Tash Aw talk about his debut novel The Harmony Silk Factory which I adored especially since I hadn’t known anything about the importance of communism in Malaysia at the tail-end of British rule and just before WWII, and I was also intrigued by his treatment of one of his characters who is a member of the feared Japanese kempeitai (military police). It’s a wonderful book and Aw is an unassuming and very charming person and kindly signed his latest book Map of the Invisible World for me. I also attended one of his creative writing workshops which really made us all think carefully about how we craft stories and left us feeling very inspired.
Adichie’s eloquent and confident style belies her youth and it was a real pleasure to hear her talk. I had seen a tv programme about her a few years ago and her earnestness was catching. She spoke about the Biafran war and her book Half of a Yellow Sun which depicts the Biafran flag and the struggle for an independent state. One of the most interesting things she talked about was the inheritance of collective trauma and how even though her generation did not experience the Biafran war, there is still a collective and very real sadness about what had gone before. I, and I’m sure everyone else in the audience, was also pretty impressed with how she stood up for activist Sunila Abeysekara during a BBC Forum panel discussing the lingering effects of civil war when she was accosted by an angry journalist whose tirade turned personal.
I hadn’t initially planned on going to Lawrence Hill’s session as it clashed with Orhan Pamuk’s. But I’m so glad I did because Hill is a brilliant speaker and I quickly ran out to get The Book of Negroes to read. I had read several positive reviews of this novel and remember being intrigued by it. I found his tale of his parents’ marriage and subsequent flight to Canada from the States to start a new life free of racial prejudice very touching. But Hill was very matter of fact about it and as he says in his book Black Berry Sweet Juice on growing up mixed race in Canada, he interviewed over 30 people who were just like him. Intriguing stuff. Unfortunately I had to leave The Book of Negroes in Sri Lanka because my father started reading it and seemed reluctant to give it back saying it is extremely well written. So I’ll save that for when I visit home next:)
This year the organisers of the GLF decided to focus on Malaysia and Malaysian literature. I wasn’t too sure about this at first, but it really was a brilliant idea. The Malaysian authors who attended were all charming, extremely bright (I think there was one young professor and two lawyers!) and incredibly funny. What I really liked was how they were all able to laugh at themselves and the world while tackling rather complex issues. How wonderful. I particularly liked Tan Twan Eng (author of The Gift of Rain)’s comment that he was tired of self-important stories about aging writers with writer’s block who just go on and on about themselves. I guess there are only so many books like that you can stomach. And Shamini Flint who writes the Inspector Singh mysteries was hilarious and didn’t stop making jokes even when she was discussing why she wrote crime novels to tackle the more serious side of humanity (something she’s always been interested in as a lawyer.)
I also attended a free session on The Other Malaysia by Prof. Farish A. Noor, a young and energetic historian who is trying to change the nature of discourse, especially with regard to history which is often politicised in Malaysia. It was extremely refreshing to see so much excitement in a subject such as history and how it is relevant to young Malaysians in establishing and understanding the racial, and hence political, diversity in their culture today.
It wasn’t all about books though as there were several BBC Forum sessions which discussed the aftermath of the internal conflict and rehabilitation which I, and many others, found emotional and which also provoked some heated comments. But then that’s what literary festivals should be about, right?
And finally I dragged my father to see Mohsin Hamid who spoke about his novels (Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and being Pakistani with a Western education and how to reconcile the two (he’s another lawyer) and June Chang and her husband John Halliday who spoke about Mao. Now that was one hell of a session, packed to the brim and also the final session of the festival. I haven’t read Chang’s books (both Wild Swans and Mao: The Unknown Story) although my friends who have read them said they were amazing and affected them deeply. Chang is an incredibly magnetic person and when you hear her speak, you don’t doubt what a strong woman of conviction she is.
The only session that I left half-way through was the Sri Lankan writers’ session which was about Sri Lankan literature in English which dealt with the internal conflict. I was really interested in hearing what Ayathurai Santhan had to say as he had written The Whirlwind, a novel about the Indian Peace Keeping Force that had come to Jaffna to essentially help the civilian Tamil population in Sri Lanka but ended up imprisoning and treating them as suspects when they failed to root out the Tigers. It’s not a story that many have written about although everyone’s heard of similar stories so I wanted to know more. A serious author who has written 19 books in both Tamil and English, it was a mistake to put him together with two authors who were more interested in talking about themselves and their writing habits than about what was important when a writer sits down to leave behind a record of what happened even if it’s in fiction form. I was so irritated by the self-indulgent chatter in which Santhan was unable to participate that I just had to leave, even though this was one session I was really looking forward to. However, the excerpts they read from their work were really good so I hope that I can forget about this unfortunate episode and actually want to read their books. But this was a very small blip in what was a perfect literary festival.
I also want to mention two authors of Sri Lankan origin who have piqued my interest: British Roshi Fernando, author of Homesick a novel about Sri Lankans in London (who unfortunately couldn’t make it due to her daughter catching swine flu) and Canadian Randy Boyagoda, author of the forthcoming novel The Beggar’s Feast about his Sri Lankan relative, faux village life and murder. I’ll be sure to check out their work.
There were some other high profile authors such as Louis de Bernière, Candace Bushnell and Sarah Dunant whose sessions were apparently amazing but I couldn’t go to all of them. Anyway, I’m looking forward to attending again next year! Naturally there were a lot of articles in the press praising and bashing the GLF which seems to go hand-in-hand with such a high profile event but I noticed that there were a lot of journalists enjoying the festival.
On a side note, what was really amazing about the trip this year was the number of tourists in Sri Lanka. I don’t remember seeing so many tourists in hotels and walking along Galle Road for the past twenty-odd years and it put a big smile on all our faces. Apparently all the hotels were fully booked. Good thing they are building two new 7 star hotels in Colombo overlooking Galle Face Green. Although my mind boggles at the idea of a 7 star hotel…