Galle-d: Sri Lanka’s literary festival

The Galle Literary Festival sounds like yet another great pitstop on the writers’ version of Formula One–you go round and round endlessly, at very high speeds, before you crash and burn–known as the global litfest calendar. The list of participating authors has several Sri Lankan writers–including Romesh Gunesekera–and many of the usual suspects, from William Dalrymple to Suketu Mehta and Kiran Desai. So what’s wrong with this picture?

A lot, according to The Asia Sentinel: “Is it appropriate for a registered charity dedicated to Sri Lanka’s December 2004 tsunami relief to sponsor a foreign literary festival in the middle of what to all intents and purposes is an ethnic and civil war? Of course, says Geoffrey Dobbs, a colorful Anglo-Australian hotelier who founded both the upcoming Galle Literary Festival and the charity Adopt Sri Lanka. He says he sees no conflict whatsoever.”

The financial accusations are disturbing, but what’s really annoying is the pompous, sneering tone of the Asia Sentinel report.

“Dobbs’ festival aims at marrying the yuppie fervor for exotic foods with a neo-colonial langor and the presumed intellectual glamour of being in close quarters with famous wordsmiths.”

Then the reporter quotes from Nazreen Sansoni’s blog–Nazreen is a festival organiser and runs a bookshop at Colombo’s barefoot:

A posting on a festival-related blog asked “What are they discussing? The “one Sri Lanka” or some such bullshit? Tell that to the people of the Northeast especially the Vanni, Jaffna, and Vaharai, you all party while people die.” Writer

Not that he provides a link to, or quotes, the flame war that follows:

Of all things a festival of this sort should surely be free of the ethnic merry go round. It gets on my nerves when everyone gets on the bandwagon and insists they be represented come what may. Chill out! If you wish to attend the festival come by all means. If you have issues stay away and let the rest of us readers and book lovers in war torn, crazed, unsafe, racist, chauvinist Sri Lanka attend this literary festival that I for one am delighted that someone took the initiative and decided to organise. Ethnichybrid.

So why have a festival in the middle of a war-torn country when, as a writer, you could just… I don’t know, shun Sri Lanka in solidarity with its conflict-affected citizens or something?

Nazreen puts it best in one of her responses on the blog:

Please come up with a plan on how to solve this terrible, ego-driven, politically motivated (war) last I heard most people in all rural areas of the country just want the freedom to get on with their lives.
So you know what? whilst i can, I am getting on with mine. In the hope that if some good comes out it, (whether it’s bringing up a child, a lit fest or whatever) then we may have won half the battle.

Ah well. The Babu wishes he could be in Galle this January, but he is chuffed to see how the Sri Lanka litfest is every bit as normal as every other lit fest in the world. Someone’s bitching about flying writers down business class, someone’s cribbing about who’s been left off the authors’ list, someone kvetches that there are too many popular authors as opposed to writer-writers on the list (if it’s the opposite, someone always complains that the fest is way too literary for the masses), and the ones who can’t go suspect darkly that everyone else will enjoy the party without them. Unfortunately, the only other story I can find about the festival in the Lankan papers online is pretty much a regurgitated press release. The funds bit is murky, but then again, the Asia Sentinel only quotes anonymous donors, so it would be nice to know what’s really going on.

2 comments

  1. Babu– a lit festival in troubled Sri Lanka sounds like a good idea to me, but at a glance, the readings (“dinner entertainment” etc) seem to cost between US$10-30 a pop. Is that for real? It points to the anxiety that I have about these kinds of literary festivals, that it’s not so much about making meaning as providing a setting for high society cultural chic. That seems more important than who is or is not good enough to be featured. You could say that the money will go to the Tsunami victims, but that leads us into more uncertain territory. Anyway, glad to know you’ve got your eyelid back!

  2. Hey, Vivek, nice to see you here. I’m pretty equivocal on the subject of ticketed readings for litfests–on one hand, if a fest is going to grow and be independent, charging for the day’s readings makes sense, on the other, this can exclude genuine readers. What I like about the Galle fest is that they have a “volunteer scheme”: if you can’t afford the gate price, come and volunteer your services as a helper, and you can get in for free.That could work.What’s interesting about the Galle fest to me is that the list of participants is poised between the whole idea of books as entertainment, authors as celebs who happen to write, and books as literature, authors as serious writers.If you ask writers what they like most about literary festivals–aside, of course, from the langoustines and the “colonial langor”–it seems to be the opportunity to connect with other writers, and to meet their readers face to face. Everything else is irrelevant. Sometimes, even a fest that strives to some extent to “make meaning” (nice phrase), like Kitab, will end up with a situation where the most interesting discussions happen outside, once the panels have disbanded. The Galle lit fest could go in several directions–it could end up being a society event, or it could do much more. I think you have to give any new lit fest a couple of years to settle down before you can see what it really stands for.Cheers, and Merry Xmas.

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