Irrawaddy Literary Festival – Day 1

And so it begins. Since the first press release back in September and the subsequent months of meetings, planning and preparation by the entire British Diplomatic team in Burma – I would be interested to see how they convinced the Foreign Office in London that the hundreds of man hours they spent on this festival is covered under their econ-political remit – Burma’s first international, English Language, literary festival is under way …

While promotion of the event has been fairly sparse in Yangon – I have yet to see a billboard on Sule Pagoda Road, and I’m not sure if throwing a couple of posters over the Ambassador’s Residence gates qualifies as promotion – it appears to have been well received in the international media with several outlets, the WSJ, the Washington Post and others sending people down to cover the event.

With work commitments forcing me back to the office at 1.30 i had planned on reaching the Inya Lake Hotel in time for the opening ceremony.  Weirdly, having lived in Yangon for nearly two years, for some reason i hadn’t planned on the traffic.  To be fair, living downtown, i hardly go north of Kandawgyi Lake.  Now, i remember why.  Even a sly detour through Tamwe still got me at the festival too late for the opening ceremony and even worse, missing James Byrne and Ko Ko Thett’s Bones will Crow session.  Not a good start considering only yesterday I had picked it out as one of my star sessions for Friday.

As the taxi pulled up, I was curious how the organisers would control the ticket system.  Having been on a site visit with some of them back in September there really didn’t seem any way of checking those with and without tickets seeing as the hotel was still open to non-festival attending guests.  As i walked towards the entrance – and this was later confirmed by a quick chat with the logistical manager, Liam, they really don’t seem to be too fussed about tickets, as they were just letting people walk through the doors.  (If you haven’t bought a ticket, I wouldn’t bother)

Monument Book Shop managed to grab the best spot in the house.  A huge stall right next to the entrance with a glorious selection of books from all the authors present at the festival and quite a few from writers who thankfully aren’t (anybody fancy a copy of E.L James Fifty Shades of Grey?) and Monument also seem to have the exclusivity on signed copies.  The excellent Myanmar Book Centre, run by eminent Kaung family, have been relegated to a stall in the garden out back along with the coffee stalls and t-shirt shops.  I guess having Jane Heyn in your women’s club does have it’s advantages.

Annoyed that I had missed James Byrne, happily I bumped into Rupert Arrowsmith at the Monument stall searching in vain for a copy of his academic book on Buddhism and Art.  Shame it wasn’t there, it looks like a visually stunning effort.  We checked into Ruby Room A where he would be doing his session on Asian contribution to modern art and literature in the West and saw a quick preview of his slide show.  Rupert lived in Burma for four years from 97-2001 (which is where he met his lovely wife) and later, sitting down, waiting for a coffee that never actually arrived, I asked him about the differences between now and then.  Without hesitation, he answered, the lack of fear.  People simply don’t seem as scared as they once were.

And the Myanmar bottled beer is better.

I had an appointment to meet Justin Watkins, a Professor of Burmese language and literature at S.O.A.S at 11.00 which gave me some time walk around the grounds.  It was pretty quiet, but that’s to be expected for the Friday session.  A large group of international school kids got bored of the girl in hot-pants skipping while playing keepy-up with a chinlon ball and went on the hunt for some ice-cream.  There seemed to be more press and C.S.I volunteers than actual festival goers.  The Mandalay Marionettes were in full swing with a good crowd watching them.  I wandered over to the very busy British Council’s children’s area next to the Ballroom and had a quick chat with Moe Moe Soe, the legendary manager of the BC’s library.

A quick coffee later with Justin Watkins an ad-hoc session on the future of ethnic minority languages had been sorted out for the speakers corner at 4.30 on Sunday, just in time to catch a bit of Dr Thant Thaw Kaung in the Ballroom for a session on the role of libraries in the promotion of literature.  The audience was a bit thin on the ground which was a shame considering the importance libraries play in literature,especially in Burma with successful implementation of mobile libraries both in the Delta region and through the Millennium centres in Upper Burma.

I had a quick five minutes to peak into the Exhibition room to check out the photo-journalism workshop exhibition.  Which turned out to be 20 minutes.  The exhibition is astounding.  Rory Maclean and Nick Danziger have been sharing their skills and knowledge with 16 very lucky participants for the last three weeks and have led some of the best Burmese centred work i have seen in Burma.  Over a dozen large partitions with photographs and accompanying narrative – some ion Burmese, some in English – dedicated to telling the story of an individual Burmese citizen.  The stories are amazing, the photographs are beautiful.  My personal favourite being the Kafka-esque ‘Diary of a Stray Dog‘ by Zin Mar Myint.  The exhibition will be there for the duration of the festival and, I hope, some consideration will be made to expand it and share it abroad.

Waiting for a taxi outside the entrance, a large tourist bus pulled up and all the foreigners piled out.  A good sign of things to come tomorrow. Daw Suu in conversation with Br U Thaw Kaung will obviously be a highlight with many people disappointed not to get in I imagine.

It seems that Jane and Giles had actually managed to pull this off.

However, as I jumped in the back of the taxi, I looked behind me at the Monument Book Stall.  Rising high on the top step, many of the bus tourists were eagerly rifling through the stiff new books on sale.  Below them, on the pavement, were the Burmese, searching for a good deal on the battered second-hand books thrown into a bargain basket.

Read into that what you will.