A Preview of the George Town Literary Festival 2012

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Frances Wilks previews some of the highlights of the George Town Literary Festival 2012, which will be held 23-25 November in three heritage venues and promises to be a fascinating journey into the imaginations of some of the world’s most promising writers.

An impressive array of authors will attend the second George Town Literary Festival in late November. Last year’s event, put together in a bare three months, was a brave beginning, but this year’s edition promises to deepen the experience by bringing a wider variety of international and Malaysian writers to Penang. Three times the size and stretching over three days instead of two, the 2012 festival will have parallel sessions, forcing the audience to choose between potentially conflicting delights but ensuring that more fantastic events are crammed in to the 3-day event.

The subtitle of the festival is Voyages, Hopes, Dreams. “Voyages” refers to the journeys that most people (or their forebears) have made to come to Penang. Leaving home and creating a life in a new country can be a daunting challenge, as many expats know. George Town, a multi-cultural city largely made up of immigrants, is the perfect backdrop for exploring the emotional resonances of the journeys of migration and transformation.

Festival Director Bernice Chauly, a writer and performer who curated the 2011 festival, explains that “we were encouraged by last year’s response, which showed that Penang was more than ready for a festival which celebrates writers. The theme this year seeks to appreciate the many cultural diasporas in the region and beyond, and the stories that were inspired.”    

History and Culture

The festival opens with an account of a ship’s voyage that ended rather abruptly. John Robertson, author of The Battle of Penang, will give a lecture on the Emden Incident, which occurred in Penang Harbour in 1914 at the start of the First World War. A German light cruiser, the Emden, sank a Russian vessel, the Zhemchug, by firing a torpedo into its magazine, causing a pyrotechnic explosion and considerable loss of life.

After this weighty beginning, the event will continue with contributions from international authors such as Rana Dasgupa, who was born in England but is of Indian heritage and now lives in Delhi, which certainly qualifies as cultural complexity. His first novel, Tokyo Cancelled, is a modern-day Canterbury Tales; thirteen passengers (including billionaires and film stars as well as migrant labourers and illegal immigrants) are marooned in an airport for a night and, to pass the time, each tells the story of their own journey.

Historical facts blend with fiction when David Van Reybrouck, one of Belgium’s leading political commentators, speaks about his book Congo – A History. Like many of his generation, David Van Reybrouck knew the Congo from the Belgian point of view, as his father had lived and worked there in the 1960s. He only came to understand the history of the country when he carried out the research for the book by interviewing over 500 inhabitants, and Congo – A History shows that journeys aren’t always physical, and that suffering can increase the resilience of hope and the capacity for future dreams.


New Voices

The festival will also offer some special areas of focus, such as women’s writing and Malay writing. Five women writers working in different genres, forms, and styles will discuss how they are inspired to write what they do and how they engage with the themes that matter to them. Dina Zaman, Shivani Sivagurunathan, Linda Christanty, Chiew-Siah Tei, Judith Uyterlinde are the five women taking part. Shivani Sivagurunathan is the author of Wild life on Coal Island, set on an imaginary island of the coast of Port Klang.  Linda Christanty is an Indonesian writer, journalist and activist, while Dina Zaman is a journalist whose controversial columns were published in a book entitled I am a Muslim by Silverfish Books. She is currently working on her second book Holy Men, Holy Women.

Inspired by one of last year’s festival contributors, Muhammad Haji Salleh (who wrote The Mind of the Malay Author), one session will focus on the underlying currents, complexities, and changes in the history of Malay literature from the past to the present. One session in particular will be conducted in Bahasa Malaysia – Fixi and the Rise of the New Malay Fiction – and will explore how language has evolved to embrace the sacred and profane in ways never seen before.

There will also be some amazing performances to offset the discussions and talks. Each evening during the event, music will be performed in the Canteen at China House. There will also be Wayang Kata – a series of spoken word performances featuring a culturally diverse group of poets and performers talking in English, Bahasa Malaysia, Hokkien, and Tamil.


Join In and Widen your Mind

Thanks to sponsorship by the Penang State Government, the festival events will be largely free of charge (it is planned to charge RM5 for one event) to ensure all activities are accessible to all and not just a moneyed elite. The wonderful heritage settings – edgily restored – of China House and Sekeping Victoria will provide the main venues for the festival, and add their charming atmosphere to the splendid array of inspiring speakers.

As Festival Director, Beatrice Chauly, herself born in George Town of Chinese and Punjabi parentage, says, “Penang has changed drastically in recent years. There is a real buzz to it now; a sense of possibility in the air. The restoration looks great, but it’s not just about preserving old things; it’s also about creating new things. I think Penang is ready for the future, and ready for such a festival.  I think it will attract a very eclectic audience and I’m interested to see how they react to it.”


The George Town Literary Festival 2012, supported by the Penang State Government and presented by Penang Global Tourism, will be held 23-25 November. More information can be obtained from the festival blog: gtlfestival.blogspot.com


This article was written by Frances Wilks for Penang International.
Source: Penang International October-November 2012

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