The Annual Georgetown Literary Festival

georgetown literary festival

Book and art lovers will definitely perk up when the Georgetown Literary Festival is mentioned!

Held annually on the beautiful island of Penang in the month of November, this literary festival is  known to be the largest world literature festival organised in Malaysia, and Southeast Asia’s first to be awarded the Literary Festival Award by the London Book Fair International Excellence Awards.

georgetown literary festival

Since 2011, the festival has hosted participants from 23 different countries, and featured numerous line-ups of writers, artists, musicians, and other creatives under a yearly theme focusing on the many narratives each diverse walk of life, culture, religion, and identity has to offer.

Unlike other festivals in Malaysia, the Georgetown Literary Festival (abbreviated to GTLF) is the only festival to be funded by the state government in Malaysia, and is free to all members of the public. Initiated in 2011 by former Chief Minister of Penang and current Minister of Finance of Malaysia, Lim Guan Eng, the festival has been organised by the Penang Global Tourism, Penang Institute, and Penang Convention and Exhibition Bureau. All previous festivals (save in 2014) were curated by local writer, poet, educator, and director Bernice Chauly. The 2019 edition will see the debut of writer and culture conservationist Pauline Fan and TV/radio producer and host Sharaad Kuttan as directors of the curatorial team.

The impact of the Georgetown Literary Festival has been crucial to the art movement of Southeast Asia, providing an open platform for creativity to develop, evolve, and be showcased to the masses. Not only that, the freedom of speech and expression provided by this festival has seen topics and performances celebrated in an otherwise censored scene due to moral and social constraints.

georgetown literary festival
Arshia Sattar performs a piece

The festival’s thematic editions played a huge part. Its inaugural run in 2011 saw many events centred on featuring ‘History and Heritage: Where are our Stories?’ where Penang’s fascinating cultures made a comeback, including the Penang Hokkien and Cristang language, and the venues of Penang’s pre-war shop houses became centre stage for the events.

Its 2012 edition welcomed many international guests, and saw an extension of a three-day run to cover stories of ‘Voyages, Hopes, and Dreams’. This led to an increase in support from foreign embassies and government agencies, so much that the 2013 edition, themed ‘The Ties That Bind’ had means to feature 37 events and 20 speakers of international and local standing.

The 2014 edition saw many more art mediums finding opportunities to be showcased, and was curated by the Cooler Lumpur Festival under the theme banner of ‘Capital’. Stand-up comedy, pub quizzes, and programmes aimed towards developing the local writing and publishing industry saw even more success than the previous years.

georgetown literary festival
Malaysia National Slam Poetry 2018 event at Loft 29

2015’s edition opened up socially-conscious avenues in art, in line with its ‘We Are Who We Are/Are We Who We Are?‘ theme focusing on the dissection of the human and Malaysian identity. Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir delivered its keynote, and the festival featured 36 speakers from widespread regions, spanning as far as Norway to Israel.

Hiraeth’ was 2016’s exciting edition, in recognition of the issue of community displacement worldwide. The festival’s community increased again with 40 writers and 44 sessions. While support had been immense, pro-government supporters saw an opportunity to deface an exhibition by politically controversial artist Zunar, who gained popularity in criticizing former Prime Minister of Malaysia Najib Razak. His arrest heightened international attention, who praised the festival for being a platform for free speech. Although marred by this scandal, the festival received nomination from the Literary Festival Award.


2017’s featuring of ‘Monsters & (Im)Mortals’ delighted many fantasy fans, and hailed the Georgetown Literary Festival as the first to receive the aforementioned Literary Festival Award at the LBF International Excellence Awards.

georgetown literary festival
Day 3 2018

Its latest run in 2018 was aptly themed ‘The State of Freedom’ to commemorate the milestones of human rights across the globe, honour Penang’s commitment to freedom of expression, and celebrating Malaysia’s first change in government since its independence day 59 years prior. Georgetown Literary Festival now ran for four days and featured the largest line-up in its history of 82 featured writers, 65 events, and notable sessions including a conversation with politician Anwar Ibrahim, LGBTQIA+ discourses, and the inaugural Malaysia National Poetry Slam.

This year of 2019 is bound to see even more fantastic reaches in the world of literature and other arts, and we can’t wait to see even more local talents arising! The festival will commence from the 21st to the 24th of November, so mark your calendars.

This article was first published in our Expat magazine, July 2019 edition. To subscribe and get more amazing content, click here.

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