LAUNCHING the sixth annual George Town Literary Festival (GTLF) last night at Black Kettle, Chief Minister of Penang Lim Guan Eng passionately expressed his disapproval of the “thugs and hooligans” who derailed an exhibition featuring local cartoonist Zunar in the afternoon. His speech however quickly turned into a rousing call for action to continue pursuing a freer, more united Malaysia.
“Here in Penang,” he exclaimed, “we believe in freedom of expression. But we also believe in freedom after expression.”
The festival, which hosts a selection of panel discussions, talks, book launches, screenings and exhibitions on various thought-provoking topics ranging from cultural appropriation to writing about genocide, saw resistance from a group of United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) Youth members.
The mishap did little to dampen the spirit of guests and participants who ushered in this year’s programme with speeches from Bernice Chauly, Zainah Anwar, Zairil Khir Johari and Guan Eng, followed by a performance from Aida Redza and Lee Su-Feh.
In its sixth year, the festival boasts over sixty distinguished creative industry participants from Australia, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands, Thailand, Belgium, Indonesia, France, India, Sweden, Poland, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Ireland, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
Zainah Anwar, co-founder of women’s rights groups Sisters In Islam and Musawah, attempted to make sense of this year’s festival theme, hiraeth, in her well-received keynote address. Observing problems faced by Malaysia and many parts of the world, she detects a yearning for Malaysia’s harmonious past but has hope for the future.
“If this is home, with all its warts, gaping holes, loss of values, where right is wrong and wrong is right, where the good are detained and charged, and the bad remain in power, what can we do?” she asked audiences.
“As a Malaysian who has no intention of leaving her country, I want to believe a different kind of hiraeth is possible. A hiraeth, a longing, a yearning that will compel us to create something better, to make this country good again, to make this world more humane. And I believe this is possible.”
Human rights activist Maria Chin Abdullah featured prominently in the night’s speeches; both Guan Eng and Zainah condemned the incarceration of the 60-year old mother of three and called for her immediate release.
Maria was placed in solitary confinement on 18 November 2016 under the Security Offences Act (SOSMA) over her involvement with peaceful demonstration Bersih. Malaysian citizens and members of international media have been shocked by the move — Bebas Maria, a candlelight vigil demanding her immediate release, reportedly drew approximately three thousand men and women at Petaling Jaya Library last night.
Topping off the launch was a lecture from Zambian-born British philosopher A. C. Grayling, a prolific intellect who often contributes to world political and historical discussion through his work.
“You might be in a country where you are so at odds with the politics of the place, or with the culture of the place which has emerged from a time of stress — perhaps it’s become more fundamentalist — and you can feel as if you’re in exile from the people who live next door to you or people who live down the street. That kind of internal exile is very difficult to bear,” he observes.
“But then there are so many other exiles: people who are refugees; people who are locked up in prison and are in exile from their homeland in that way. All these separations, all these losses, and all the kinds of grief that people might feel because they long for something lost or something sought is a very deep part of the human condition.”
The founder and Master at London’s New College of the Humanities also addressed audience questions during the hour-long session, providing insight into the nature of humanity and desire and making visible patterns and cycles of human behaviour which have emerged across centuries of civilisation.
GTLF’s first day concluded with a secret screening of the highly-anticipated upcoming film Interchange which premiered locally the night before in Kuala Lumpur.
Prior to its local premiere, Interchange screened in several notable international festivals — its world premiere was held at the famed Piazza Grande of Switzerland as part of the 69th Locarno International Film Festival. Directed by Dain Iskandar Said, the film stars Iedil Putra, Prisia Nasution, Shaheizy Sam and Nicholas Saputra and will be released in cinemas nationwide on 1 December 2016.
George Town Literary Festival runs until this Sunday in George Town, Penang. Admission to all events (excluding workshops) are free and open to the public.