LITERARY festivals don’t get the kind of attention they once garnered from Malaysian media — take for instance George Town Literary Festival (GTLF). Opening in three weeks, the annual congregation is a star-studded affair graced by some of the world’s brightest thinkers.
British philosopher A. C. Grayling, Russian-German writer Olga Martynova, Syrian poet Ghayath Almadhoun, Malaysia’s very own Dina Zaman and more than 40 other influencers in world culture are set to appear at this year’s festivities. GTLF’s illustrious guests will be addressing the public in several venues across one of the world’s best-known heritage sites, and entry is free.
But while the festival continues garnering rave reviews in various languages away from home, a quick Google News search reveals almost zero interest from mainstream local media.
So much of the nation’s fate is shaped by the people’s access to information and the clarity of their voices — endeavours like this cannot go unnoticed when it is crucial to sociocultural progress.
Unfazed by it all, festival director Bernice Chauly is busy making sure everything’s ship-shape for her stellar line-up.
The great work never ends
As revealed in last week’s feature on the local creative landscape, Bernice makes hundreds of calls and emails to writers around the world for the festival — a process which demands more than six months of communication.
Scoring A. C. Grayling for a lecture for example requires clearance from his personal assistant and staff at his college. And then there are writers who can take months and sometimes years to confirm. This excludes production and logistics, currently handled by the newly-formed Penang Exhibition & Conventions Bureau (PCEB) under Bernice’s supervision.
“It’s a one-woman show when it comes to programming,” Bernice clarifies candidly over coffee. “I create the panels, give them their names, choose the writers and plan everything that happens from morning till night. This year’s program was actually the hardest to create; it’s such a diverse group of writers from all over the world.”
It’s no wonder that this respected author, educator and cultural practitioner describes herself as a ‘slave’ to the three-day literary event.
“At first I said no,” she recalls. “I was already curating for Writers Unlimited — to do two festivals in the span of six months seemed a bit crazy. Then somebody offered to be producer; you choose the writers, I’ll do the rest of the work.”
Five months later, the inaugural George Town Literary Festival was held in November 2011.
It was an unprecedented success which soon established itself as one of the city’s most significant festivals alongside Joe Sidek‘s performing arts extravaganza George Town Festival and the Penang Island Jazz Festival.
Bernice is devoted to GTLF — she was absent only once in 2014 to attend the International Writing Program (IWP) in Iowa — because she believes there’s a hunger for intelligent programming that isn’t satiated locally on this scale. Conjuring Farish Noor‘s lectures on race and history as an example of necessary discourse, she does not think that current consumption trends provide a comprehensive picture of our needs as a society.
“Yes, we escape, but we also want to read about things that matter,” Bernice challenges, using GTLF’s appeal to wipe off doubts. “A lot of young people come to the festival, have a fantastic time, and keep coming back in following years.”
“It feeds your soul on a very deep and meaningful level; you come out of the three days fulfilled and exhausted, because your mind has gone through an intellectual wringer.”
No man is an island
Born in George Town, Bernice reckons she’s identified the festival’s major draw. GTLF is daring in its pursuit to challenge mindsets. Curated this year to highlight topics and issues relevant to Malaysians, GTLF is one of few state-approved events which provides a safe space for intellectual discourse.
“A lot of these touchy issues brought up within the festival cannot be spoken about publicly elsewhere,” Bernice observes. “Our chief minister believes in freedom of speech, openness and engagement. Writers meeting other writers and audiences — that’s what Penang allows us to do.”
“We’re working very hard in provoking these writers to talk about topics which are potentially uncomfortable. Colonialism, memories of genocide, bloodshed, the land… I want writers to feel like they’re engaging in something that is provocative and confronting.”
Those who claim a literary festival is too ‘posh’ or ‘high-brow’ for the Malaysian mainstream should note the festival program.
This year’s theme — Bernice enunciates ‘hiraeth‘ twice for our benefit — addresses a longing for home. Featuring talks and discussions with titles such as “On Cultural Appropriation – Who Gets to Write About What”, “The Myth of the Lazy Native – Myth and Reality in Colonial Capitalism” and “The Malay Dilemma –Part 2″, GTLF hopes to pick apart tricky topics with esteemed panels comprising the likes of Zainah Anwar, Muhammad Haji Salleh, Faisal Tehrani, Ann Lee and their international counterparts.
“I think humanity is in such a terrible place at the moment; we are all longing for a homeland,” explains Bernice. “Given the rate of human movement, this is an unprecedented time in forced human migration. The longing to belong somewhere, the longing for a place to call home — imagined or otherwise – is paramount, and we wanted the right people to talk about this at the festival.”
As for those curious about GTLF’s choice of a Welsh word for its theme, remember that Penang was once known as Prince of Wales Island!
George Town’s unique aesthetic meanwhile makes it easier to score the festival’s illustrious guests.
“The way this city is laid out creates a really warm and intimate feeling. When our guest writers leave George Town they want to come back but of course we can’t bring them over again so soon.”
Penny for your thoughts
All the while Bernice leads the festival, she also devotes time to her writing, community initiatives, and two daughters. She published Onkalo — a poetry collection titled after a nuclear waste repository currently constructed in Finland — to critical acclaim in 2013 and launched the KL Writers Workshop in 2015 to nurture Malaysian writers.
Bernice teaches creative writing at the University of Nottingham, but she has also been working on her debut novel for the past five years. She hopes to continue refining the novel — now in its fifth draft — for publication in 2017.
“I can run a festival but I’m also a writer — all I want to do is sit down and write,” she confesses with a laugh. “I guess I’m putting out a call for someone who’d like to learn how to be a festival director! I want to continue doing this but I can’t be the only one. Ideally, I’d like to have two or three programmers helping me with content.”
But sustainability is a growing concern. Though funded by the Penang government and supported by local businesses, embassies and cultural institutions, GTLF is executed on a shockingly small budget — it costs a fraction of most state-funded arts and culture festivals in Malaysia.
“Running the festival is extremely fulfilling, but I also need to figure how this is going to be sustainable in the long term,” Bernice notes with a hint of worry. “I do get paid but it’s not very sustainable: that’s why I have three other jobs.”
The painstaking process of securing guest writers is matched only by the festival’s constant hunt for ways to continue operating. Bernice managed to secure some additional funding this year, but everyone has their fingers crossed for Support GTLF.
Introduced this year, Support GTLF welcomes the public to contribute anywhere from RM100 to RM200,000 which will earn them recognition as friends or sponsors of the festival.
“A lot of festivals receive funding via patronage and we also found an anonymous donor who gave RM10,000 this year. But we need to promote this more as we have been relying on state funds all these years.”
According to Bernice, 90% of GTLF’s funding currently comes from the state government of Penang.
As the festival’s programming is free of charge to the public — with the exception of writing workshops of which proceeds go to the writers — she hopes that the people realise it is ultimately up to them to maintain its accessibility.
Most importantly, Bernice wants them to continue attending. Malaysians must wake up to the necessity of literature soon because it is in dire need of intellects and credible voices. The gap in local literature which emerged after the generation that gave us A. Samad Said, K.S. Maniam and Latiff Mohidin must be mended through awareness for the editorial process and the relevance of researched, vetted works.
However, Bernice has noticed that young writers tend towards genre writing instead. Noir and short fiction have become order of the day.
“One of the festival’s goals is to educate people about literature that will last,” elaborates Bernice. “I’ve been criticised a lot of the time for not featuring enough Malaysian writers when I’ve had literary superstars and household names from other parts of the world.”
“But to have Malaysian writers next to literary giants from a different country would mean our writers have to be on par.”
The small pool of local thinkers who meet the festival’s requirements meanwhile aren’t necessarily reciprocal; there have been noted Malaysian writers who declined to participate in GTLF.
It’s director however has her hopes pegged on the new generation of writers. Bernice is prepared to nurture them if necessary — she expresses support for the work of young poet Melizarani T. Selva — but only if they are prepared to put in the effort.
“I only have room for the best because we are dealing with the best of the best,” Bernice concludes. “Hopefully, platforms like this show young people that it takes work, hard work, but one day you too can be up there.”
George Town Literary Festival runs from 25 – 27 November 2016. For more information on the festival programme or to pledge to the festival’s Support GTLF program, check out the official website and make sure to visit the Facebook page!