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.

There’s only two and a half months left before I fly off to sunny climes and needless to say I CANNOT wait. London has become extremely chilly all of a sudden and I’m missing my sunshine. My fingers feel frostbitten without gloves and my head is missing my hat. OK, so I’m a hypochondriac and it’s not really that bad, but seriously, I feel I’ve forgotten what Winter is like. Everything seems new and fresh this year. The cold, the sudden darkness, this feeling of mono no aware. I kind of like it. Makes me feel all tingly and alive.

So, I’ve just realised that two and a half months isn’t really that long for the list of books I’m planning to read in preparation for the Galle Literary Festival 2010 at the end of January. I still have my stash of Sri Lankan/diasporic literature safely tucked away on my TBR shelf and I think I really ought to clear some of it before I go. I have the following titles and if I’m organised, maybe I’ll get through half of them:

On Sri Lanka
All is Burning by Jean Arasanayagam
When Memory Dies by A. Sivanandan (an interesting essay here)
The Banana Tree Crisis by Isankya Kodithuwakku
Mosquito by Roma Tearne
Bone China by Roma Tearne
The Far Field by Edie Meidav

And also:

On Asia/India
East of the Sun by Julia Gregson
The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng
Maharanis by Lucy Moore
The Indian Clerk by David Leavitt

If I can read about half the books on this list by the time I’m on that plane, then I’ll be happy. I’ve had most of these books for a year and feel slightly ashamed that I actually bought some of them the last time I was in Sri Lanka a year ago….what can I say? I’m easily distracted.

But I did finish two collections of short stories The Good Little Ceylonese Girl and Colpetty People by Ashok Ferrey which were delightful. And if I have time, I might reread Shyam Selvadurai’s Cinnamon Gardens as he will be one of the participants at the upcoming GLF. And can I also mention my favourites Romesh Gunasekara, Michelle de Kretser and Michael Ondaatje? I might try and dig out Michelle de Kretser’s first novel The Rose Grower to read if I can find it as it’s somewhere in storage at my sis’.

No doubt I will be buying a lot more books in Sri Lanka. The Perera Hussein Publishing House always brings out a nice selection of fiction into the world, and I love going to the bookshop at the Barefoot Gallery to browse their incredible array of books on Sri Lanka. And my father has promised that he will take me to a street of secondhand booksellers near the Fort, an area of Colombo that we had been increasingly avoiding due to the occasional bombs during the conflict but which we used to frequent when I was a child. This year I’m taking my Sony e-reader and one big fantasy book (it’s Steven Erikson vs. George R.R. Martin at the moment) so I’ll have loads of space in my suitcase to bring back any interesting finds!

A Day Out Shopping

27 September, 2009

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

For books, of course. It was a surprisingly sunny day today, just when I was adjusting my inner clock to welcome chilly Autumn, there is sunshine in London. I’ve been reading about the Persephone Reading Week Challenge hosted by The B Files and Paperback Reader in the last few weeks, and although I was too late to participate, I’ve been thinking about visiting the Persephone Bookshop for the last few days. And why not today? It’s sunny, I could go and have a light lunch in one of my favourite cafés in the heart of Bloomsbury, purchase some Persephone books and round off the afternoon with a quick visit to the British Museum. It’s funny how when you live in London, you don’t really do London things. You get stuck in your commute during the week and don’t feel like venturing into the sea of people on your days off. But sunshine changes everything.

So I took a bus down to the British Library next to St. Pancras Station, walked down Judd Street and right at the bottom, just before the Brunswick Centre is a cute little French café called Pâtisserie Deux Amis where I enjoyed my favourite baguette, chicken, bacon, cranberry and mayonnaise. Yum, yum. It’s a tiny place but they have the best baguettes, pastries, good coffee and radio four in the background. It’s where I used to get my lunch when I was writing up my thesis at the British Library and has remained unchanged in the past ten years. They do good soup too and a proper pâté baguette (you don’t get much of that in London).

After feeling nicely full, I walked down to the revamped Brunswick Centre, and what do I find? Skoob! Yes, that legendary secondhand bookshop that used to be in Sicilian Avenue near the London School of Economics but which closed down over ten years ago. I had been lamenting it’s loss for so long and didn’t realise they had reopened elsewhere! I found a couple of books there on the twenties and thirties and stopped myself from buying anything else as they were pretty heavy and I still had to make my way to the Persephone Bookshop.

It was only another ten minutes to walk down to Lambs Conduit Street (I love that name!) and start perusing the shelves of dovegrey Persephones. I had made a mental list of what I was interested in, but totally forgot when I got there. There were only a couple of other people there, so I took my time reading the titles. I caught sight of the Persephone Notebook (I want!) but as I already have a large collection of notebooks at home, I contented myself with purchasing the following:

Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes
Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton
Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

I confess I bought the the Dorothy Whipple purely for the cover. It’s just so beautiful. I also still have Nicola Beauman’s A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-1939 safely stashed away in my TBR pile. I came away with their catalogue which I have already marked with the titles that I want, but they will have to wait until I’ve read these.

I finished off my outing with a quick dash around the Great Court in the British Museum. It’s one of my favourite places in London and that roof is just beautiful.

Currently I’m reading The Lost Dog by Michelle de Kretser, longlisted for both the 2008 Man Booker Prize and 2009 Orange Prize which I’m loving. Her prose is sublime and I’m savouring every word. And after that I’m planning to read A Game of Thrones by G.R.R. Martin (finally!), so my Persephones will have to wait.

You can visit Deux Amis at 63 Judd Street, London WC1H 9QT, Tel: 020 7383 7029.

GLF 2010

New information’s up on the Galle Literary Festival 2010 website including names of some confirmed participants. Michelle de Kretser, Michael Frayn and Wendy Cope will be there! I’m so excited!

So having spent the last week nursing ever multiplying monster headaches (tension-type headaches including a side-effect of nausea and upset tummy) brought on by having to think about viewing flats and sorting out my mortgage (yes, I know I have to grow up one day but please, not just yet!) I have decided to treat myself to an eyelash perm. Well, technically both eyelashes as I don’t want to look like a one-eyed doll wonder. And I’m impressed with the result. And it was painless too. Here’s a short clip if you want to know how it’s done:

The eyelash perm has been popular in Japan for over ten years to brighten up and enlarge Japanese eyes, and I had been dying to get one ever since, but sadly I didn’t have enough time when I popped over there this year for a friend’s wedding. I know, I sound like a real jet-setter, swanning off to Sri Lanka, then Japan, then Munich a few weeks back….but seriously, my bank balance is suffering as a result because there were sooo many nice things I just had to get in Japan. My advice: if you are going to Japan, start saving up months in advance because you will definitely want everything you see in the select shops that line the streets of Tokyo. And not just things, you will want sweets from the convenience stores and things from Muji. Muji in Japan is different from the UK because they sell food. It might be ready-made but it’s yummy. It is a shopper’s hell/paradise depending on how much spare cash you have. And I haven’t even started on Matsukiyo (short for Matsumoto Kiyoshi, an equivalent to Boots in the UK, but sooo much better – it’s a chemist/beauty store in which you can spend hours). Everytime I go to Japan, I spend half my time there. I. love. Matsukiyo.

OK, enough of sounding like a crazy person. Let’s get down to some book business. I’ve started reading Kafka on the Shore and although I’ve only read a few pages, it has a more sinister feel than some of Murakami’s other novels. I really loved Norwegian Wood and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and more recently I found his non-fiction semi-autobiography What I Talk About When I Talk About Running both educational and enlightening. Especially since I was trying to get some tips on running a 5km charity run for Cancer Research at the time. And as all my friends know, I’m no runner. I was severely traumatised when I was a child having to run 3km in the mountains of Japan as part of my PE class and getting a very bad mark for it. But Murakami makes running something more than just a bit of exercise, it is a profound experience and an eternal struggle with yourself (although I have a sneaky suspicion that he is a bit of a masochist…the man runs a marathon every year!) And he ties it in with his writing. For that, I am eternally grateful. And I have changed my mind about running too.

whatitalkaboutwhenitalkaboutrunning

gallefort

I’m so excited about this. The 4th annual Galle Literary Festival 2010 is scheduled for January 27-31, 2010 and I will be there! I’m lucky in that I can combine my annual trip home to visit my parents in Sri Lanka with a four day literary extravaganza in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Last year we saw Germaine Greer, Romesh Gunasekara, Pico Iyer, Moses Isegawa, V.V. Ganeshananthan, Tahmima Anam and Asitha Ameresekara amongst other great writers such as Thomas Keneally and Michael Morpugo. I love Romesh Gunasekara’s writing, in particular his novel The Match, and would have gone just to see him. I was lucky enough to get a place at his writing workshop which was truly inspirational. I was also reading V.V. Ganeshananthan’s Love Marriage , at the time, so that was a bonus too. And who could resist hearing Germaine Greer’s rant on post-feminism?

It was my first literary festival, and I dragged my parents there as 1) I needed a driver to take me from Colombo to Galle (a three hour journey along the south west coast of Sri Lanka), 2) I have only one friend there and she was working and 3) I thought it would be a nice change in our holiday routine (try something new!) and that they’d enjoy it. We stayed at Aditiya, a boutique hotel which cost a small fortune but was totally worth it because the hotel staff actually left you alone, you could have your meals at anytime, anywhere on the grounds including on the beach, and they did the most divine massages. The Sri Lankan breakfasts which you had to order the night before was also incredibly delicious.

I spent as much time as I could at the literary festival while my parents checked out places for us to have lunch and dinner. I did manage to get my dad, who spent a large part of his career as a UN expert on Asia and Africa, to attend a couple of talks by Patrick French, V.S. Naipaul’s biographer, in conversation with the intrepid traveller Pico Iyer and a very entertaining and political talk by Moses Isegawa, the Nigerian writer.

What I didn’t expect was how interesting it was to listen to writers I had never come across or read before, and how that opened up new avenues in my reading life. My best discovery at this year’s Galle Literary Festival was the debut novelist Tahmima Anam who wrote A Golden Age, a novel about the birth of Bangladesh. She awed us with her poise and erudition and after her session I rushed out to join the queue to buy her book. I didn’t get a chance to read it until I got back to London as I was busy reading Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon and Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind on that holiday (I was going through my periodic scifi and fantasy phase), but when I did, I loved it.

Anam’s language and story-telling skill is so strong and vivid, I felt envious that someone could produce such a perfect first novel. The first line of A Golden Age just grabs you by the hair and sucks you in. It was emotional, yet restrained, punchy, bittersweet and utterly beautiful. She doesn’t shy away from the terrible things that happened to her country and people, but she tells her story with such dignity that the novel steers clear of sentimentality and nostalgia. You care about the characters and you want them to survive. Her protagonist Rehana Haque, wife, mother and lover is one of the quietest and strongest fictional women I have ever encountered. A synopsis of her novel can be found here. Buy it, borrow it, swipe it, just go and read it!

agoldenage