Irrawaddy Literary Festival 2019 : Where Authors cross Borders to create a Confluence of Words and Worlds

By San Lin Tun


Irrawaddy Literary Festival (ILF), a non-profit venture, is renowned not only in Myanmar but also in South East Asia and the rest of the world. Since its inauguration in 2013, the festival has hosted writers of international repute like Vikram Seth, Jung Chang, William Dalrymple, BBC journalist Fergal Keane and photojournalist Thierry Falise as well as those from Myanmar including Dr. Thant Myint-U and Pascal Khoo Thwe. The following and ensuing years saw more writers and authors across the world such as Louis de Bernières, Anne Enright, Barnaby Phillips, Ratna Vira and Margaret Simons participating in the festival. The venue has been in Mandalay, the second largest city of Myanmar. The festival is a major attraction for writers, agents and literary enthusiasts even from the non-literary community.

The fifth ILF 2019 was held in Mandalay at Mercure Mandalay Hill Resort for three consecutive days from Nov 9 to Nov 11 from 9am to 7pm. Local and international writers attended the festival. The theme of the festival this time was ‘Youth and literature’ to promote literary enthusiasm in the younger generations.

This festival has been an occasion when literature crosses national borders and the local and international writers meet to create an awareness of each other’s concerns and cultures. A fusion of literatures from varied countries adds colour and vibrancy to the festivities. Such exchanges lead to a heightened awareness of current literary trends.

The festival becomes a platform for those who want to be familiar with the local and international trends. People can meet their favourite authors at this festival. They can differentiate and find similarities between local literature and foreign literature. It has the same spirit as the Jaipur Literary Festival, an annual event that attracts established writers, editors and literary agents from all over the world to India.

Spacious and grand against the backdrop of Mandalay Hill which lies 954 feet above sea level, Mercure Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel extended its warm arms to writers and audiences alike this year for the festival. As everyone knows, Irrawaddy is the most important river of Myanmar and many people rely on this mighty river. Naming the festival after the river enhances its grandeur.

This year, in the 2019 Irrawaddy Literary Festival, more than thirty international writers and one hundred Myanmar writers participated in the festival. Local writers like U Nay Oke, Kyaw Kyaw Hlaing (KK), Lin Thaik Nyunt, Ju, Ponnya Khin, Mya Hnaung Nyo, Aung Zin Min, Lay Ko Tin, Min Khike Soe San, Cartoonist Mg Mg Thaw as well as foreign ones like Ian Holiday, Christopher Lamb, Chris Gunness, Peter Summersby, Nadia Niaz, Dipika Mukherjee, Murzban Shroff, Rupert Arrowsmith and Xu Xi are some who participated in the festival. There were multiple panel discussions.

Some of the panel discussions were on “Literary Characters of “Z” generation”, “Creation of a Novel”, “Cartoon on News”, “How to build a Novel”, “Writing Difficult Histories”, “The Process of Creative Writing”, “Clive Bill Masterclass: TV and Radio Production Workshop Part 1”, “The Importance of Journalism in the Era of Fake News”, “Teaching Creative Writing in Asia”, “How to Get Published”, “From Novel to Movie”, “Writing under Adversity”, etc.

Programs this year were divided according to the interests of the public and the convenience of speakers and panelists. A poet’s corner had been set up where one could listen to recitations or could recite one’s own poems. There were bookstalls set up inside the compound of the hotel for book lovers. The days were full of literary activities and it was fun for those who love literature.

Nadia Das from University of Melbourne talked about “Poetry and Place”. She also introduced Multilingual Writing Project and read her multilingual poem. It was really amazing to listen to the poem. While the cadence of the lines and words were pleasing to the ears, the meanings of the words were hard to understand. We have bilingual poetry prevalent in Myanmar literature too.

In the afternoon, while taking a coffee break with Keith Lyons, the editor of Opening Up Hidden Burma, we met another writer, Oliver Slow who sat down at a table facing the pool of the hotel. We joined him until the next session started. I met Dipika Mukerjee and Kelly Falconer, the founder of Asia Literary Agency, after they finished their session on “Getting Published”. Last year, at the festival, I met Sudha Sha, the author of King in Exile, an enthralling and engrossing novel mostly about the exiled ruler of Myanmar, King Thibaw. One can really revel in the literary ambience of the festival.

Irrawaddy Literary Festival charmed Mandalay and gathered writers locally and internationally to move towards fulfilling their literary aspirations along with giving them a taste of the country’s culture. The ILF is normally held around the local Tazaungtaing festival, a national holiday celebrating the end of the rainy season. It is one of the merriest times for Myanmar people. This time it fell on 12th November. Many go to enjoy the festivities in Sagaing, 20 km to the south-west of Mandalay, and Pyin Oo Lwin, some 67 km east of Mandalay and at an elevation of 1,070 meters. Visitors to ILF could stay back to enjoy the festivities and a bit more of Myanmar culture if they so pleased.


San Lin Tun is a freelance writer of essays, poetry, short story and novel in Myanmar and English. His novel “An English Writer” has come out recently. He lives in Yangon



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