The George Town Literary Festival, founded only in 2011, has already become a cornerstone of Penang’s annual creative calendar. So well-organised that at this year’s London Book Awards it won  “The International Excellence Award for a Literary Festival’, this year the Festival has also created a jam-packed schedule of book launches, workshops and conversations with writers over one weekend. There are far too many to mention – you can check the full schedule here – but there are a few we think look particularly interesting:

Among the book launches, on Thursday 22nd at 3.30pm-4.30pm, at Bangunan UAB on Gat Lebuh China, Lithuanian Gabija Grusaite will launch her first English-language novel, Cold East. Gabby is well-known to many Penangites, having lived here for some time working as curator of Urban Xchange, Penang’s first international street art festival amongst other things. Her book tells the story of a 20-something media influencer, who abandons his instagrammable New York City life and heads to Southeast Asia, where he ends up looking into the murder of a mysterious Mongolian model that implicates a prime minister and his jewel-hoarding wife. Likely to be more fun to read than Billion Dollar Whale me-thinks.


Later that day, at 5pm, we’ll be heading over to ChinaHouse on Beach Street for the official opening of an art exhibition upstairs in Art Space I. Photographer Daniel Adam’s Why Is Your English So Good is a series of photographs of Malaysians studying or living in Britain or Ireland, depicted in ways to highlight the problems of casual racism and ignorance that the artist himself (who is half English, half Malaysian) experienced while studying in the UK.  Exhibition hours are 10am until 10pm daily, and the exhibition will run from November 14th until December 10th. Daniel will give a talk about his work at the opening.

On Friday 23rd at 4.30pm, back at Bangunan UAB, JK Asher (or Jasbir Kaher) launches her debut novel The Inverted Banyan Tree And The Way Thither, a historical novel about love, race and religion in colonial pre-independence Malaya and in Malaysia in the 1980s. It took her almost two decades to write it, as so much research went into the religions of Islam and Roman Catholicism and the histories of the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, the Eurasians and the Kristang community from Melaka. It is also tinged with nostalgia for a time of perceived relative simplicity and unity through multiculturalism. 

One of the many “Conversations” organised by GT LitFest this year takes place on Saturday 24th at 10am, at Bangunan UAB, and is entitled The Indian Partition: Finding the Light Beneath the Shadow. Four Indian writers, Arshia Sattar, David Davidar, Gopika Jadeja, Salil Tripathi will reflect on the impact on their own and others’ works of the present-day legacy of the liberation of India from British rule and the creation of the Muslim state of Pakistan, touching on issues of caste, communalism, politics, religion, fate,  nationalism and violence and the ongoing nuclear standoff between India and Pakistan.  

Later that morning, at 11.15am Singaporean poet Cyril Wong, Canadian writer Ivan Wong (best known for their memoirs about growing up transgender, Tomboy Survival Guide), Jhoanna Lynn B. Cruz, who wrote the first sole-author anthology of lesbian-themed stories in the Philippines, and psychological thriller writer Louise Welsh come together to discuss Resisting White Queerness, the struggle to be seen in Asia for those who don’t fit in between the region’s phobic governments and patronising white “rescuers”. This also takes place at Bangunan UAB on China Street Ghaut.

Ordinary Women, Extraordinary Lives, will be a conversation about what makes ordinary women extraordinary, how they overcome the odds, their supposed destiny, and find the freedom to act. It will take place at Gayo Coffee, 161 Beach Street, at 4.30pm on Saturday 24th, between performer and choreographer Aida Redza, retired activist and academic Chan Lean Heng, and social scientist Por Heong Hong. 

Unfortunately, at the same time there is another highlight of the book launch programme, Marriage and Mutton Curry. Held at 4.30pm at the @cat venue on level 3 of Wisma Yeap Chor Ee, China Street Ghaut, M. Shanmughalingam will talk about his debut collection of fifteen short satirical yet empathetic stories, which explore with gentle wit and humour the concerns and intrigues of the Jaffna Tamil community in Malaysia. 

Saturday evening, at 7.15pm back at Gayo Coffee on Beach Street, you can catch a film screening: Paul Laurence Dunbar: Beyond the Mask, a feature-length documentary on the life and legacy of the first African-American writer to gain international fame. Poet Dunbar’s story mirrors the African American experience around the turn of the century. Described as “the most promising young coloured man in America” he wrote widely published essays critical of Jim Crow laws, lynching and what was commonly called “The Negro Problem.”  

Crazy @#$%! Asians—Representation and the Hollywood Movie, on Sunday 25th at 10am at Bangunan UAB, will be a conversation between award-winning Malaysian novelist Beth Yahp,  Malaysian-born US-based prize and award winning poet and novelist Shirley Geok-lin Lim, and international Malaysian writers Shih-li Kow and Sreedhevi Iyer on how Asian female writers’ self-image, and that of Asians in general, has developed over the past 30 years, to a time when a satirical book was developed into a Hollywood blockbuster.

Later that day in the same venue, at 12.30pm, Readings by Refugee and Migrant Worker Poets in Malaysia will take place. The session seems likely to be moving and educational, but only understandable by those with a grasp of the language of the speaker, as no translations will be offered (think Bahasa Indonesia, Burmese, Urdu, Bengali, Rohingya). 

Of course, books will be on sale throughout the Festival at the venues where Festival events are held. Take the time to browse, and do please look out for the recently launched Malaysia’s Canvas, the story of Penang’s art scene, by Penang Free Sheet’s own James Springer.

This is just a selection of the sixty or so events planned for the weekend. The events listed are all free to attend, as are most of the rest of them, with the exception of the workshops, which cost RM 65 to attend (tickets available at Workshops range in topic from translation of novels from one language to another, to the ethics of writing about food and travel. The full programme of events, speaker biographies and background to the festival can be found at and the events can be seen at a glance on the Festival’s facebook page