Literary Festival Reflections

Any event needs time for a period of reflection, to mentally absorb what has happened and what lessons can be learnt, perhaps to revisit previous thoughts and make amends for any hasty decisions or opinions.

It’s a been a whole week since the Irrawaddy Literary Festival and after reading the slew of article from the world’s media, from CNN to the Guardian, it appears the general consensus is that the festival was a grand success finally putting to bed any doubts as to the authenticity of recent liberalising reforms and the Embassy can hold their heads high in organising a momentous occasion in the dark history of post-war Burma.

So now it’s time for my reflections.

Let’s start with the positives.

  • As has been mentioned in many of the press reports, such an event as this would have been unimaginable only two years ago.  The very fact that all the foreign authors were approved visas and all the Burmese writers attended is a huge leap forward and Jane and Giles should be recommended for having the determination to do that.
  • Anybody who is familiar with Burmese literature might be aware that the writers don’t exactly fall under one camp.  This is true of any literary community but often it is the works that divide them, in Burma, the rifts are far more politicised, not by what they have written but by past decisions and actions in response to government oppression.  As such, these divides take on a much more deep-rooted enmity (if that is the right word?) and have resulted in the disparate groups from even talking to each other.  The greatest positive outcome of this festival is that, possibly for the first time, these groups have come together.

And now for the negatives.

  • The lack of promotion for the event.  It appears to have been an after thought, which is a bit odd.
  • The clear favouritism of certain book stores being granted prime traffic spots, sole distribution rights to sell authors books and the right to advertise inside the hotel while other stores are relegated to tiny stalls out back.  All participating book shops should have been treated on equal terms/
  • Culture is not the less-important little brother of politics.  Both require diplomacy.  And a lot more diplomacy should have been used when dealing with the local writers and the schedule.  This is what happens when a political institution tries its hand at cultural soft-power without any experience or knowledge in the sector.
  • General logistical organisation of the event was dire.  incorrect schedules, missing sessions, wrong direction signs, no apparent thought in how to deal with queues, the tickets, not enough translators,etc.
  • The appalling need to treat foreign writers as more important than local – foreign writers were paid, local writers weren’t even provided money for their lunch.
  • As an Englishman i have to ask whether this festival is a legitimate use of the entire British diplomatic team in Burma.  It all very well saying that the festival is the brainchild of Jane Heyn but lets not ignore the fact  the ambassador, the deputy ambassador, political secretary and first secretary have been working non-stop to as Jane’s team to get the festival up and running, especially when Britain already has a cultural organisation, the British Council, in country, whose job (through experience and knowledge) is to pretty much run festivals such as this.
  • The term ‘ a Burmese festival for Burmese people’ when only two out of the ten people on the organisation committee were actually Burmese, where the festival website featured over 20 foreign authors but could only find the time to up-load biographies of three Burmese writers.
  • The curious lack (in so far as i am aware) of any reference to the problems that still beset Burma.   A festival that champions the right of free speech and it appeared that participants were almost afraid to mention Kachin state or the Rohingya.  It could be that Jane didn’t want the event to become politicised, which is fair enough, but then why bring in the Orwell Society to present what is probably the most politicised literature award in world.
  • The missed opportunities.  By declining outside help from those involved in the arts community, convinced that they could go it alone, the festival suffered.  By not enjoining local networks through a bizarre demand for money, such at the GItmeik music centre, it became a glorified instrument for the promotion of western authors, most of whom only had the most tenable link to Burma.  And most importantly of all, by not having the foresight to look beyond the closing ceremony, a golden chance to enshrine the festival with its own legacy of contributing to Burmese literature was sadly lost.

So what happens now.  With Jane and Andy leaving in the middle of this year and with obviously no plan in place to hold the festival again, who, if anyone will take up the challenge.  It seems that the Director of the Hong Kong international literature festival has surface as a contender but is wary of the cost of accommodation for putting up the authors.  Personally, i think it would be a terrible progression if the lead on the festival was taken up by someone who resided outside of Burma, is not aware of the community that the festival would supposedly be showcasing and who has a clear need to maximise profits on another stop on the global literary festival circuit.  If it was to happen, the Irrawaddy Literary festival would become another Ubud festival.  An event organised by foreigners, for foreigners.  By their own statistical admission, the Ubud festival last year, achieved only a 26% attendance record by Indonesians.  A better alternative would be to gift the festival to the Burmese writers themselves.  For certain, cultural organisations such as the British Council and Asia House can offer advice, but ultimately, for it become a ‘Burmese festival for Burmese people’ then it is the literary community in Burma that need to take the reigns.

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About Lucas Stewart

Former British Council Literature Advisor | Author of The People Elsewhere: Unbound Journey's with the Storytellers of Myanmar