Asia House Festival of Asian Literature

Asia House’s two week Festival of Asian Literature has ended this week. Billing itself as the ‘first and only festival dedicated to writing about Asia and Asians’, the theme of this years festival was freedom; freedom of expression, freedom to educate and travel, freedom of justice, freedom to read the truth.  Naturally, as the globe’s favourite ‘good news’ country, Burma was heavily represented with a special Burma Day where the audience could listen, first hand, to those Burmese writers who have personally suffered under the very themes of this years festival.

Well, not quite.

There was a special Burma Day.  And 5 writers were invited to ruminate and illuminate on the socio-political reforms in Burma and the effect this will have on writers and writing, and yet something seemed missing.

Oh yeah, that’s right.  Burmese authors.

Apparently, when planning this years festival and deciding to showcase Burma, the organisers had a choice.  Who best to inform on the experience of writing under a repressive regime and how have things become easier now that said regime is softening?

A:  A Burmese writer, living in Burma, writing Burmese fiction in the Burmese language, having their work censored and banned by the government, being imprisoned for their words and pretty much personifying everything the festival fights for.

B:  A Western author deemed an expert because they spent two weeks in Burma half a decade ago.

No contest.

Which is why we see the likes of Caroline Courtauld, Rory Maclean and Nic Dunlop on the programme schedule and no Pe Myint, Ma Thida or Nu Nu Yi.

Of course there is a token Burmese writer, Wendy Law Yone, there to represent her entire nation but why is she on her own?

Sumi Ghose, the Director of Arts for Asia House, came to visit Burma last October, supposedly to scout out the state of literature in Burma and he was warmly received.  So what was the point of that visit?  It’s not like Myanmar writers are unwilling or unavailable to attend a major festival such as this.  As mentioned before on this blog, James Byrne has been doing great work with the poets and has just finished a tour of the USA with Zeyar Lynn and Khin Aung Aye.  Ma Thida is scheduled for an appearance in Malaysia.

Was it really that difficult to sponsor a visa and accommodation for a couple of Burmese authors who, you know, actually understand what it is like to write under the threat of censorship and imprisonment, seeing as, you know, that is what the festival was all about?

The mind boggles.

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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