Covid-19 Exclusives: The George Town Literary Festival Persists through the Pandemic

loading GTLF 2019’s co-directors Pauline Fan and Sharaad Kuttan returned for 2020’s challenging version.

THE INITIAL PLANS for the 2020 George Town Literary Festival (GTLF) were for it to be celebratory – to look back on 10 years of work, while also looking forward. But now, on the other side of the looking glass, the festival took place just as the latest CMCO was extended virtually nationwide, and amid political and economic crises whose resolutions are far from over.

GTLF 2019’s co-directors Pauline Fan and Sharaad Kuttan returned for 2020’s challenging version, joined by curator Izzuddin Ramli of Penang Institute. The crowds, the festival bookshops and the atmosphere of live events were gone, but a dynamic series of virtual events evolved, the contents of which remain accessible even after the end of the festival. With that, lessons have been learnt on how to proceed in the years to come.

Virtual Spaces

GTLF 2020 was not the only literature-related festival to migrate online, with the Singapore Writers Festival and the Frankfurt Book Fair experimenting with virtual formats as well. Despite the existential threats, the team persisted and eventually assembled a smaller experimental programme in line with their reduced budget. Much of this came in the form of state support, and funding coming through the Penang Convention & Exhibition Bureau allowed GTLF to keep nurturing unhindered intellectual discussions.

Podcast recording in progress of The Malay Tale of the Pig King.

The continuation also allowed for a sense of community. Reflecting on her existing years of involvement with GTLF, Pauline describes it as having “become a familiar space and a warm community, and this endures despite the virtual nature of the 2020 edition.”

Creating a virtual festival was not an easy feat, since it meant dealing with logistical issues such as different time zones, while also adopting a strategy to maintain the festive feel – the joys of meandering, of stumbling upon a writer in person for the first time – as close a simulation to the festival that could have been, while also taking into account the possibility of “digital fatigue”.

Whereas the Kuala Lumpur International Book Fair, by virtue of being largely a marketplace for trading books, was able to proceed as a virtual book sale on the online sales platform Shopee, a literary festival must allow both the consumers and producers of literature to interact on a deeper level, regardless of digital challenges and the attendant difficulties in maintaining active engagement.

“Our curatorial direction took this into account from the beginning,” Pauline says – in fact this factor was considered as early as June. “Our podcast programme on Spotify invites the festival audience to an experience of close listening and in-depth conversations, while our video series on YouTube offers viewers brief sojourns through landscapes of poetry.” All of this was quietly recorded in the months beforehand, with the full list of podcasts featuring an impressive range of writers, academics and personalities from other disciplines – including such diverse voices like Wang Gungwu to Hassan Muthalib, for instance.

For festival coordinator Swarna Rajagopal, the absence of the usual logistical challenges associated with live events marked the biggest difference from 2019. “As there was no physical festival in 2020, we did not have to deal with that aspect. Instead, it was replaced with coordinating speakers' dates and times for podcast recordings.” Indeed, connecting writers and academics across borders and state lines through digital technology into participating in what would become a coherent programme was not easy.

Beyond Penang

Another difference from previous years is the inclusion of an expanded net of collaborators beyond George Town, which also defied the problem of language-based divisions. By recognising three Malaysian languages, GTLF addresses the false dichotomy of National and Sectional Literatures – a relic of the 1971 National Culture Policy. The result is that most large festivals automatically fall into two broad camps (“Malay” or “Other/English”), and GTLF 2020 set out to explicitly challenge stereotypes. Engaging audiences through a variety of platforms – Zoom webinars, podcasts and Facebook Live sessions, to name a few – allowed for a broad reach to audiences with varying levels of technological know-how.

The creation of products which outlast the ephemeral nature of the conventional literary festival is a welcome boost for the local creative economy, in line with the state government’s support for creative industries.

PEN Malaysia, celebrating a century in existence, brought forth its own virtual line-up. “Sembang Baru / New Conversations”, attesting to the multilingual nature of the local literary scene. Author Faisal Tehrani, who handles the organisation’s Translation and Linguistic Rights, was satisfied with the eventual outcome – over a thousand viewers watched the Malay language session alone, and healthy numbers attended the other sessions. This was a welcome boost for the group in the wake of its ratification as a legitimate Malaysian chapter of PEN International.

Other collaborations came in the shape of Swadaya, a loose collective of booksellers based in KL and Petaling Jaya: Gerakbudaya, Tintabudi, Nur Innai Bookshop, Pelita Dhihin, the Bibliophile Bookshop and Lit Books, which brought in overseas writers Vincent Ternida and Melissa De Silva alongside collaborations with Kakiseni and Goethe-Institut.

Events included a discussion of Sinophone literature, which has been much glossed over at home while winning accolades abroad, as well as a presentation of the work of photographers Jörg Brüggemann and Tobias Kruse based on a stint in Penang, resulting in their collection Freundschaft / Friendship. Another collaboration was with the Healing Art Project, meant to fuse the power of music composition with therapeutic elements. While not strictly literature-related, music as therapy was an intriguing idea for the stressful year.

Despite the significant number of non-Penang-based groups involved, Pauline did not see this as an issue, given Penang’s historic openness and cosmopolitan roots. “If we have moved anywhere, we have moved online. It is important for GTLF to partner with like-minded organisations that nurture literary communities in Malaysia.” Sharaad shares similar sentiments, stating that the festival “isn’t bound by geography”.

Ultimately, what was most important was that all partners were committed to the promotion of Malaysian and regional literature. Of the podcasts that were produced, perhaps one of the most affecting was a dramatised reading of the late KS Maniam’s The Sandpit, a tribute to one of our greatest literary voices. So long as the openness and cosmopolitanism show through in events, the spirit of GTLF can be preserved, regardless of who is involved.

Uncertain Futures

In the end, how does one judge an event that took place over the internet? “Our podcast programme has reached listeners in 21 countries. I think the diversity of speakers, topics, languages and digital platforms enabled us to reach both our regular GTLF community as well as new audiences.” The Bahasa Melayu programme was well-received by audiences, thus allowing for a more vibrant and diverse programme.

Regardless, it is important for the festival to still continue to live up to its ideals and to grow in progressive directions, even if faced with unexpected constraints. “Limitations of resources aside, the festival range of speakers and themes continues the reputation of the festival as a platform that promotes inclusiveness,” says Sharaad. With the Covid-19 vaccine now rolling out, perhaps we can start to see signs of recovery.

Poetry and Exile features poets from Syria, Afghanistan and Iran now based in Malaysia.

Despite the modified programme’s success, there are lessons to learn for the future. There is a need for future iterations of the festival to experiment with hybrid forms while adhering to SOPs to account for unexpected crises, thus requiring governments and health authorities to have more nuanced contingency plans in place. If the distribution of an effective Covid-19 vaccine is successful, Sharaad predicts a return to near normalcy. “If that’s the case, then a focus on the audience experience will be of utmost importance in maintaining the perception that the festival is worth attending.” Still, perhaps it is too early to make predictions on the future of mass culture, tourism and related industries, institutions and their practices.

In the post-GTLF period, the festival’s offerings are now available online, going up against not just digital fatigue but also similar ventures by other cultural events, all competing for a global audience. “How the festival’s podcast programme fare in this field of play is hard to tell now,” says Sharaad, while also noting that in this second part of their programme’s life cycle, constant marketing is the watchword.

“The nature of a podcast-based programme is that it isn’t bound by time, and so there is a long tail for the consumption of the content.” The creation of products which outlast the ephemeral nature of the conventional literary festival is a welcome boost for the local creative economy, in line with the state government’s support for creative industries. Conclusively, this may prove to be a viable future model, in which the production of content can be harnessed to the ongoing curation of live, in-person events, a mix of the temporary and the permanent.

Ultimately, the take-home lesson is that we still need places for literature to flourish, whether real and ephemeral, virtual and recorded, in the move to build up a vibrant domestic literary culture – thus complementing state-directed efforts at the federal level. “GTLF will continue to offer pertinent, engaging and exciting conversations on literature and society, while being an inclusive platform that upholds the principles of freedom of expression and thought,” Pauline explains.

“We engage many voices and perspectives from the vast Malaysian literary community, and from diverse language backgrounds, as well as writers and moderators from East Malaysia.” Bringing literature into the mainstream is what we need more than ever, especially given that the literary ecosystem remains on brittle ground.

William Tham Wai Liang’s first novel, Kings of Petaling Street, was shortlisted for the Penang Book Prize in 2017. His second novel, The Last Days, was published in 2020. He is the editor of Paper & Text, a collection of essays on Malaysian literature and the book trade.

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