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(W)rites of passage

By Uditha Jayasinghe
The Galle Literary Festival (GLF) has come of age; at least, that is what the organisers would have one believe. But the nuances of this coming of age process are best judged by the authors and issues discussed in the flocked-to forums of the five day Literary extravaganza

Romance and pitfalls of Travel writing
Kicking off the packed event schedule was Colin Thubron and Pico Iyer with an insightful and imaginative journey into the romance and pitfalls of Travel writing. Titled “Are we still
explorers?” they took the audience through writes pitfalls of not travelling while safely cuddled up in an armchair.

Both writers had eerily similar opinions of almost every facet of writing. One such was, insisting that, while many of us believe that physically transporting ourselves to an exotic location is the all important foundation of Travel writing, they advocated approaching even well thumbed destinations with new eyes. Engaging is everything. From penning down every word that crosses your mind, to culminate in a sheaf of papers that are more precious than memories, because they ink the indelible little details that one’s mind simply cannot hang on to, on those numbing long distance flights, to the simple discovery that, even a MacDonald’s is a perfect thumbprint of the society that encompasses it, made these Travel writers true explorers.

The most touching factor about the descriptions was that, these “explorers”, despite not being elephant gun toting, toupee bearing types, were nonetheless, essential in a world besieged by stereotypes and generalisations. Regardless of not putting a new country or, even corner on the map, they yet cover it with the red of feelings, the yellow turmeric of taste, the tanginess of the morning mist in Varnasi and the touch of the pavement vendor selling memory cards to tourists, on a level that few modes of technology can.

From the anecdote of Iyer’s acquaintance with an Urdu-speaking Pakistani guide in North Korea, of all places, who was affable than most would expect, to a meandering Travel writer, to the Travel diaries of Thubron’s Silk Route escapades. If one lacked for anything during the session, it certainly was not the wonder of new knowledge. For people who mostly take guided-tour trips, with little freedom to wander on even the beaten track, never mind the unbeaten one, this hour would have impressed the importance of emptying one’s prejudices and propensities to judge. It, instead, wholeheartedly embraces that which makes one broad minded and perhaps a better person.

If Travel writing is considered a stepchild in the hierarchy of literature, and unworthy of Festival representation, then, an hour with Iyer and Thubron would surely have dismissed such misgivings to the unforgiving depths of the Marianna trench, where both these writers have yet to visit. With the exception of southern Afghanistan and Atlanta, there are no other places that they would not trek. So, perhaps the trench might not remain unwritten about for long.

“I think that, Travel writing has become much, much more interesting, since I was a child. Then, it was mostly colonials who wrote about their colonies. However, now we see more and more writers from either India or Sri Lanka, scribbling about their former rulers, and that has made Travel writing more interesting than when ruler was talking to ruled. When people such as Amitav Gosh, who was born in India but lived and traveled abroad, writes extensively of a tragedy such as the tsunami, they do so with the insight of both the east and west. And that was something the 19th century Travel writers would never have managed,” said Iyer, adding a dash of encouragement to any budding Travel writers in the audience.

Minority “secrets” unveiled

This was followed by a scintillating discussion on the ideologies and literature of minorities, by M.J. Akbar and Ameena Hussain, titled “family secrets.” The secret component of the session was certainly bashed about with eloquent enthusiasm that provoked sporadic bursts of applause from an enthralled audience. Never had burning issues of Islam and Muslims been so frankly set forth with informative analysis and more than anything else, an abundance of open mindedness.

The discussion veered freely from the question of minorities and the oversimplification of the war on terror, to the challenges that face a secular India and of course, the role of Sri Lankan Muslims. Listeners, including this writer, was astounded by the frankness and ferocity of the opinions expressed. Information is available to those who seek it, but few could have assimilated and analysed Islamic thought with such profound clear-headedness, that the lines of ethnic Muslim could be separated from the jargon of Islam.

“We are not a minority. The only minority in India are the Dalits or the untouchables. The Moguls did not think that they were the minority when they were ruling India. Thank God that, in our constitution, we have banned all such terminology. So, we need to rethink the meaning. Then, we will understand what the term means. Indian Muslims are the only group in the world that has had the good fortune to live for 60 years within a sustained democracy. Not fraudulent democracy,” he began.

The start was an indication of things to come. Insisting that the root cause of defining identity was compounded by Muslims who seek an “identity outside of their culture”, Akbar went on to eruditely explain that, the Persians would never accept that the Arabs were of a higher culture and indeed gave generously to found other societies, especially in Indonesia.

Speaking of his book, Akbar noted that, it was a tome of his family that begins with his grandfather, who was, incidentally, a Hindu, who converted, to marry the daughter of his adopted mother, and culminated in the naming of his son, a Muslim, with a Hindu name. “My daughter showed me how little bragging rights I have for diversity, by marrying a Protestant German from America. So, that child, when it comes, hopefully, will be perfect for the United Nations,” he quipped.

Despite the lapse of time, the same tensions, the same violence and prejudices still haunt minorities. The book documents how three generations have faced the same challenges with different results. “The problems remain the same, the consequences change,” he summed up. The tone of the session was brushed with a more political tinge from this point onwards, but undoubtedly, this deviation was what made the encounter with Akbar all the more memorable.

The dazzling exuberance of the first day was surely an indication of things to come. With the agenda peppered with more spicy events and controversies, the GLF has certainly stepped with confidence into the murky depths of the “adult” literary world with true panache.

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GLF –For the middle aged and fat?

“People have to really suffer before they can risk doing what they love”

Chuck Palahniuk, (For those who don’t know Chuck he is the author of the second best book written in the 1990s, in my opinion)

By Rathindra Kuruwita
During the opening ceremony of the Galle Literary Festival (GLF), four young ‘handpicked’ authors, outstanding specimens of the ‘young Sri Lankan talent’ are speaking on nostalgia and suffering. I take a look at the audience/listeners, the assorted lot comprises of middle aged expats, foreigners and a set of Sri Lankans who are either writers or ‘wannabe’ writers, and all, either upper or upper middle class.

“And what the hell do they know about suffering?’ snarls my friend, “International school, foreign university, chauffer driven, self published (another synonym for rich) rich kids,” he adds. I don’t necessarily agree with my friend and I’m sure rich kids also have ‘issues’, but most of the time, these kids, raised in a secure and privileged background, without ever really interacting with the poor, the wicked and the evil, make terrible writers.

Several weeks ago, I asked the Festival founder, Geoffrey Dobbs, and prominent Sri Lankan author Ashok Ferry, what their main objective is. They told me that, they wanted to attract the next generation of Sri Lankan writers. I don’t know whether this is the set of individuals that Geoffrey Dobbs and Ashok Ferry mean by the next generation of Sri Lankan writers. And, if these are the said writers, I’m certain, the organisers of the country’s only international Literary Festival have achieved their objectives.

What’s eating Sri Lankan English literature?
But, dismissing the GLF as an elitist event, is clichéd, and a callous denial of the positive impact it has had on the people of Galle. I met teenagers who have achieved much, just by volunteering for the last two festivals. It has brought in much needed tourists. Damn it, I saw more tourists in the two days I spent there than the rest of the year combined, and it definitely has put Sri Lanka on the world literary map. But, my problem is that, it has not done enough to encourage young Sri Lankan writers from not-so-privileged backgrounds, because, I think, it is they who can take Sri Lankan writing, in English, to new heights with their experiences.

Making the event accessible

Many have pointed out that, nothing has been done to encourage university or school students from staying overnight and participating in the events, and the founders respond that, students get ‘special rates’ and that, they are willing to feed and accommodate volunteers, ‘the willing,’ but there are only limited spots available as volunteers, and many youth cannot afford to stay overnight to participate in the ‘subsidised’ events.

“It is a problem that needs to be addressed and we are really trying hard to work with the people who live in and around the Galle Fort to open their doors and accommodate visiting University students,” said Ashok Ferry. We are also talking with temples and churches and mosques, to make their halls temporary dormitories, which we were unable to do this time,” he added.

Another recurring issue is that, there is no room for Sinhala and Tamil writers. Although it is an ‘English’ language literary festival, it is essential that, they also get an opportunity to get international exposure. “We wanted to have a session where Sinhala and Tamil writers had an opportunity to recite their work, but for that to work out, we needed simultaneous translation. This is expensive technology and we were not able to find a sponsor. We will have that event next year,” Dobbs said.

It can only be hoped that the ‘No. 1 Literary Festival in the world’ will mature and improve with age and not descend into yet another social event, tailor made for the social elite, with the passage of time.

****