Malaysian Festival Highlights Rise of Pan-Asian Literature

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In a beautifully refurbished colonial building next to George Town’s coastal thoroughfare, a tight-knit yet diverse crowd is hungry for answers. A microphone is passed around, and people rock nervously in their chairs as they wait to throw questions at a row of international authors and editors, who are animated after a heated discussion. Above their heads, the demeaning word “monsters” poses a question: Are writers really monsters — prodigious or hideous — in the age of fear and globalization?

“This year’s George Town Literary Festival’s theme — ‘Monsters and (Im)mortals’ — could not be more timely,” said Gareth Richards, owner of Gerakbudaya Bookshop Penang and Impress Creative editorial, and one of the festival’s co-curators — the other is translator Pauline Fan.

“We live in what Junot Diaz calls a ‘dystopian age’ or Pankaj Mishra terms an ‘age of anger,'” said Richards, referring to authors from the U.S. and the U.K. “Writers need to address these realities in their work and in their ‘civic labor’ if we are to imagine and realize a better world.”

The seventh edition of the George Town festival showcased an annual event that is growing in popularity. After a humble start in 2011, hosting only five writers, the gathering has grown into one of Southeast Asia’s most important literary events, attracting an audience of around 4,500 this year — the highest ever attendance. They are drawn by the increasingly diverse talent on the stage. Year after year, the festival has gathered a mixed crew of about 50 Asian and Western authors, poets, academics and critics, who wrestle with ideas and concepts over three days of panels, book launches and practical writing workshops.

“One lesson from the past — and this has been highlighted in the shortcomings of other festivals — is the importance of preparation and good-quality moderation. A bad moderator can kill a conversation. So a lot of thought goes into choosing an experienced and engaged team, and to begin[ing] conversations in advance of the festival itself,” said Richards, who moderated panels ranging from the return of print magazines in Asia to constructing futuristic literary utopias and the dynamics of publishing the works of Asian writers in translation.

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