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Bookworms and big ideas collide at George Town Literary Festival

Award-winning Malaysian event gets a revamp under new leadership

The opening ceremony of the 2018 George Town Literary Festival. The main theme of this year's event is "forewords/afterwords." (Courtesy of George Town Literary Festival)

GEORGE TOWN, Malaysia -- New leadership and an expanded lineup of Asian writers mark the upcoming ninth edition of the George Town Literary Festival, one of Southeast Asia's best-known gatherings of writers and readers, which last year drew nearly 6,000 people to 64 events.

The free festival, to be held in the UNESCO-listed capital of Penang, a state in northwest Malaysia, from Nov. 21 to Nov. 24, has gone from strength to strength since it launched in 2011, becoming the first Southeast Asian literary festival to win the international Literary Festival Award at the prestigious London Book Fair in 2018.

The event will have a new approach this year, following the departure of founding director Bernice Chauly, who has stepped down but will participate as a speaker. This is the second change of direction for Penang's established arts and cultural events this year following the departure of leading Malaysian arts figure Joe Sidek after nearly a decade as director of the George Town Festival, an annual monthlong showcase for the performing arts. Both the arts and literary festivals, held within four months of each other, have helped to establish the Malaysian island city as one of Southeast Asia's most prominent cultural hubs.

At GTLF, the directorial crown has passed to writer and literary translator Pauline Fan -- a former co-curator of the festival who is also creative director of PUSAKA, a Kuala Lumpur-based cultural organization documenting traditional performing arts in Malaysia -- and Sharaad Kuttan, a radio personality and talk show host for the Malaysian TV channel Astro Awani.

"Changing curatorial leadership for festivals, biennials and the like is arguably a healthy practice that allows new perspectives and approaches to emerge," said Fan. To highlight that point the curatorial team has kicked off with some changes of format for this year's literary festival, including the launch of a series of lectures spanning world literature, history and -- for the second consecutive year -- one on literary translation. "There will also be more one-on-one conversations with guest authors to allow more in-depth engagement with their work," noted Fan.

Festival co-directors Pauline Fan, left, and Sharaad Kuttan. (Courtesy of Deric Ee)

Even so, "There is a lot of continuity, although those who have been attending GTLF from its inception will notice the obvious change in scale," said Kuttan. "The challenge is to keep GTLF intimate and inclusive, to be enjoyed and experienced as a single event, rather than as discrete sessions," he added.

Fan said that working with the Penang state government, which largely finances the festival through its convention and exhibition bureau, had been "a good experience," particularly in terms of curating topics and speakers. "They have not interfered with our curatorial vision, and have allowed us to shape the conversations as we feel is right. To me, this demonstrates a real commitment to the championing of freedom of expression," she said.

Unlike some Asian literary festivals that charge hefty admission fees, GTLF will also remain free -- with the exception of a few ticketed workshops -- although the event is now much bigger than in 2011.

Top: The festival bookstore in 2017. Bottom: An enthusiastic audience at the 2018 Malaysia National Poetry Slam. (Photos courtesy of George Town Literary Festival)

The main theme this year is "forewords/afterwords," focusing on broad notions of beginnings and transitions, with a strong emphasis on history, said Fan. Among the approximately 60 participating writers are international literati such as 2019 Man Booker International Prize winner Jokha Alharthi, 2019 European Bank for Reconstruction and Development Literature Prize winner Hamid Ismailov, essayist Eliot Weinberger, Indonesian writer Goenawan Mohamad, historian Rebecca E. Karl, and poets Xi Chuan from China and Hiromi Ito from Japan.

The festival also strives to highlight local talent, with panels on Mahua literature -- Chinese Malaysian writing -- as well as Bahasa Malaysia (Malaysian language). "It will be an opportunity for us in Malaysia to cross our linguistic silos and learn about the full spectrum of literary expressions and initiatives in the country," Kuttan said.

Among the dozens of writers participating this year are, from left, Hamid Ismailov, winner of the 2019 EBRD Literature Prize; Jokha Alharthi, winner of the 2019 Man Booker International Prize; and essayist Eliot Weinberger. (Courtesy of, from left, Hamid Ismailov, Jokha Alharthi, Nina Subri)

The four-day program focuses not only on themes deeply rooted in Malaysia's (and contemporary Asia's) social and literary scene, but also on the diversity of regional and international perspectives on Asian culture. For example, discussion topics include Peranakan (Chinese-Malay) food narratives, the history of Penang's St. Xavier's Institution, translation issues and literature of the Malay world, and Chinese history and literature.

A promotional poster for this year's event. (Courtesy of George Town Literary Festival)

Local writers taking part include former GTLF director Chauly, rising young-adult fiction writer Hanna Alkaf, Penang-based Malay novelist Fahmi Mustaffa, and Jason Erik Lundberg, an author and part of the editorial team at Singapore's Epigram Books. The strong participation of local and long-term expatriate writers such as Lundberg who have made their literary names in Malaysia and Singapore reinforces the main theme.

"I think it was natural for us to look to Asia and writers who have engaged with it, simply because their work resonates powerfully with our own society," said Kuttan. "Having said that, GTLF retains its cosmopolitanism and embraces literature from all corners of the earth."

In the past few years festivals such as George Town, the Jaipur Literature Festival in India and the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival in Indonesia have put Asian literature firmly on the map for global readers interested in themes such as diaspora, displacement and rapid development in an increasingly globalized "Asian century."

A discussion with political veteran Anwar Ibrahim packed the room at last year's festival. (Courtesy of George Town Literary Festival)

To Fan and Kuttan, the heightened focus on Asian themes and writers reflects growing momentum around Asian literature and themes. "I prefer not to generalize, as Asia itself is vast and various," said Fan, "but I think one can say that since the 20th century, much Asian literature has challenged official narratives of colonial power and the nation state, and I think contemporary Asian literature continues to speak to some of these themes, perhaps even rejecting notions of history altogether."

This debate, as the co-curators suggest, is still open. "This is precisely the conversation we are looking to have at GTLF this year," said Kuttan. "We are past the moment of triumphalism -- the Asian century as a slogan is ripe for interrogation."

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