Colombo, Galle, Media and Communications


9 February 2008

2008 saw the second festival at Galle, “Let’s Play with Words.” Those present the previous year remarked that it was more varied and incorporated more Sri Lankan authors, both local and expatriate. Implicit in the title, of course, is the understanding that the focus is on creative literature in English, not French, Sinhala, Tamil or pidgin. Implicit in the title, of course, is the understanding that the focus is on creative literature in English, not French, Sinhala, Tamil or pidgin. Equally implicit, is the bracketing out of social science productions in English or other languages (that “heavy stuff,” you know).

Two blokes remarked that the whole affair was “colonial.” Yes, there was a distinct whiff of the colonial with the lucid British accents of Simon Winchester, Alexander McCall Smith, William Dalrymple and Simon Mitchell punctuating so many sessions. This was further underlined by the shining bald pates sported (unavoidably) by some of those named above; but, above all, by the trilby hat adorning the large figure of McCall-Smith as he loomed above most other people.

But to underline this motif too strongly is to focus on the veneer or on just one dimension of a multi-faceted affair. Paradoxically, the two blokes who raised this thought were both foreigners. One was John Mateer, a poet and a South African domiciled in Australia, a person whose journeys to Sumatra and Japan and explorations among subaltern poetry in several languages other than his own have been directed by a desire to transcend his own subjectivity in radical and productive ways. The other was none other than Brian Keegan, a journalist who was a hostage of radical Muslims for five years in Lebanon. Having survived this ordeal Keegan went on to become a travel writer. But he brought to the GLF also his life experience in Belfast and a background in northern Irish politics that remains pertinent to the Sri Lankan scene. Both Mateer and Keegan, clearly, are not from the “colonial drawer.”

These are indicators that the WHO of personnel counts, not whether they are Brits, Eskimos or indigenous. Michael Meyler, tall and gangly, may look a “Westerner,” but he has kind-of “gone native,” speaks Sinhalese and has just finished a book on Sri Lankan English. So he shared the stage with another naturalized Brit, Richard Boyle, whose work on Robert Knox and contributions to the Oxford Dictionary complemented Meyler under knowledgeable guidance from Winchester.

Again, a journalist such as Julian West, who has covered the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, is hardly “colonial” in experience, disposition or, for that matter, in her appearance. Likewise, the several Indian and Pakistani literati, Vikram Seth, Kamila Shamsie and Vikrom Mathur for instance, can hardly be viewed as colonial. And then we had our very own expatriates, Nury Vittachi, Shyam Selvadurai, Karen Roberts, Channa Wickremesekera, Randy Boyagoda, et cetera.

The ultimate test, however, is content. Thus, both personnel and content combined to insert a political edge to several topics. There surely are few migrant Indians and Sri Lankans in the West who are unaware of the ethnic dimensions of life and politics. Wickremesekera is not only a novelist; he is historian who is deeply engaged in contemporary reconciliatory politics relating to Sri Lanka among the migrants in Melbourne. A panel on Bloggers was as novel as pertinent and could not but be political with Deepika Shetty (an Indian based in Singapore) and Sanjana Hattotuwa on board; while young Iresha Dilhani from near Anuradhapura provided a link to the grass roots Sinhala-speaking world.

Again, Living with Conflict, The Edge of Prejudice and Can Language Provide A Bridge to Peace? were all explicitly political topics. The latter was consciously scheduled for the final morning and featured five local heavyweights: Neloufer De Mel, Sanjana Hattotuwa, P. Saravanamuttu, Jean Arasanayagam and Rajiva Wijesinghe, all moderated capably by Rama Mani. This session was followed by the final one devoted to the topic The Nature of the American Empire featuring that caustic critic of USA, Gore Vidal, in conversation with Simon Winchester. This session ‘played’ to a packed house. Winchester’s voice may have been quintessential “British colonial,” but his stance was trenchant anti-colonial. In penetrating clarity his opening lines reminded Vidal and all of us that Britain had secretively, indeed, hideously, removed some 2000 odd Maldivian islanders so that the atolls we identify today as Diego Garcia could be turned into a military outpost of the hegemonic American order of contemporary times. It was a pity that this stark prompt was not sustained by the sound system, Vidal’s diction and his penchant for one-line sound bites in what was a performative TV-cum-rap gamesmanship. I slipped out after ten minutes of that nonsense. Lesson here: organisers frame the topics, but they cannot dispose content, even from those famous.

Let me stress, too, that the GLF provided a rich diversity of topics. There was a wide range of literary topics, both specific (e. g. Funny Boy with Selvadurai) and thematic (Fact of Fiction? involving creative writers and journalists). Among the themes addressed were detective writing, travel tales, poetry issues, Lanka’s female pioneers in creative writing, climate change and the publishing world (with real publishers on stage). Likewise, there was attention to the history and architecture of the Galle Fort and a tour of the south directed towards comprehending the architectural heritage carved out by two of Lanka’s greatest, namely, Geoffrey Bawa and Valentine Gunesekara. There even was an excursion into the esoteric field of cricket, where, alas, the panelists and moderator, one Michael Roberts, did not, according to one perceptive assessor within the audience, devote enough weight to the colonial and anti-colonial roots of the game. There were also ‘extra-curricular’ events galore in the evenings, besides numerous book launches squeezed in at various times.

Importantly, there were also creative writing workshops moderated by Selvadurai and Nazreen Sansoni on the Thursday; while the week-end saw a range of exciting Childrens’ Programmes (each open to 100 children on a first come, first in basis). To name a few as illustrations of potential value from the latter programme: drawing led by Barbara Sansoni, landscape and life led by Susan Elderkin, entertainment via “Beastly Tales’ led by Vikram Seth and a consideration of the idea that “Reading is Fun” led by Karen Roberts. I happened to bang into Karen R immediately after her session. She had divided the group into those who said they liked to read and those who expressed distaste for that form of recreation. She had then got them to explain their reasons and to argue their positions in debate, thereby enforcing self-reflexivity. This must surely have been interactive learning at its best. It will only be after a decade or so whether we discover whether these workshops have inspired a few children to develop their creative skills to the point where they become our new generation of creative artists/writers.

The Opening Ceremony also featured a young lad from Mahinda who had won the competition for the Best Essay. He read the essay out for our benefit. An intense lad, he was an evangelist of sorts; he even desired a ban on smoking and alcohol. I doubt whether he will convert the GLF or its hoteliers on the latter score. But that said, these various outreach programmes were probably the most important aspects of the whole GFH. It is remarkable that they have drawn little comment or accolades.

Invariably, in any one year a literary festival cannot be comprehensive: the whole gamut of possibilities cannot be covered. However, after the event I suggested to the organisers that they should devote space to the cross-fertilisation between the English language and the local languages Sinhala and Tamil; and that this theme should specifically attend to the careers and impact of Martin Wickremasinghe, E. F. C. Ludowyk and E. R. Sarachchandra, all hailing from the Galle District and thus providing a nuance on locality with the same ‘twist’ as the attention devoted to the Fort of Galle. Note that the collaboration between Ludowyk and Sarachchandra was principally in drama and occurred at Peradeniya University in particular — where a teacher from St. Aloysius in Galle, Benedict Sirimanne, performed the lead role in the original Manamei with considerable panache. In such personnel as Sarath Amunugama, Tissa Abeysekera, Neloufer de Mel, Asoka de Zoysa, Jayadeva Uyangoda and Nuhman, among a host of others the island has the resources to pursue such issues in depth.

The organisers were highly receptive to this thought so the authors of a critical newspaper review that pointed to English translations of Sinhala texts by Rangini Obeyesekere and Lily de Silva as part of a critique need not worry about the future. While their point was well-taken, as a review it seemed one-sided. It generated just a whiff of nativism with a touch of Xenophobia. In the present context of political chauvinism such tendencies have dangerous ramifications beyond the control of their authors.

Again, it should be obvious that no literary festival can be comprehensive in its coverage. Each annual cluster of topics must be interpreted as a cumulative process, building on previous work and leading to shifting dimensions. Indeed, having remarked on the great variety displayed by GLF 2008 –“Let’s Play with Words” I note that such diversity has its downside. For one, some panels had too many personnel: 4-5 people onstage in a one-hour sessions tended to submerge one or two; or leave little time for questions from the floor. For another, one could mount an argument for prioritizing one or two topics (as distinct from star-personnel) and having several sessions on the same theme with the same persons on stage, but subject to the remarks of a discussant during session two where they would be put through the grill – gently of course – so that the audience has a sharp debate as a platform for their further interventions. Thus, an evening session on Day 2 and a morning gathering on day three devoted to Topic X will permit highly considered, and layered, discussions of a core issue. In brief, a few in-depth “studies” could be inserted within the spread pattern adopted in 2008. Some topics/panels could even be deliberately interlocked by judicious deployment of personnel. Inevitably, this format would reduce the number of topics engaged: it is a tale of swings and roundabouts.

It is in the spirit of constructive building and adaptation that these thoughts are voiced, not as carping criticism. While there have been several accolades in the local newspapers, the “usual suspects,” the slash and burn critics who have firesticks embedded in their mouth, indulged in their caustic outpourings. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

No festival can take place without money, sponsors and organisers. Some organisers of the GLF, from Dobbs, to Southwell to Barefoot, may derive spin-offs to their trade from such an event; but it is from a passion for literature and a genuine love for the south and Lanka that they have invested enormous amounts of time on this project. So there is enlightened self-interest and passion inspiring their productive work. Likewise, such “platinum sponsors” as the SL Tourism and Sri Lankan Airlines would have seen commercial advantage through the exposure they received in return for cash or discount support. But perhaps the greatest beneficiaries will be book publishing houses, local as well as foreign. Yet, they remained, as ever, notoriously scrooge-like in their monetary support, or lack thereof. This fact indicates that enlightened self-interest is not a generalised attribute. So, in my own little play with words, I conclude with a bouquet of jasmine for all those who MADE the event.

This is a companion piece to my previous review, one less personal, more focused on essentials and yet partisan.