The annual George Town Literary Festival (GTLF) took place from 25 November till 27 November 2016, with most of the sessions being held in Wisma Yeap Chor Ee and Black Kettle. In response to the recent events that appeared to threaten the ideal of a safe and harmonious home nation, this edition of GTLF explored the theme of ‘Hiraeth’, a Welsh term defined as ‘the longing for a homeland that is no longer there’.
The opening ceremony was initiated by the Festival Director, Bernice Chauly and was graced by the presence of Zainah Anwar, co-founder of Sisters in Islam Malaysia, Zairil Khir Johari, Executive Director of Penang Institute and YAB Lim Guan Eng, the Chief Minister of Penang. The esteemed guests each expressed their respective interpretations of and insights into the theme of ‘Hiraeth’ and reiterated the role and capacity of writers and artists in inciting change for a better homeland. The opening ceremony was followed by a contemporary dance performance by Aida Redza and Lee Su-Feh, fusing movement and poetry to chart the meaning of home and one’s ambivalent relationship with home.
I want to believe a different kind of hiraeth is possible. A hiraeth, a longing, a yearning that will compel us to create something better, to make this country good again, to make this world more humane.
— Zainah Anwar, co-founder of Sisters in Islam Malaysia
The panel discussions addressed the myriad issues surrounding various aspects of literature, including fiction writing, poetry, socio-political factors and translation, whilst probing the connection between ‘Hiraeth’ and literary pursuits. In ‘On Longing and the Desire for Longing’, ‘My Father, My Mother, My Grandfather – On Bloodlines’ and ‘The Good Earth – Hiraeth’, the panel members of the respective sessions further articulated the theme of ‘Hiraeth’ by revisiting personal and family histories as well as by investigating the relationship between the self and the homeland. ‘Speaking in Tongues: The Art and Craft of Translation’ and ‘Bual Nusantara – Literary Translation in Penang: Past and Present’ enlightened attendees on the role of translation in rendering literature more accessible to a wider range of audiences and the challenges faced in achieving it.
The relevance of poetry was highlighted in ‘The Poet’s Garden’ and ‘Free the Word – The Politics of Poetry’, whereby the panel members delved into how poetry serves as a vehicle for expression and the ways in which poetry reflects or shapes reality. ‘The Lives of Others – The Many Lives of Fiction’ and ‘Aliens, Birdmen and Other Beings – Bringing Characters to Life on the Stage and Screen’ ventured into discussions of the boundaries (or lack thereof) between fiction and reality and the approaches with which writers navigate the worlds or lives of characters created on the page.
In love there is no narrative. It just is. You describe it. As long as you have loneliness, heartache, abandonment, you will have narrative.
— ‘On Love, Friendship and the Prospect of Loneliness’
A series of workshops was held to offer hands-on experiences in engaging with different forms of literature. ‘It Begins with the Writing – A Masterclass on Dramatic Writing’ introduced participants to the fundamental principles of drama structure and scriptwriting. In ‘Writing Home – A Creative Writing Workshop’ and ‘From Memory to Story – A Non-fiction Workshop’, participants were invited to reflect on recollections of home to produce new pieces. On the other hand, ‘Stories between Two Lines of Poetry – A Workshop in Flash Fiction’ and ‘Let’s Talk Back in Poetry – A Workshop’ examined how to convey ideas in condensed, concise forms of writing.
Poets took centre stage in ‘Poetry Showcase: Word!’ and ‘Poetry Marathon’, demonstrating that poetry performance is not limited to mere recitals; multiple forms of performing poetry were demonstrated through song, comedy and lively spoken word performances. ‘Words and Music: Fathers and Sons’ was a highlight performance in GTLF 2016 as revered Malaysian literary figures A. Samad Said and Cecil Rajendra presented poems with the accompaniment of music by their respective musician sons, Az Samad and Yasunari Rajendra. Furthermore, Malaysia-born, Vancouver-based dancer Lee Su-Feh performed a dance solo, ‘The Things I Carry’, experimenting with the idea of the body as an archive of personal experiences, sensations and history.
A pop-up market was set up throughout the duration of the Festival, with booths selling items ranging from food and beverages to handcrafted stationery. The booth by independent bookshop Gerakbudaya also offered an abundance of titles by both local and international authors. Besides that, UNMC’s very own Prof Malachi Edwin Vethamani launched his newly published collection of Malaysian poetry, Malchin Testament: Malaysian Poems. This volume consists of poems from more than 50 Malaysian poets, such as Melizarani T. Selva, Shirley Geok-lin Lim, Sheena Baharudin and Muhammad Haji Salleh. Several of the featured poets were also invited to perform their works during the book launch. In addition, final-year students from the School of English had the opportunity to perform their creative writing pieces in the ‘Readings: UNMC English Students’ session. The performed works showcased fresh and original poetry and prose that dealt with themes ranging from longing and desire to identity and relationships.
For more snapshots and glimpses of GTLF 2016 happenings, do visit the GTLF Facebook page!
By Choo Suet Fun and Yap Jia Ming