Writing the Region: SEA Literary Festivals in 2016

By Akanksha Raja

(1800 words, 15-minute read)

Continuing our look back on regional arts events in 2016, we consider what the buzz was on the main writers’ festivals held in Southeast Asia.


Georgetown Literary Festival: 25 – 17 November 2016

The theme for this sixth edition of GTLF is the Welsh word “Hiraeth”, translating into a “longing for a homeland that is no longer there” – capturing the modern condition of an unsettled world “seeing mass displacement of people and gross violations of human rights”. The activities on the programme were free to the public, except for the writers’ workshops. Local writers featured included Zainah Anwar, Tash Aw and Dain Said; from abroad: Ayu Utami from Indonesia, AC Grayling from UK and Stefan Hertmans from Belgium.

Creative writing undergraduate Aria Ding blogged an account of her experience of several panels across topics ranging from translation to poetry, and a combined book launch by A. Jessie Michael of The Mad Man and Other Stories together with an anthology of Malaysian poetry edited by Malachi Edwin Vethamani entitled Malchin Testament: Malaysian Poems. Blogger stayinblue also shared experiences in two writing workshops, by Malaysian Chinese flash fiction writer Li Zi Shu and poet Nicholas Wong. Singapore science fiction writer and editor Jason Erik Lundberg also documented the festival, in which he was featured as part of the launch of Everything About Us edited by Sharon Bakar, and as a moderator of the panel “The Lives of Others—The Many Lives of Fiction

The GTLF2016 was in the news after Malaysian political cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, or Zunar, was arrested one day after members of the government disrupted his exhibition at the festival. The Festival condemned the arrest as an act of repression that went against the festival’s values of freedom of expression. In an online response to this news, author Chin Kee Onn states: “Malaysia has turned into a country I barely recognise,” echoing the festival’s theme.

Kuala Lumpur Literary Festival: 11 – 13 November 2016

The KL Literary Festival made its debut this year with the theme “Letters of the Archipelago”. The programme, which was free to the public, included readings, performances, workshops, and book launches and was held at Art Printing Works in Bangsar. Unlike GTLF, which is state-funded, KLLF was organised by Kota Buku, in collaboration with curators LiteraCity, Gerakbudaya, PUSAKA, Pena, and Say It Like You Mean It (SILYMI), it was also supported by Goethe Institut and the Polish Embassy. international writers included Michael Kleeberg (Germany) and poets Sapardi Djoko Damono (Indonesia), Carlomar Arcangel Daoana (Philippines), Marzanna Kielar (Poland), Nikola Madzirov (Macedonia).

The Star Online featured a short report with interviews with participating writers, and National Laureate Prof Dr Mohd Salleh who launched the festival. Berita Harian similarly offered an overview (in Bahasa Melayu) of the festival. Blogger Bastian Hidayat wrote an account (in Bahasa Melayu) of one of the discussions that took place at the festival, between writers Aan Mansyur with Wan Nor Azriq, about poetry and Malaysian literature. Student Kelvin Wong documented the panel “Imagining Utopia”, a discussion between speakers Jay Koh, Tina Isaacs, Zedeck Siew, Gina Yap Lai Yoong and Sabah Carrim. In response to the same panel, economist Hafiz Noor Shams offered his own perspectives on the topics in question.

Singapore Writers Festival: 4 – 13 November 2016

The theme of the 19th edition of the SWF was “Sayang”, a word shared by three languages (Bahasa Indonesia, Bahasa Melayu and Tagalog) that conveys several different notions depending on context: a term of endearment, a noun for love, or a verb connoting pity. It embodies tenderness and empathy. The extensive programme consisted of a theatre series (SWF Stage), lecture series, tours, masterclasses, Festival Pass events including panel discussions, film screenings and talks. Among the big names featured were Pulitzer Prize winner Vijay Seshadri (USA), poet Marjorie Perloff (USA), Singaporeans Boey Kim Cheng, Meira Chand and Gwee Li Sui. The festival also featured other local and international writers working across a range of media – such as web content (Evan Puschak also known as The Nerdwriter from USA), illustration (Miriam Katin from Hungary, Gemma Correll from UK), visual art (Shubigi Rao from Singapore), music (Bani Haykal from Singapore, Malaysian-Australian Omar Musa).

Malaysian journalist Umapagan Ampikaipakan caught up with Lional Shrive, who was at the Festival to and recorded a podcast with the We Need To Talk About Kevin author, discussing her comments on cultural appropriation made at the Brisbane Writers Festival in September, and the dystopian future she envisions of America under Trump.

Sharmilla Ganesan wrote for Malaysian culture portal Star2.com, giving an comprehensive overview of the festival and reflecting on the myriad issues brought up. Programmer and blogger Ramachander Krishna shared an account (in Tamil) of the first day of the festival. In another blogpost, blogger Gayathri also recounted her experiences attending discussions and talks at the festival, including a panel about Tamil language literature which discussed factors that cause a lack of a reading culture in Tamil-speaking households. Theatre practitioner and critic Naeem Kapadia reviewed the documentary theatre piece “Between the Lines: Rant and Rave II” by Chong Tze Chien which explores the interplay between policy and the development of local literature.

Kampot Writers and Readers Festival: 3 – 7 November 2016

2016 saw the 3rd edition of KWRF. The theme of this edition was encapsulated by the three Khmer words ‘Santiphap, Seripheap, Pheap Roungrueng’, meaning ‘Peace, Freedom, and Prosperity’ respectively. This theme was significant in light of the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords, which were signed on October 23, 1991 to mark the official end of the Cambodian–Vietnamese War. This edition of the festival featured not only a bevy of noted Khmer writers, songwriters, poets and groups including Chath Piersath, Thavry Thon, Phina So, Slap Paka Khmer (Khmer Collaborative writers), but also members of indigenous groups with rich oral histories, such as Lok Ta and Somboro. The Australian Andrish Saint-Clare, American Todd Brendan Fahey, English Susan Kennedy, were a few of the many international writers featured.

The South China Morning Post reports the names and nationalities of the various participating literary figures; this article is your go-to place for all the relevant numbers (how many attended; the literacy rate in Cambodia, and so on). It also comments on the history and significance of the festival and its location, Kampot. The Phnom Penh post gives an overview of the event, including the highlights of the festival and the challenges faced both by the festival and by the Cambodian literary scene in general; the write-up features quotes and opinions from local Thun Thavry and also Scottish writer Iain Donnelly.

Featured writer and blogger Cambostan discussed at length the highlights of the festival, coupled with the things he enjoyed most (taking part in discussion of ‘Writers on Acid’, and in general the presence of ‘Kingdom Beer’), before ending with an insightful comment on the appeal of Kampot. Writer and former lawyer in Burma, Tillman Miller, offers an insightful review detailing the history of the festival’s location, Kampot, followed by the intimate struggles of the writers as shared during the panel discussions. Miller takes us on a tour of the Cambodian countryside, offering varied perspectives of the festival gleaned from interactions with people.

Asia Life Magazine additionally remarks on the literacy levels in Cambodia, and comments further on the richness of oral histories and indigenous culture, turning the reader’s attention to ongoing efforts to improve writing and literature in Cambodia, including KWRF.

Ubud Readers and Writers Festival: 26 – 30 October 2016

The 13th edition of Indonesia’s URWF had the theme “Tat Tvam Asi: I am you, you are me”. Featured writers included activist Seno Gumira Adjidarma bestselling speculative fiction novelist Eka Kurniawan, Singapore’s Amanda Lee Koe, and American writer Lionel Shriver whose appearance came hot on the heels of “controversial” remarks she had made at the previous month’s Brisbane Writers Festival.

The Bangkok Post published an overview of the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2016 by Philip Cornwel-Smith.

Featured writer and philosopher Damon Young blogged about his experiences in panel discussions such as “The Art of Reading” based on his own nonfiction book of the same name, conducting a workshop and participating in other activities. Australian fiction writer Rachel Watts shared a list of her personal takeaways from the festival. Singapore-based writer Lucía Damacela on Asian Book Blog highlights key events, summing up the experience as “a perfect storm of beautiful surroundings, kind hospality, compelling themes, and a string of original thinkers”. Another blogger, Wi Lestari, wrote a short reflection on one of the workshops, “Come to Your Senses” by Shelley Kenigsberg, that centred around participants engaging with the five basic senses in the writing process. Meanwhile, Sandra Saffira recounted a talk by Australian writer Bri Lee, author of nonfiction series, Hot Chicks with Big Brains, discussing writing and the importance of feminism.

Annette Gartland for the journalism blog Changing Times gives another thorough recount – including videos, pictures and quotes – of several events that took place at the festival, such as a talk by reigning Miss Canada Anastasia Lin (who was banned from attending the event in China for her criticisms of the country’s human rights violations), a performance-discussion titled “Make Art Not War” (where writer Bri Lee was joined by Indonesian rappers Kalawi Rap Crew and their Australian counterpart The Brothahood), and a poetry reading by Sudanese-American World Poetry Slam champion Emi Mahmoud.

The Cooler Lumpur Festival: 10 – 11 September 2016

The 4th edition of the Cooler Lumpur Festival was themed RE: Independence, seeking to explore what it means to be free in an increasingly interconnected world, within two days of activities. Featured writers were predominantly from Malaysia (cartoonist Lat, novelist Shamini Flint, poet Illya Sumanto among others), Singapore (poet Ng Yi-Sheng and artist Zarina Muhammad), and some from further afield (cultural anthropologist Leyla Jagiella from Germany, reporter John Dinges from the Americas).

Malaysian culture portal Star2 provides a brief overview of a few of the events, such as a dialogue session with Lat and John Dinges’ talk on journalism and politics. The Malay Mail Online reviews Jagiella’s discussion about  the “compatibility of spirituality and the LGBT community”, as well as Dinges’ talk. Free Malaysia Today also reviewed these events and more at the festival.

ASEAN Literary Festival 2016, Jakarta: 5-8 May 2016

The third ASEAN Literary Festival highlight once again literary voices from ASEAN countries, sharing as they do, “familiarities in culture literary interests often influenced by the colonial experience.” A major feature of the festival was former president of East Timor, and Nobel Prize Winner, José Ramos-Horta. The programme included talks, book launches, discussions and performances, including an Indonesian puppet show and a Korean symphony orchestra.

The festival was in the news as non-governmental organisations such as the Alliance of Muslim People and Students who called for a ban on the festival in the belief that its agenda sought to promote communist ideologies and freedom of expression for LGBT individuals; the festival was not banned and went ahead as planned, including a panel on

LGBT, Sexuality and Freedom of Expression. Indonesian writer Edrida Pulungan summarised (in Bahasa Indonesia) some of the happenings at the festival. The Jakarta Post covered one of the panel discussions on Media and Literature, moderated by Abdul Khalik, featuring poet and critic Nirwan Dewanto, Sanaz Fotouhi from Asia Pacific Writers and Translators and editor in chief at The Jakarta Post, Endy Bayuni. Bayuni was also at a panel discussion “A Nation that Doesn’t Read”. Indonesian book blog Mari Membaca responded (in Bahasa Indonesia) to the discussion, where Bayuni was joined by the Finnish ambassador Paivi Hiltunen-Toivio, chairman of Lontar Foundation John McGlynn, and Youngduk Shin, Professor at University of Indonesia. An opinion article in Thai-based news platform The Nation commended the ASEAN Literary Festival as being “a step in the right direction” in promoting “world-class” literature in the region, and encouraged Indonesia to “play a leading role” in realising the aspirations of ASEAN’s literary community.

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