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  • Izzuddin Ramli

The Making of a Literary Festival

Updated: Jan 12

The role of the current curatorial team is to make sure that GTLF remains relevant and speaks to the needs of our literary community.

Book festival
Photo by Dario Fernandez Ruz

In late 2019, I received a text message from Pauline Fan, the director of the George Town Literary Festival (GTLF). She had just concluded the 9th edition of Malaysia’s largest literary festival held in Penang. Pauline and I have known each other for several years mainly through our essays and translations. Her earliest work of translation that I read was her Malay translation of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s classic text Was ist Aufklarung. She most recently published Luka Kenangan, translations of selected poems by a Romanian-born German-language poet, Paul Celan. In her message, Pauline asked me to help her to curate the festival, with a focus on expanding the Malay language programme. Previously, I had been involved in GTLF as a moderator, but I knew that curation was a different matter altogether. I was hesitant at first to take up her invitation, but after some persuasion, I accepted. For the next three years, from 2020-2022, I was part of the curatorial team for GTLF.

I met Pauline again in KL recently and we had a discussion on this year’s curatorial direction for GTLF. Pauline is now busy curating the 13th edition of GTLF. This year, she is accompanied by festival curator, Adriana Nordin Manan, and two guest curators, M. Navin and Florence Kuek. The curatorial team is supported, as always, by the festival producers, PCEB. GTLF has been an important vessel for Pauline’s literary vision—connecting local and international writers, introducing new works, catalysing important conversations within the Malaysian literary scene, and on literature in translation. As I came in as a curator during the Covid-19 pandemic, many questions arose at the time about the relevance of literary festivals in the world. Now we sat down to reminisce about our three-year journey and experience of making GTLF both during the pandemic and post-pandemic.

The pandemic years brought a sense of hopelessness—literary festivals seemed doomed as cross-border travel was restricted. Across the world, literary festivals were faced with an existential crisis, throwing into sharp relief questions of relevance, survival, and ways of adapting. However, some literary festivals decided to turn to digital platforms, opening possibilities of reaching new audiences. Some even drew higher numbers of literary enthusiasts online than they had in physical form. The Hay Festival—known as one of the “big three” literary festivals alongside Edinburgh and Cheltenham—doubled their number of visitors online compared to their pre-pandemic edition in 2019. Soon after the reopening, literary festivals re-emerged from the impact, and began rethinking what it means to be a literary festival, reconfiguring ways of making a comeback in society.

Since Pauline became the director of the GTLF in 2019, she made a major change to the festival by initiating more conversations in the Malay language. It’s also a question that she’s been pondering for years: how to make GTLF more localised in terms of the languages and discourses. To her, the answer has always been language. She remarks: “Language serves not only as a medium for literature and ideas, it conveys the spirit and the conscience of individuals and society. Every language has its nuances and is shaped by experience and worldviews that cannot simply be mediated by English.” Hence, her task is to make GTLF more inclusive of local as well as indigenous languages, to allow Malaysian writers of all backgrounds to feel that GTLF belongs to them.

Literary festivals need to be reflective of society’s concerns in order to remain relevant. Pauline and I agree that if there was a lesson we had learned from making a festival in the years of pandemic, it would be the importance of human connection. For three years, GTLF had been exploring deeper and deeper into the self, while looking outward at the thousands of creative and destructive possibilities of what human beings can be. Panel discussions for the three editions that I co-curated explored the questions of cosmopolitanism, the human crises of alienation, the longing for intimate conversation, and the sense of preserving connections.

In “Terra Incognita”, this year’s festival theme, GTLF sets sail to uncharted territories, exploring the limitless expanse of human imagination. Owing to her full-time work as creative director of a cultural organisation, she often returns to mythology—the seen and the unseen world—for inspiration. “Mythology is one of oldest forms of literary imagination. It’s usually expressed in the form of oral literature. Before the existence of written text, we were telling ourselves stories about how we came into being, answering all those metaphysical questions, in our own language,” says Pauline. Indeed, the presence of mythological realms and creatures were felt in the last three festival themes: Through the Looking Glass; Mikro-Cosmos; and Taming the Wild.

For Pauline, developing the festival’s theme is the first step in curating a literary festival. It helps to steer the direction of the festival, guides the selection of writers, and sets the tone of conversations. Coming up with a theme entails serious thinking, digging into literary topics, observing current social issues, having continuous conversations, and manifesting all those ideas into a consolidated theme. “When conceptualising a theme, I try to think of something universal because it has to be broad enough so that enough people will relate to it, but at the same time it has to be particular enough that it speaks to specific questions or current issues,” says Pauline.

Organising a literary festival in a diverse literary landscape such as Malaysia is a complex task. When it was first held in 2011, GLTF was only a two-day literary festival with only five local writers, accommodating a very small crowd. In just a few years, GTLF established itself as an international literary festival to be reckoned with. However, one of the most daunting challenges has always been to maintain the literary quality of the festival while being flexible and accommodative to different mediums of critical creativity such as film, music, visual and performance art, as well as oral traditions and journalism.

One way of addressing this is to be creative with the festival format. Pauline believes that a literary festival should be interactive and intimate, allowing a connection between the writers and “readers” or audience. This year, GTLF will feature less of the usual panel discussion format, which tend to be quite formal and cerebral, and introduce new formats such as “creative huddles”, sharing sessions, storytelling and literary walking tours.

The festival is fortunate to be held in Penang, strategically located at the crossroads of Southeast Asia. Being a cosmopolitan city with vibrant communities, the ecosystem in Penang alone is perhaps enough to support an international literary festival. In fact, some international writers have made Penang a second home, and contribute to the local literary scene. In its early years, GTLF attracted mostly expatriates, retirees, and a small literary community. The guest writers were mostly Westerners at that time.

However, literature doesn’t move as fast as the migration of the people in the region. As a result, regional literature tends to be somewhat left out in the ascendancy of linguistically insular English “global” literature. Acutely aware of the imbalances of global publishing, one of Pauline’s aims this year is to present more regional writers and literature, while striking a balance between popular appeal and emerging voices.

“As a literary festival based in the cosmopolitan island of Penang, GTLF should be a natural gathering place for writers across the region. This year, we are curating more participation of regional writers and translators, particularly those who write in local languages, to celebrate the creative polyphony of Southeast Asia,” Pauline explains.

As we emerge from recent years of isolation, now is the time to reconnect through the human need to explore, to wander, and to discover. I sat down at my table, pondering the largest literary festival in Malaysia. My three years with GTLF gave me insights into the complex work of putting together a literary festival. I came in as a curator after a decade of its establishment, and was part of the team that saw GTLF through a period of global crisis. The role of the current curatorial team is to make sure that GTLF remains relevant and speaks to the needs of our literary community.

*This essay was first published in Penang Monthly, August 2023.


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