A Literary Festival Celebrating Cosmopolitan Confluence

By Regina Hoo

November 2021 FEATURE
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Lee Chwi Lynn with Tina Makereti.
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Mikro-cosmos, an enduring connection forged through language, literature, words and ideas, informs the theme for the George Town Literary Festival this year, happening from November 25-28.

“Steeped as we were in our states of disconnection and isolation for the past two years, it has reinvigorated the desire for a deeper human connection through literature that is cosmopolitan, but also unique to the Southeast Asian region and Malaysia in particular. This is what the Festival seeks to highlight this year,” says festival director Pauline Fan.

Cosmopolitanism and Colonialism

The innate cosmopolitanism of our region took on a different form with the historical experience of colonialism and imperialism. “Some of it happened organically of course, compelled by people wanting to reach out and explore, but a lot of it was also necessitated by violence, colonialism and power; these are pervasive elements that, in literature, we cannot ignore.”

The Page Is Not Your Colony, a panel discussion moderated by Adriana Nordin Manan, asks the hard-hitting questions of how can literature decolonise? How do we know that we’re actively decolonising and what marks an end point for it? Adriana explains, “I especially like the idea of language, which in Malaysia seems to suggest fragmentation. Fragmented language groups, readership, reach…”

The panel features Juvita Tatan Wan, a Kenyah writer and cultural activist-curator of Tuyang, an initiative to revitalise the traditional arts of the Orang Ulu communities in Sarawak, but especially so its oral traditions that have been overshadowed by the more formal written aspects of literature. The indigenous New Zealander writer Tina Makereti is working towards a similar cause; she speaks in a separate event, about her experience to “unerase” and keep safe her people’s stories for future retelling.

Haslina Usman and Fadli Al-Akiti during the recording of Tumpahnya Kuah ke Nasi.

Also on the panel is Singaporean scholar and translator Nazry Bahrawi, who recently edited a volume of Malay speculative fiction, “as an attempt to deconstruct the racialised narrative of Singapore, which in a manner of speaking, mirrors in reverse that of Malaysia’s, i.e. Chinese, Malay, Indian and others,” says Pauline.

Completing the panel of three is Kenyan poet and author Mukoma Wa Ngugi, who Adriana says, “has spoken about Swahili as a language that has been framed as less sophisticated for science fiction for example, which he says is an effect of colonisation. He co-organises a literature prize for Swahili writers for this very reason.”

Festival headliner Minae Mizumura adds deeper to the discussion, as a product of cross-cultural experience. At 12, Mizumura moved to the U.S. from Japan where she would spend 20 long years before returning to her home country. She published in 2014 the seminal The Fall of Language in the Age of English, which highlights Mizumura’s own grappling with language, caught as she was between Japanese and English, and her being a writer in both these countries.

“I think in a sense, the U.S. sees itself as the universal standard in the publishing world; if you write in English and are published there, or if you are conversant in those circles, these seemingly become markers for a writer’s success. Mizumura challenged this notion when she returned to Japan, where writing in her native tongue, showed by example how Japanese people need to keep alive their own writing, tradition and language, and not give in easily to the pull of English,” explains Pauline.

Pauline Fan during the recording of Magic of the Second Order with Jan Wagner (online).

Spotlighting Lesser Known Literature

Unlike Mahua literature that featured in the 2019 and 2020 editions of the Festival, not much is known of the local Tamil literary ecosystem. In an email exchange with writer M. Navin ahead of his appearance at GTLF 2021, Navin spoke frankly on how Tamil literature here took root. “Oppression birthed it. The Indians who were brought in, unlike the Chinese, were already serving under British rule in India. When the Japanese invaded Malaya, they were ‘severed from their colonial masters’; it didn’t matter if they survived or were killed under the Occupation.

“Another instance was when the rubber estates changed hands from the English to the locals. The Indian rubber tappers were forced from their homes in the estates, with nowhere to go. They had never wandered far from the estates since arriving to Malaya. Such hardships shaped the literary works of personalities like A. Rengasamy, C. Muthusamy, S. Peer Muhammad, M. Shanmugasiva and K. Punniyavan on the lives of the Malaysian Tamil community,” explains Navin. Izzuddin Ramli, who curates the Malay programmes for GTLF, also points to a split in opinions, of Tamil literature written in the Malay language and in Tamil itself.

This year’s GTLF edition also widens Bornean representation through a partnership with Nusi Poetry, to feature poets from East Malaysia, Kalimantan and Brunei in pre-recorded videos. “It will still be a hybrid Festival like in 2020, with a programming that is mostly on podcasts and videos. But we also wanted to celebrate the Festival’s 10th anniversary last year, with a special publication that could serve as a sort of ‘physical space’, to gather writers, translators and editors in marking the spirit of GTLF,” says Pauline.

The literary journal Muara is a collaboration between GTLF and the Malay-language journal, Svara; and features essays and lectures in bilingual translations of English and Malay, with a few guest languages like Vietnamese, Macedonian and German.

Muara is the Malay word for estuary, a meeting place between land and sea. Its earthy, terrestrial quality highlights the organic aspects of confluence, and of our movements between these elements, languages and states of being. A literary journal, we thought, should be such a place, a space for organic confluence.”

Behind the scenes of Bayangan dan Kebebasan.

“We decided we couldn’t only talk about the pandemic and isolation,” adds Izzuddin. “We needed optimism too, Muara in its essence, holds promise for travel and exploration of the world, or it could also mean warmly welcoming people to our shores.”

Another major Festival highlight is the tribute to the incomparable Italian poet Dante Alighieri, commemorating the 700th anniversary of his passing through celebration of his life and work. “Dante’s Divine Comedy has a macrocosmic view that fits perfectly into our theme, as well as our times. But it is also very much an intersection between the universal and the divine, and the individual human being. I think this is what makes the Divine Comedy so enduring,” says Pauline.

The discussion features scholar of Italian literature Prof. Giuliana Nuvoli and Italy-based Malaysian writer Masturah Alatas, as well as a conversation with acclaimed British-Italian author and translator, Tim Parks.

For the full programme listing, visit georgetownlitfest.com/gtlf-2021/

Regina Hoo

is the deputy editor of Penang Monthly.