THE INITIAL PLANS for the 2020 George Town Literary Festival (GTLF) were for it to be celebratory – to look back on 10 years of work, while also looking forward. But now, on the other side of the looking glass, the festival takes place in a world still many months away from a Covid-19 vaccine.
With the CMCO extended virtually nationwide, the idea of still having a literary festival seems extraordinary. But the event is in steady hands. Last year’s festival co-directors, Pauline Fan and Sharaad Kuttan have returned, joined by curator Izzuddin Ramli of the Penang Institute. The crowds, the festival bookshops and the atmosphere of the live events are gone, but in its place is a vibrant series of events.
This year’s GTLF is not the only literature-related festival to migrate online. The postponed KL International Book Fair (KLIBF/PBAKL) eventually partnered with Shopee as a virtual affair, a shadow of what was meant to be a glorious moment for the capital as this year’s World Book Capital. Elsewhere, the Singapore Writers Festival and the Frankfurt Book Fair also experimented with virtual formats.
With the CMCO extended virtually nationwide, the idea of still having a literary festival seems extraordinary. But the event is in steady hands.
Despite the very real chance that the festival was going to be cancelled altogether, like many others elsewhere, the team persisted, assembling a smaller programme in line with their reduced budget. There was also state support; having been entrusted by the state government to proceed, the Penang Convention & Exhibition Bureau (PCEB) pushed forward, allowing the GTLF to nurture intellectual discussions.
In the months before the official announcement, a series of podcasts had been quietly recorded, to be released as the festival gets underway. Connecting writers and academics across borders and state lines through digital technology, coordinating everything into a coherent programme, was challenging but crucial work. The ability to transcend borders is as close a simulation to the festival as can be. Creating a virtual festival is not an easy feat, since it means coordinating suitable times for all speakers across different time zones, while also maintaining the festive feel – the joys of meandering, of stumbling upon a writer in person for the first time – despite the migration online.
Then there is the change in logistical issues, especially given that the speakers hail from 15 different countries. For festival coordinator Swarna Rajagopal, the absence of these challenges in terms of live events marked the biggest difference. “As there’s no physical festival this year, we are not dealing with that aspect. Instead, it has been replaced with coordinating speakers’ dates and times for podcast recordings.”
Collaborations Beyond Penang
Another difference from previous years is the inclusion of an expanded net of collaborations, thus bringing the festivities beyond George Town. PEN Malaysia, celebrating a century in existence, has collaborated closely to bring forward its own line-up, featuring a series of live-streamed events. “Sembang Baru / New Conversations” is a three-part online dialogue series targeted at Malaysia’s writing communities, covering topics as varied as translation, the journey of women in the arts, and the importance of literature. Like GTLF’s main events, they are conducted in both Malay and English, attesting to the multilingual nature of the local literary scene; and by recognising the various languages within the same festival, GTLF sidesteps the problematic division between National and Sectional Literatures – a relic of the 1971 National Culture Policy.
There is also a collaboration with the Healing Art Project, meant to fuse the power of music composition with therapeutic elements. While not strictly literature-related, music as therapy is an intriguing idea in a stressful year.
Other collaborations come in the shape of Swadaya x GTLF, with Swadya being a loose collective of booksellers based in KL and Petaling Jaya: Gerakbudaya, Tintabudi, Nur Innai Bookshop, Pelita Dhihin, the Bibliophile Bookshop and Lit Books. Although it has a strong Klang Valley-centric focus, it also features talks by overseas writers Vincent Ternida and Melissa De Silva as part of its own line-up of live events. In addition are three book launches, various talks on subjects ranging from science fiction to Sinophone literature and a discussion on the state of the book trade with the booksellers themselves.
Despite a significant number of non-Penang based groups being involved, Pauline does not see this as an issue given that Penang’s historic openness and cosmopolitan roots are still intact. “If we have moved anywhere, we have moved online this year. We may still hold a few physical workshops in Penang, with limited participants, if the situation allows. At the same time, it is important for GTLF to partner with like-minded organisations that nurture literary communities in Malaysia.”
Sharaad shares similar sentiments. “The strength of GTLF is that it is a trusted brand in terms of quality and care in programming, that isn’t bound by geography,” but remarks that they are still open to criticism, if any, over the festival.
While GTLF has been able to proceed, albeit in modified form, there are lessons to learn for the future. With Covid-19 unlikely to disappear, there is a need for future iterations of the festival to experiment with hybrid forms while adhering to SOPs.
Even if the development and the distribution of an effective vaccine remains on schedule, will there still be implications for mass culture, tourism and related industries, institutions and practices? Another challenge may be a sense of digital event fatigue, given the slew of online meetings, webinars and various virtual events that have taken the place of Penang’s usually lively festival atmosphere and celebrations. With so many events happening, it is easy to forget that events are still happening altogether.
Regardless, it is important for the festival to continue to live up to its ideals and to grow in progressive directions, even if faced with unexpected constraints. “Limitations of resources aside, the festival’s range of speakers and themes continues in the reputation of the festival as a platform that promotes inclusiveness,” says Sharaad. Thanks to Izzuddin Ramli’s work, the Bahasa Melayu programme has been expanded, thus allowing for a more vibrant and diverse programme.
“GTLF has always been a champion of diversity and plurality, not only diversity across gender, race, class, sexuality and age, but also in terms of a plurality of ideas and perspectives,” Pauline says. “We engage many voices and perspectives from the vast Malaysian literary community, and from diverse language backgrounds, as well as writers and moderators from East Malaysia.”
Ultimately, the take-home lesson is that we still need places for literature to flourish, whether real and ephemeral, virtual and recorded, in the move to build up a vibrant domestic literary culture. With such international-scale festivals, we can continue the task of bringing literature into the mainstream, complementing the official efforts organised at the federal level. This is what we need more than ever, especially given that the literary ecosystem is on very brittle ground.
GTLF is currently the largest world literature festival organised in Malaysia and the first literary event in Southeast Asia to receive the Literary Festival Award at the London Book Fair International Excellence Awards 2018.
GTLF 2020’s full programme listing can be found here. The separate Swadaya x GTLF programme is available here.
William Tham Wai Liang's first novel, Kings of Petaling Street, was shortlisted for the Penang Monthly Book Prize in 2017. His second novel, The Last Days, was published in 2020. He is the editor of Paper & Text, a collection of essays on Malaysian literature and the book trade.