The award-winning George Town Literary Festival returns for its 9th year with the jam-packed schedule of book launches, workshops and conversations with writers over one weekend that we have come to expect. This year’s festival theme, “forewords/afterwords”, is intended to cause celebration and reflection on pivotal moments in modern history, the First World War, the May Fourth Movement in China, the birth of Bauhaus in Germany, the Iranian Revolution, the Fall of the Berlin Wall, and the May 13th incident in Malaysia.
The focus of the Festival this year is on language and translation, with highlights on Malay-language and Mahua literature. This is quite specialised, but there is plenty on offer for regular book lovers and fans of literature too. With over 80 events, the vast majority of which are free of charge to the public, you will find yourself absolutely spoiled for choice.
For example, on Thursday 21st November from 3pm to 4pm you could attend the launch of You Beneath Her Skin, the debut novel by Indian author Damyanti Biswas. Her book is a complex crime story set in smog-choked New Delhi, underpinned by a romance between an Indian American psychiatrist, mother of an autistic teenage son, and an ambitious police commissioner. Meet her at Hikayat, 226 Beach St. Head straight from here to 88 Armenian Street where the launch of another debut novel will take place at 5pm. Delayed Rays of a Star by Amanda Lee Koe follows Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong and Leni Riefenstahl From a party in Berlin in 1928, through the tumultuous decades that follow. Then you could head over at 6pm to Black Kettle, 105 Beach Street, to Journey to Activist Island when speakers: Rexy Prakash Chacko, Prema Devaraj, YB Syerleena Rashid, Francis Loh will look at Penang’s reputation and future as a hub of social activism.
Day two of the Festival opens with a conversation with Saras Manikam, Saras is a former school teacher from Perak, turned freelance writer, copywriter, and creative writing teacher. She is best known for being the regional winner of the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for her story ‘My Mother Pattu’. You can listen to her from 9:30am – 10:30am, on Friday 22nd November on Level 1 of the UAB Building, China Street Ghaut. Then head over to Bishop Street for Penang Peranakan and Chinese Food Stories, a conversation with old school nyonya chef Beh Gaik Lean and Dato’ S. H. Ooi, Executive Chairman of Ghee Hiang, a brand famous for its sesame oil and traditional biscuits from Fujian, China. It all takes place from 11:00am – 12:30pm, on Friday 22nd November at Auntie Gaik Lean’s Old School Eatery on Bishop St. If you register soon you will be entitled to a free nyonya lunch so click here before you forget! https://tinyurl.com/GTLFcanteen
Back at the UAB building from 12.30pm to 2pm, Let Us Speak Freely Now is a panel discussion involving writers Bernice Chauly, Faisal Tehrani, Carlomar Arcangel Daoana & Preetipls, moderated by Tiwin Aji, on whether writers and others in the creative arts can change the story of South East Asia or whether their pens will prove powerless in the face of state power. At 2.30pm at Black Kettle at 105 Beach Street, witness a conversation with Uzbek novelist Hamid Ismailov. For 25 years a BBC World Service journalist, he was forced to flee Uzbekistan in 1992 due to what the state dubbed ‘unacceptable democratic tendencies’. His prize-winning novel The Devils’ Dance (2019), is the first major Uzbek work translated into English. You can finish the day at ChinaHouse, where Nading Rhapsody, Sarawak’s best-known avant-garde music ensemble, will be playing from 8:30pm – 9:30pm.
Day three, Saturday 23rd November, is a day of hard choices for any festival goer as there are so many concurrent events. It all begins with a conversation at 9.30am at the UAB building on Level 1 with Omani writer and academic, Jokha Alharthi, who won the 2019 Man Booker International Prize for her novel Celestial Bodies (2018). At the same time in the same place but on the Ground Floor, Is The Screen Our Enemy? is a discussion featuring Dhinesha Karthigesu, Lur Alghurabi, Karoline Kan & Jason Erik Lundberg, moderated by Tiwin Aji on finding a way to make written words relevant to the generations reading only on mobile devices and on platforms like Instagram and Tik Tok.
For lunch on Saturday, register for The Fortress of Nasi Kandar, for stories about the origins and best-known eateries of this Penang speciality, popularized by Indian Muslim traders from India, told by three foodies. It kicks off at 11am at The Prestige Hotel on Church Street Ghaut, and for the free lunch book soon with this link: https://tinyurl.com/GTLFcanteen. Or for a different kind of history, Rebecca E. Karl, Professor of History at New York University, will give a lecture entitled What is to be done? History and Literature in China’s Twentieth Century on the various ways in which history and literature have been intertwined in China’s twentieth century and are the keys to understanding China’s twentieth century situation. The lecture begins at 11am at the UAB building Level 1. Stay at the same place on the Ground Floor for a discussion at 12.30pm featuring Darrel McLeod, Long Litt Woon & Julie Janson and moderated by Chris Parry on What Makes Greta T. Angry about how to overcome the prevalent ecological pessimism. Or join the discussion upstairs on Level 1, also at 12.30pm, Women Writing the Body, on how women write about their own bodies and articulate their own experiences, ambivalences and obsessions on subjects like eroticism, motherhood, illness, and ageing. The discussion features Ameena Hussein, Regina Ibrahim, Hiromi Ito & Kim Yideum, and is moderated by Dina Zaman.
Ronggeng-Ronggeng: Malaysian Short Stories brings together six decades of Malaysian short stories from 1959 till 2018, twenty-eight short stories in all, from both established and emerging writers, and in a variety of styles. Editor Malachi Edwin Vethamani will launch the book, also at 12.30pm on Saturday 23rd, at Black Kettle. At 2pm, again at Black Kettle, Give Me Your Tired, Your Huddled Masses, is a discussion featuring Lilianne Fan, Afsan Chowdhury, Lukas Rietzschel & Mwaffaq Alhajjar, moderated by Suhaimi Sulaiman, about the cultural impact of the 20th and 21st century mass human exoduses.
Another book launch event, at Hikayat, 226 Beach Street, at 2.20pm, sees Bali-resident Alwin Blum present Island Secrets, His collection of stories about the secret lives of men and women who flock to Bali from around the world in search of new beginnings, not all of whom find the bliss and peace they hope for. At 4pm in the same location, Sandeep Ray launches his debut novel, A Flutter in the Colony, about a family arriving in Malaysia in 1956 to flee the horrors of famine and partition in Bengal, and becoming embroiled in the racially-charged environment of a nation approaching independence. End the day at Loft 29, 29 Church Street, with the launch of What I Saw In Malaya: Lectures 1934-1938 at 8pm. The book is a compilation of Radio Paris lectures by French ethnologist Jeanne Cuisinier on her experience of living in Malaya, principally in Kelantan, in the early 1930s, in which she candidly and affectionately talks about the people, customs, culture and of course food.
On Sunday 24th, another GTLitFest headline speaker, American writer Eliot Weinberger, will give a lecture entitled New Trade Routes of the Word from 11am-12pm on Level 1 of the UAB Building, comparing and contrasting traditional trade routes with the underground channels of literature. One of many workshops that are taking place during the four day Festival happens at 1pm at Hikayat. Who Wants to be a Content Writer? examines how to be creative and questioning when authors and journalists are being asked by publishing companies and the press to provide ‘content’. At 2pm on the Ground Floor, of the UAB Building, Through A Glass, Darkly will be a discussion on the national trauma of May 13, 1969 and how to engage with this history And move forward, involving speakers Hanna Alkaf, Ho Sok Fong, Jomo Kwame Sundaram. At 3pm, at Black Kettle, another discussion, Magazines – The Hope and Future of Print Media? will look at the perhaps surprising success of the periodical despite the immediacy of digital media, with speakers Goenawan Mohamad, Ooi Kee Beng and Dhvani Solani, moderated by Julia Tan. At 4.30pm, head back to Level 1 of the UAB Building where Make History Great Again will be a discussion on how historians can help unravel “fake histories” that arise when states consolidate power, with speakers: Rebecca Karl, Afsan Chowdhury, and Sumit Mandal, and moderator Sharaad Kuttan. And, if you still have the energy, at 6pm join in the discussion Wise Crowds, Terrifying Mobs on level 1of the UAB Building when facilitators Faisal Tehrani, Kannan Sundaram, Bernice Chauly and Subhas will draw on the collective wisdom of Festival guests and friends to grapple with censorious power of governments and interest groups.
Finally, head back to The Canteen at ChinaHouse at 8.30pm where KL’s well-known WVC Jazz Ensemble will perform for George Town Literary Festival’s attendees and participants, and where all involved can relax and make merry together!