Galle Literary Festival 2012
5 March, 2012
So, once again I hauled myself to sunnier climes just so I could get a taste of sun, sand and curries. And literature, of course!
This time round, the 6th Galle Literary Festival was held a week earlier than usual and was, to my mind, a little smaller and leaner. The clash with the Jaipur Literary Festival meant that some authors were unable to travel the extra mile to Sri lanka. Boo.
So although I missed the likes of Katie Kitamura, who I was dying to meet, there were still some golden nuggets waiting to be discovered.
For me, one of the highlights of the festival this year was having the privilege of listening to John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, who was a charming speaker and extremely witty. He apparently wrote the first draft of the novel in 2 weeks (and then spent the next 8 months rewriting like a normal human being). What was interesting was that he said the story just came to him and he knew that if he didn’t write it down, he would lose it. Split second decisions, eh? Although I haven’t read the book yet, I watched the film last year and was utterly awed and heartbroken by the tale. When questioned about the film, Boyne said that although there were some minor changes when translating the tale onto screen, he was very happy with the way the film was made. It’s a beautiful film and made me want to read the book. He talked about the reception of the book and the criticisms which naturally came due to the subject matter. The most vociferous critics were not the actual Holocaust survivors, who embraced his work, but third parties just like himself who had no connection to the Holocaust. In one event in New York, someone in the audience actually came up and punched him! But Boyne related all this with humour and I think everyone in the audience in Galle fell in love with him then. But did you know that he has also written seven other books? Neither did I, but I’m planning to check them out. It’s interesting that after finishing a book, Boyne prefers to write something completely different and in a completely different voice.
If you visit Sri Lanka and like browsing in bookshops, you will often come across reference to Robert Knox, castaway, survivor and friend of Daniel Defoe. Knox spent 19 years from 1660 in Sri Lanka as a prisoner/guest of the last Kandyan King, Rajasinghe II. Katherine Frank spoke about her new book Crusoe, laying arguments to support her case that Robinson Crusoe was based on Knox and that Daniel Defoe mercilessly plagiarised Knox’s own account of his imprisonment, An Historical Relation of the island Ceylon, which recounts his 19 years in minute detail. What an extraordinary man and an extraordinary story. I’d been meaning to read Knox’s memoir for ages and Frank’s talk has finally made me go out and buy the two volumes. Alas, they were too heavy to carry back so I left them at home to read when I next visit. Although there are some that dispute Frank’s theory, her talk was compelling enough for me to want to read her book and make up my own mind.
I also went to see a talk given by Juliet Nicolson at the beautiful Amangalla Hotel about Sissinghurst, the home in which she grew up which was owned by her grandparents, Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson. Vita Sackville-West is, of course, notorious for her affair with Virginia Woolf and Violet Trefusis (I think I first read about her in a compilation of wicked women!) Nicolson’s descriptions of her beloved childhood home and her colourful family was entertaining and lovely and I have a mind to visit the beautiful garden at Sissinghurst now.
I was also lucky enough to meet and participate in a workshop with Roshi Fernando, a Sri Lankan British author who is passionate and witty and gave useful tips about the architecture of the novel. I got a copy of her book Homesick , about the British Sri Lankan experience, signed and ready to read. And I was tickled to learn she has read my blog:)
Roshi Fernando also participated in a talk with Randy Boyagoda whose new book, Beggar’s Feast, about a self-made Sri Lankan man who lived until 100 and had 3 wives, 2 of whom he killed, has just been published too. Curated by Manju Kapoor, the two authors discussed identity and literature and the expatriate experience which also led to a heated discussion about accents and acceptance. Very thought-provoking indeed.
And finally, I did have a ticket to see Richard Dawkins who had apparently packed out the hall, but I gave it to my dad who misplaced his ticket as he’s become interested in religion (even though he is an atheist). Apparently the talk was brilliant, but hey, I can always catch him on tv here.
So although I felt this year wasn’t as flashy and razzmatazzy as last year, I had a fun-filled 4 days in Galle, eating, reading and discovering new sights. Since last year, there’s been an awful amount of work being done on restoring the historic fort, all the roads have been repaved, buildings restored, new cafes and restaurants and LOTS and LOTS of tourists. It was packed and although it’s harder to get rooms, it made me happy to see the place so bustling. Apparently next year’s GLF will be moved to March to avoid overcrowding and give people a chance to book rooms (we booked ours a year in advance).
With the new highway from Colombo just opened, it now takes only an hour to drive to Galle and many of our friends have apparently been down just for dinner. Usually it takes about 3 hours and you wouldn’t think of visiting Galle without staying overnight. Apart from one unlucky, flat, kabaragoya, we didn’t see many animals on the highway either.