Arts festivals and fairs are born with some pomp. They then grow, peak and, in some cases, fade away – the celebrated and long-running Penang Island Jazz Festival, which would have turned 15 in 2018, was sadly cancelled last year; while Art Stage Singapore pulled the plug in January. Funds either dry up, or popularity dwindles. Oftentimes, it’s reimagine or be retired.
The George Town Literary Festival – or GTLF, to avoid a mouthful – is still cracking on. It is now in its ninth year, and this year, its theme is “forewords/afterwords”.
Beginning with five authors in 2011 and under the curatorship of Bernice Chauly, who grew the festival into the award-winning blockbuster it is today, this year’s curators, Pauline Fan and Sharaad Kuttan – both famed nationally for their voice and stake in the arts, and neither strangers to the festival – bring a dazzling line-up comprising 75 writers and moderators.
Pauline Fan and Sharaad Kuttan.
And not only that. GTLF this year extends its itinerary beyond George Town and the four-day extravaganza in November, with school programmes to encourage reading among the young, working in partnership with Penang International Kids Storytelling Festival (PINKS) and the ASEAN Australia Education Dialogue (AAED).
It kicked off with a Worldwide Reading Day last September – the first in its series of engaging events.
Fearless and Free
The festival’s growth and esteem among the literary community has been astonishing. Natural, definitely, thanks to the passionate minds behind it, but surprising as well.
“I think that we have a reputation of being quite fearless in the topics that we tackle. The main concern over the years has been to actually have stimulating and engaging conversations on topics that we wouldn’t be necessarily able to discuss. The freedom of expression that I think you can find in GTLF is quite unusual – it’s not something that you necessarily find in the region as much,” muses Fan, who is also co-director at Pusaka.
Sharaad thinks that it’s the size and scale of GTLF which sets it apart: “The intimacy of the festival and the fact that it’s located in George Town, at venues which are within walking distance of each other... You can have a huge conference-like event, it looks great on paper, but the human scale is something that is quite special.”
Last year's festival was the largest edition, with 100 participants from 25 countries.
And perhaps it’s something in the water that sparks creativity. Our own thinkers and arts icons have gone on to make their mark in the world. It would be good to remember, then, that before we were a tourist haven, before all the top 10 lists of eateries to indulge at, and the million-and-one wall murals to take selfies with, we were already creating waves in politics, philosophy and literature throughout the globe.
We still are.
Penang is a fertile place for ideas, and boy, do people know it. “The writers that we engage – and some of them are really eminent figures – are not demanding huge fees which we can’t afford,” says Fan. “They are major figures in the literary world, but they actually really want to come here. It’s not that we have to offer them big fees or incentives to lure them – they want to come. I think that GTLF has the reputation for being a space where they can really speak freely and also engage with very interesting writers and audiences.”
Curiouser and Curiouser
Coming from a think tank that regularly organises forums and talks, I have observed from our events that Penangites are a sincerely curious lot, and it is this inquisitiveness that spurs festivals like this, which in turn attracts curious outsiders.
“It’s not just about the big names. It’s about the experience that people have – the extent to which they interact, learn and experience is crucial, and that comes down to the way in which we curate as well as create the space and time so that it becomes a pleasant, learning experience,” says Sharaad.
Penang isn’t doing this to tick the “bureaucratic checklist”, as Sharaad puts it, just to be renowned. It is to sate its people’s hunger to connect with the larger world when almost everyone is looking inwards these days.
After all, the state is known to dance to its own tune. At a time when chain bookstores are closing their shutters throughout Malaysia, Penang’s independent bookshops thrive not merely as places where books can be bought, but rather as places where knowledge is curated, and co-opted. Indeed, that this magazine, Penang Monthly, celebrates its 10th year this quarter – at a time when the future of print looks bleak – is saying something highly significant.
“Any medium that wants to remain relevant to the mass audience has to reinvent itself. It needs to,” says Sharaad, as we deviate slightly from the topic. “We who write have to remain relevant and reach out to people. Look at the works of Amir Muhammad and his publishing house – the reason why he’s so successful is because he changed the idiom; he changed the way Malay could be written. The books he publishes capture not just the language, but also thematic concerns, characters, the ability to be multilingual within the Malay language field.
“For publishing to be not just relevant but sustainable, it needs to reach out to the masses. Things aren’t static – we can’t live in a world where things don’t change, so it’s the changes in things that we need to embrace.”
An Array of Anniversaries
How will the festival change, though, to keep up with the times? It has already expanded its reach beyond George Town’s borders, and there does seem to be more Asian content this year.
“I don’t know if it was self-consciously about being Asian,” counters Sharaad. “I think the one truth about literature is that no matter where it was generated and no matter what language is used by the characters in it, the themes are pretty universal – (2019 Man Booker International Prize winner) Jokha Alharthi’s works about Oman and the changes in Omani society are amazing. It’s the quirkiness of the characters, the truth about development, individuals struggling and competing against each other, and their unrequited desires – these are all universal.
“It’s Asian on the surface, but I think what all literary festivals seek to do is to connect with some universal humanity, with literature and the arts across the world. I wouldn’t raise the flag about Asian-ness necessarily, but to the extent that there are ways of connecting to the region, I think that itself is a good thing.”
There is a focus on Mahua – or Malaysian Chinese – literature this year. “Mahua literature in the 1950s and 1960s had a relationship with Malay literature – they were on the same side fighting against English imperialism. It’s a very interesting and complicated history,” explains Sharaad.
This year's line-up consists of 75 writers and moderators. These are but some of their names and faces.
“What is special about Mahua literature is the fact that in the Sinophone world, it deals with issues of identity. It entails writings in Chinese which are not typically Chinese – here we have an instance of literary tradition which I think isn’t given enough exposure in the Malaysian context. There is this amazing body of work, including at Southern University College in Johor, which has 20,000 titles and 140,000 items. It’s not a state-sponsored literary tradition – I want to bring this to public attention,” he says.
“2019 marks many anniversaries,” Fan notes. “You have the 100th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, 70th anniversary of the Communist Revolution, 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, and of course there is the Fall of the Berlin Wall and also the 1969 riots in Malaysia.
“Many of the things happened in China. I think China has always been affecting South-east Asia in a very impactful way – historically as well as currently – and we want to shape some conversations around that, which is why we are bringing in people like Rebecca E. Karl, who is an expert and historian on China. There are so many layers of literature, conversations and languages that exist, and many times there is no interrelation. This is why literary translation is so important,” adds Fan.
Not to be neglected are other aspects of local literature, of course. There will be a number of Malay speakers this year, as well as Tamil content – Perumal Murugan, a Tamil writer, academic and poet from India, will be speaking in his own language.
Leaving Politics Behind
“I must say that multilingualism in Malaysia goes beyond Malay, Chinese, Tamil and English – it’s also about reaching across the South China Sea to Sarawak and Sabah,” says Sharaad. “Our public libraries have this policy of carrying a certain percentage of Malay, English, Chinese and Tamil books – books that are generated locally. But you can’t approach a literary festival with this range. It’s really the quality of conversations across the languages; you need to go beyond the mechanical approach to representation. It cannot be just this racial, reflecting the political realities which are very unimaginative.”
With the intimacy of the festival so loudly lauded, I wonder about its fate: how can it grow without compromising this facet?
“I think there is a way of maintaining both,” says Fan. “GTLF is special because it really has that intimacy for emerging writers or established, eminent writers. Everyone comes in with a community spirit. Even if we suddenly get a bigger budget for the festival, we can think of imaginative ways of keeping the intimacy.”
“Every year, we build new audiences,” Sharaad adds. “We build an audience that has a criticality, is curious about the world and is open to reading in different languages. All this is part of the purpose of a literary festival – it is part of the core component of what we think a literary festival ought to be.”