Cover Story
Monsters & Men
Brian Cheong 

Flashback to 2008 when George Town was granted UNESCO World Heritage status. The Chief Minister of Penang, Lim Guan Eng, had a vision of creating a cultural capital and turned to one of the most prominent figures in the Malaysian literary scene to organise what would become the largest international literary festival in the country: The George Town Literary Festival (GTLF).

“I was asked by the Penang state government in May 2011 if I wanted to run a book festival,” recalls festival director and author Bernice Chauly. “I said no initially because I was already directing the Writers Unlimited Festival in Kuala Lumpur the following month.”

The state government, however, would not take no for an answer. “It was only when (performing arts doyen) Chee Sek Thim offered to be a producer that I said yes. They gave me a budget, which was ridiculously small, so we started with only five Malaysian writers, Farish Ahmad Noor, Tan Twan Eng, Shih-Li Kow, Iskandar Al-Bakri and Muhammad Haji Salleh.”

Nevertheless, the first GTLF was a huge success. “It was packed,” says Chauly. “We used ChinaHouse as our first venue and also had an event at the Eastern & Oriental Hotel.” This year’s festival will be held at Wisma UAB on Gat Lebuh Cina, which Chauly hopes will be the festival’s home from now on.

So successful was the maiden event that the chief minister wanted to hold the festival again the next year. Chauly agreed. “We were given a healthier budget but what has been important for me is to see the festival grow, which is why the themes are so important.”

Chauly curates some of the most engaging writers for the annual festival

photo by 
anwar faiz

Each year, the festival seduces the intellect with thought-provoking themes such as  History & Heritage, Voyages, Hopes and Dreams, The Ties That Bind, Capital and We Are Who We Are/Are We Who We Are?, and Hiraeth.

For 2017, the theme is Monsters & (Im)mortals. “We’re going to look at myths and legends, the fall of man, why men become monsters, real monsters, gods and goddesses. We’re going to look at the world today, talk about fake news, the media, the state of the nations, the rise of the right – really provocative issues now.”

GTLF is one of the few festivals that focuses on world literature. Writers, poets and performers are invited from all over the world. This year sees more than 60 participants in panel discussions, readings, conversations, book launches, workshops, poetry marathons, spoken word performances, dance and film screenings from Nov 24 to 26.

“This year’s GTLF is our biggest and most ambitious event because we have a translators’ roundtable and an accompanying fringe festival in collaboration with The Cooler Lumpur Festival, which will see fun events such as a midnight heritage walk complete with site-specific performances as well as a series of digital graphic stories. There will be more than 50 events in three days so it’s packed from morning till midnight and beyond,” she grins.

“It’s also very exciting for us because the festival was one of three shortlisted at the London Book Fair this year for the award of Best Literary Festival, which was a huge honour. The fact that it was shortlisted put the festival on the world map.”

This time, Chauly is supported by the Penang Convention & Exhibition Bureau (PCEB) as festival producer, while Gareth Richards and Pauline Fan have been invited to co-curate programmes including the aforementioned translators’ roundtable featuring writers and translators the likes of Jerome Bouchaud and Lee Yew Leong.

Expect luminaries such as Belgian cultural historian David van Reybrouck, Malaysian Chinese-American journalist Mei Fong, Indonesian poet and food writer Laksmi Pamuntjak, Icelandic poet and children’s book writer Gerður Kristný, Irish playwright and novelist Paul McVeigh, Cambodian-American spoken word artist Kosal Khiev, and Singaporean graphic novelist Sonny Liew.

Also making an appearance are Dutch author and journalist Caroline de Gruyter, Burmese poet and artist Maung Day, fantasy author Zen Cho, novelist Fahmi Mustaffa, poet and activist Rahmat Haron as well as veteran visual artist and poet Latiff Mohidin.

“GTLF and The Cooler Lumpur Festival’s philosophies, agendas, mutual love and passion for literature and ideas, as well as our unwavering commitment to free speech and expression has always meant we are kindred spirits, which is why it really is a no-brainer for us to collaborate,” says Umapagan Ampikaipakan, literary director of The Cooler Lumpur Festival. “What’s more, both GTLF and The Cooler Lumpur Festival remain free and open spaces, where Malaysians can come together – regardless of colour, caste, creed, gender, ideology, political leanings or sexual preference – and share ideas without fear of censure or of being censored.”

“GTLF is curated in such a way that it’s very intimate. We use a lot of the heritage buildings in George Town and get our participants to have a feel of the spaces that inhabit George Town,” Chauly explains.

Fundamental to its popularity is the fact that GTLF is known as an urgent and necessary literary festival. “We talk about things that other festivals don’t really talk about, which has its risks as well, but because of the mandate of the chief minister who believes in freedom of speech and expression, GTLF remains one of the last bastions of free speech in the country,” she says.

“Our writers know that. We invite writers who are writing about the world that they live in, who are also dealing with very difficult issues themselves, and we tell them to be prepared to be provoked, confronted and challenged.”

That said, it is not all serious, intense discussions. “We’ve always had music and this year we’ll also have the screening of the movie You Mean The World To Me so there’s going to be a lot of fun stuff as well.”

As festival director, Chauly relies on her instincts. “You want to invite a writer who is going to engage with audiences and other writers on stage, and not just talk to the moderator or say one-liners. You want someone who is willing to engage and explore the city afterwards instead of going back to their hotel room.”

She enjoys seeing how the festival brings people together. “It’s nice when little communities happen and these writers keep in touch. It’s about forging friendships and alliances with people and I believe the festival has done that. So it becomes a festival you enjoy coming back to, one that people rave about year after year.”

Another key factor is that it remains free and open to the public. “Some festivals charge a lot of money but we keep everything free because it’s state money and it’s for the people.”

Chauly, who has just released her first novel, Once We Were There, also hopes the festival will be a catalyst for change in the local literary scene. “The problem is, nobody is writing serious literature and it’s a shame because Malaysia is going through a very important transition,” she muses. “This is a very difficult time we’re living in and as writers, we need to respond to that. This is what novelists have done for hundreds of years. Les Miserables was written about the French Revolution. To Kill A Mockingbird was about civil rights in America. We need to rise to this and talk about what’s really going on in our country.”

She believes contemporary talents need to work hard in order to find a voice that will resonate long into the future. “We want work that will last, that will be read and remembered for hundreds of years – that’s what we need.”

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 259.