“When I first read the PEN International Women’s Manifesto, I wondered if it was written by a cis-het white woman, or worse, by a man,” explains Melizarani T. Selva who appears at the George Town Literary Festival (GTLF) next week as part of PEN Malaysia’s online dialogue series ‘Sembang Baru/New Conversations’.
“It is important for us to reclaim and recontextualise the manifesto’s principles for the Malaysian literary scene. What does it really mean to be a Malaysian woman working in the literary arts at this moment in time? What does she need, in principle, to thrive and grow in our homegrown industry?”
Melizarani’s curation of women in the literary arts for her upcoming session ‘The Malaysian Women’s Manifesto’ displays a keenness to platform people beyond the literary festival brood. She has been a fixture at GTLF, wearing the hats of speaker, moderator and performer since 2015. In 2018, she served as co-curator and led the inaugural Malaysia National Poetry Slam. Along the way, she has also toured the international literary festival circuit.
“We need to start asking the question: who is missing from our literary festivals? While writers of varying degrees and accolades are given the spotlight, the literary industry would crumble in a heartbeat if not for readers and people who enable reading. There are movers and shakers in our industry who worry about our nation’s literacy rates to the point they have made it their life’s work to make writing and reading accessible in Malaysia. We need to know these stories,” she reminds us.
Her session, due 28 November on Facebook Live, brings together 7-minute visual presentations from five women. Like the rest of ‘Sembang Baru/New Conversations’, it was put together by the newly-ratified PEN Malaysia with support from worldwide writers association PEN International. PEN Malaysia’s relationship with GTLF dates back to 2018, when the PEN International Women’s Manifesto formed a kick-off point for several festival events. Then, the festival was led by PEN Malaysia founding member Bernice Chauly. The baton has since passed to literary translator Pauline Fan, and radio & TV journalist Sharaad Kuttan.
PEN International was founded in 1921 to promote literature and intellectual co-operation among writers. A prominent presence in the advocacy and defence of free speech, the organisation has local chapters, known as PEN Centres, in over 100 nations globally. This year, Malaysia gets its very own PEN Centre.
Melizarani is particularly excited for Siti Rahayu Baharin of Buku Jalanan Chow Kit, and Carol Koh of Books on the Move Malaysia. Both women, scouted from beyond the literary festival network, will share their distinct efforts in promoting literacy. Siti Rahayu’s dedication to teaching children to read and write has sparked a global movement, while Carol Koh traverses Kuala Lumpur to manually and physically move books to create a vibrant environment for reading.
“All of the women who will be presenting have worked tremendously hard for the past two months! ,” Melizarani gushes. “Behind the scenes, on the front lines, in various genres, regardless of age, identity and internet bandwidth, they have taken great initiative to learn new skills at a rapid pace and patiently craft their stories for a virtual showcase. I am in awe of their efforts.”
“A panel discussion will not do their stories justice. These Malaysian women need to show you the challenges they have undergone as writers, women and Malaysian citizens. Reading a manifesto and its carefully worded principles will not do justice. We need to be shown exactly what inequality and censorship looks like.”
Melizarani’s session is not your everyday festival panel; comprising stories of five women conveyed through visual presentations, ‘The Malaysian Women’s Manifesto’ will witness each speaker utilising a set of 20 carefully selected images and photographs to bring their story to life.
Trans woman horror writer, Julya Oui, will be wrangling the seen and unseen fears and terrors of her lifetime through a series of photographs of her hometown in Taiping. Playwright, editor and researcher, Ann Lee, will revisit the infuriating, high-profile banning of The Vagina Monologues. Australian-based writer Sreedhevi Iyer will do a deep-dive into her process of writing a short story about an Indian character in Penang.
“I think audiences are really going to enjoy these visual presentations,” she notes. “I hope all the women and young girls who are watching, and folks who identify as women, will flood the Facebook Live comments section with lots of burning questions!”
‘Sembang Baru/New Conversations’ will broadcast live on the George Town Literary Festival’s Facebook account at 8:30pm-10:00pm from 26-28 November 2020. Other conversations in the series include ‘Kalau Sastera Bungkam, Bagaimana Saya Akan Bicara?’ and ‘The Politics, Poetics and Rituals of Translation’. All events at GTLF2020 are free of charge. Follow PEN Malaysia on Facebook and visit www.georgetownlitfest.com for more information.