Literature

Through a glass half-full

In a year itching with major event cancellations and postponements, there’s plenty courage in George Town Literary Festival‘s (GTLF) decision to carry on. Penang state’s last major event, George Town Festival, took place online in July to mixed results, falling victim to the limitations of the screen. But the optics seemed good enough—68,342 online viewers accumulated across 10 events on Facebook Live—so why stop hosting events online?

Ubud this year curated over 70 pre-recorded and live streamed sessions for KEMBALI2020, a hybrid of its lit fest and food fest in lieu of regular affairs. Closer to home, the Singapore Writers Festival went online with two Pulitzer-winning poets and Zadie Smith. Both Ubud and Singapore look like they’ve found a way to celebrate literature from their screens; the latter may even have come up with its best theme yet: ‘Intimacy‘.

But not all states are as hardy. Dhaka Lit Fest scrapped ideas for a 2020 edition, then replaced the ‘2021’s on their social media banners with a ‘2022’. Under the shroud of the pandemic, would you vouch for the existence of Bangladesh’s biggest international lit fest a year or two from today? Festival director Ahsan Akbar recently stated there will be no online edition of the Dhaka Lit Fest in his amusing take on the nature of literary festivals.

Some have asked us if DLF will host a digital festival. We won’t. The unique atmosphere created with the interactions of our audience with the speakers is lost on a computer screen. For the curious writer, the edginess of Dhaka is what lures them. A testament of that would be our past speakers; most of them had never been to Bangladesh, and most have expressed an eagerness to return.

Ahsan Akhbar, Director of Dhaka Lit Fest

Back home, GTLF will host its first fully-online edition predominantly on Facebook and Spotify from 26-29 November 2020. The festival theme this year looks at the role of literature and art in a time of crisis.

George Town Literary Festival’s theme for 2020, Through the Looking Glass, contemplates the role of literature and art in a time of crisis. Reflecting the Festival’s liminal shift online, we embrace the ‘new normal’ of viewing the world through our black mirrors.

George Town Literary Festival 2020

The GTLF2020 programme comprises mostly of online conversations, some in the shape of live panels, others in the form of Spotify podcasts. Due to an on-going collaboration with Nusantara Audiobooks, the festival has since 2019 maintained a section on Spotify.

Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa’at returns to GTLF for the first time since 2012.

The festival, which has attracted the likes of national laureates and at least one Man Booker International Prize winner over the years, has regional rockstars for 2020. Historian Wang Gungwu, novelist Fatimah Busu, and Filipino author F. Sionil José are some major draws this year. Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa’at is also back for the first time since 2012. Sa’at has curiously evaded the Malaysian public despite the popularity of his works here.

Literature geeks will enjoy the discussion between poet and translator Pierre Joris and festival co-director Pauline Fan on translating the works of Paul Celan in the podcast ‘Black Milk of Morning — Paul Celan Centenary’. Joris has received praise for his English translations of Celan, while Fan is currently translating Celan’s work into Malay.

Celan, born in 1920, Romania, to a Jewish family, wrote and translated poetry into German. He would go on to become one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. The revered but troubled writer tragically took his own life in the River Seine fifty years ago.

And then there’s ‘The Malaysian Women’s Manifesto‘, set to be a riveting series of visual presentations from women, conducted on Facebook Live. It’s one of 3 events from the newly-ratified Malaysian PEN Centre at the digital festival; author Bernice Chauly, integral to GTLF in its first 8 years, will also reveal why she’s been working on establishing PEN Malaysia in ‘Kalau Sastera Bungkam, Bagaimana Saya Akan Bicara?‘.

In terms of performances, the festival will showcase readings of plays and stories from the canon of Malaysian literature. Usman Awang‘s short story Suami & Isteri will be read by actress Sharifah Amani. Jo Kukathas and Anne James will reprise their roles in the late K. S. Maniam‘s play The Sandpit. Meanwhile, ‘Peta Seribu Diri Terbentang’ will see 15 young poets including Jack Malik, Kulleh Grasi and Ainunl Muaiyanah perform.

Through the festival, we are also introduced to the The Swadaya Collective, a coalition of local independent bookstores (Tintabudi, Pelita Dhihin, Lit Books, Bibliophile, Nur Innai Bookshop and Gerakbudaya). The collective is hosting many virtual events over the coming week, including the launch of Rahman’s Big Break, a new book from Kakiseni in which David Chin and Penang-born illustrator Leong Wai Khong tell a story set in Penang in the 1920s.

In October, GTLF was hopeful about hosting physical events in George Town. Thus far, nothing has been announced, but the festival is notorious for hosting secret events. In the past, these have included screenings of unreleased films (e.g. Dain Said‘s Interchange) as well as a workshop on titillation through text.


GTLF2020 will take place from 26-29 November 2020 on Spotify, Facebook Live, Zoom and various other platforms. All events at GTLF2020 are free unless noted otherwise. Keep up with each event by visiting the Programme section of the festival website.

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