Making Malaysia’s literary capital work


Organising a literary festival is no easy task, especially when you’ve only got five months to do it. But passion and determination drove one man and his team to pull it off – and very successfully.

Umapagan Ampikaipakan is no stranger to organising festivals. Having directed Cooler Lumpur – South-East Asia’s first festival of ideas – for the past two years, he recently curated the fourth George Town Literary Festival (GTLF) held in November this year. Over the three-day festival, literary greats and fledgling writers from both home and abroad delivered talks and workshops, stirring up conversations that were profound, penetrating and often also light-hearted. But perhaps what’s more important, the festival reached out to the public about how literature is accessible and how it is not something confined to musty thick libraries or coffee-infused hipster spaces. Anyone can enjoy literature.

And according to Umapagan, who is more popularly known as Uma, the festival is not only for people who read, but also for those who don’t but are interested in the conversations that take place about books and reading. Penang Monthly meets up with him post-GTLF for a chat, during which he reveals the goings-on behind curating the festival and, of course, his love of Penang food.

Full-house panel discussion, "A sense of place".

How did you come about curating the festival?

Well, Bernice Chauly (the curator of past chapters of GTLF) was doing a writers’ residency in the US and would be away for three months at a crucial time. You have to be here to curate the festival, and she couldn’t do it this year. And because I run the Cooler Lumpur festival and have also been involved with GTLF the past three years, Penang Global Tourism (PGT) asked me whether I wanted to do it. We got going quite late – only after Cooler Lumpur, which was in June – so we started readying the festival from July 1. It’s been an intense five months; normally, putting a festival like Cooler Lumpur together takes about nine to 10 months.

Any regrets?

No, actually! It’s intense because I have a day job as well, so you just have to juggle both. My only regret is that I haven’t had sleep in a long time (laughs). Otherwise, no; I had a lot of fun and I love coming to Penang so it’s just more excuses for me to come here. The five days I’ve been here so far, I swear I’ve put on at least two kilos. Plus you’ve got visiting people from overseas, so you have to take them for char koay teow and nasi kandar, and nasi lemak every morning!

How do you distinguish Cooler Lumpur from GTLF?

Cooler Lumpur has a wider scope. We call it a literature and ideas festival, so literature is a very strong element in it, but ideas are there as well.

GTLF is pretty hardcore literature; there’re a lot more intense conversations. Penang lends itself to that – it’s an island, people come here to get inspired, famous authors in the past have come and lived in Penang for a while. I think Penang as a venue is very nice for a straight-up hardcore literary festival. It’s also smaller, in that a venue in KL has a lot more foot traffic so our audience is slightly bigger. I think Penang is more of a destination festival, in that people will come from all over Malaysia, Singapore and the region – and that’s the goal. In another two or three years, if we keep it up, I think GTLF will be a nice destination festival for the region – which is what Singapore is trying to do and has done to a certain event. With a lot less money, we can do it here in Penang (laughs).

I was at a few of the talks and there were quite a lot of people. How do you feel about the turnout?

To be fair, I think the turnout was about the same as last year, if not slightly more. I’m very happy with it; most of the sessions were full.

This year was the first year we’ve done workshops, and all of them were sold out. The workshops were small – only 20 to 25 people – but that’s the ideal number for an author to work with people. We wanted to try this because the workshops have been very successful in KL. Malaysians don’t have access (to these kinds) of workshops, and even if they did, it costs a lot of money. These workshops cost RM30 each to participate. You cannot get a world-class author teaching you for two or three hours for RM30 in normal cases; that’s not going to happen. So that’s nice. The feedback we got from a lot of people was that the workshops were very useful. To get that experience, to talk to an author just to find out what it’s really like, that’s important.

Panel sessions were full, and what I really liked about them this year was I told the moderators to open up to questions earlier, and most of them opened up to questions about half an hour into a one-hour session. People had a lot of questions; there was arguing, fighting – it was great, that’s what we want. All around, I was happy with the level of engagement.

In a lot of the sessions, the moderators were very dynamic.

Let me tell you: a good moderator is one of the hardest things to find, and you don’t realise this until you’ve been to these festivals and go, “Oh my god, I’m on stage with these brilliant writers and the moderator is just reading out from a list of questions without engaging with anyone.” The one thing I’m most strict with is the moderators; a bad one can kill a conversation.

The moderators must also know that it’s not about them and know when to step back. You need a very fine balance in moderating. And also, you must have the knowledge.

This year you’ve got programmes on very current issues, for example a conversation on self-censorship (“What are you hiding”) and conversations about writing in the present, the past and the future.

That was intentional. It took me about a month to come up with the programme and topics. If you noticed, I had Saturday as a kind of issues-based day, so the selfcensorship topic and all that stuff were on Saturday, the reason being I had a feeling that that was what Penang people would want to come and see, and I figured people would come for that even if they didn’t read. And that’s important, because I wanted to show people, “Hey, don’t be scared, it’s not just for people who read, it’s for everyone.” It’s a sort of gateway to the festival. Hopefully if they came on Saturday, they would come back on Sunday, which was more literary.

It has to be a nice balance between very current issues tied back to literature, because people are very interested in that. For example, the political biography session was very heated – it was a full house and there was shouting; it was great! (chuckles)

You’re not going to get all the authors you invite because they’re not going to be free or whatever, so you have to balance the programme with the people you get as well as what you want to do. Touch wood, very few people turned down our invitation, and the best thing about the people who came was that they enjoyed it. I just got an email from Sudir Thomas Vadaketh, a Singaporean writer, and he said, “Great festival, and Penang – I feel like moving there. It is as original and ground-up as Singapore is fake and topdown. My new thesis is that the Malayan is being reborn in Penang.”

At writer Susan Barker's workshop on inventing convincing and memorable characters in fiction.

How did you go about setting apart this year’s festival and last year’s There were some topics that were quite similar, especially the sessions on historical fiction.

There are a couple of things that I feel you should have about Penang, and I think topics related to history and heritage are very important here. Not just because it’s a World Heritage Site, but because people in Penang generally love their old buildings, their history, their people. So while these are subjects you cannot avoid, it’s also important to have a new take on them. This year, we had the three authors talking about their own past – and not necessarily just that, but the past in general – and how it affects their work. That session was a full house as well, so I think people liked it.

Apart from that, there are a couple of topics that I think we should have because we should keep the conversation alive in Malaysia, one of which is self-censorship. The more we talk about it, the more sensitised to the issue we become.

GTLF doesn’t bank on one single author either.

We never do. There will be focus on one Malaysian author, like Pak Kassim, and last year we had Lat. This year we also had poet Wong Phui Nam, which was fantastic. The very idea of getting him – he’s so reclusive and quiet – and that he came, spoke and was very articulate. We had 22 Malaysian authors and 11 foreign authors. Normally we try to make it halfhalf, but we did one-third two-thirds this year so it’s bigger than before.

I love the Singapore Writers Festival – I go there every year – but Singapore Writers Festival and Ubud Writers and Readers Festival aren’t really Asian writers’ festivals, in my opinion. There are a lot of Asian writers, don’t get me wrong, but they feel like an international writers’ festival. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I really want our writers’ festivals – Cooler Lumpur and GTLF – to be Malaysian writers’ festivals. I want people to come here and think, “Ah, this is a Malaysian writers’ festival.” We have to support our local people. If you go to a writers’ festival in India, you would feel that they are primarily for the Indian audience. That’s our goal.

Of course, you’ll need the foreign writers because they are the names. Susan Barker, Miguel Syjuco – they pull in the crowds. Even if people don’t read, they’d recognise these writers.

I can think of one criticism people might have of GTLF: there aren’t enough Penang writers.

I’ll be honest with you – I think there aren’t enough Malaysian writers in general. There’s always been a fair share of Penang writers, but I’m running out of Malaysian writers to invite and I don’t want to keep on repeating the same people. In fact, I get that criticism in KL as well, where people would ask me why I didn’t invite this person or that person. I’m like, “Guys, I invited that person last year, dah-lah.”

Another thing I noticed, a lot of the Malaysian writers I invited are very young – from Zan Azlee to Arif Rafhan Othman to Julya Oui. I think it’s really important to encourage young talents and give them a venue to show off a bit. It makes them feel that their work is valued.

Also, you have to invite a person who fits within your programme and your theme, so it’s a really delicate process and you cannot please everyone. I just hope people don’t get offended. It’s nothing personal – most of the time it’s just crafted towards what works for the theme and what works for the programme. You have to keep it as varied as possible, and it’s a balance between the complete unknowns and the “knowns”. So hopefully people will come for the “knowns” and discover the unknowns.

What’s next for you?

I’ve already started planning for Cooler Lumpur next June. I enjoy doing literary festivals, I think it’s different. Everyone in Malaysia is doing an arts fest, a theatre fest or a music fest, but there’s no one doing literature except PGT, Bernice and myself. Our audiences are still small, but year on year I see it growing, and that’s very interesting. The first year we did it, people were still not as excited about local literature. Yesterday we did a panel on Malaysian writing and it was a full house!

I think Malaysians are truly beginning to see the value in Malaysian literature. Amir Muhammad’s (of Fixi books) sales, for example, gila-lah! For an English book to sell 15,000 copies in Malaysia, it’s insane. I hope those 15,000 people are reading it – and not just buying it and keeping it on their shelves – but at least it’s something. To me, in the Malaysian literary scene, what Amir is doing is incredible. He is revolutionising the publishing world because he is getting young people writing. That’s the most exciting thing – young people writing and young people reading.

Julia "Bubba" Tan is assistant editor for Penang Monthly. Her favourite author is still Stephen King after all these years, although Max Brooks and Neil Gaiman are very close contenders.

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