In The Mass Media

By George, what a festival!

LODESTAR By Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star)

I just came back from the 5th George Town Literary Festival held in the historic city of Penang in Malaysia, and my mind is still reeling from the images.

The opening ceremonies saw the Malaysian Chinese leaders of Penang arrayed on the front seat, like in a national political convention. Lim Guan Eng, the Chief Minister of Penang, said that “Penang has always been a vibrant place for intellectual discussions and exchange of ideas. The State government is committed to uphold Penang’s reputation as the birthplace of intellectuals and (and as the site of) a premier literary scene in Asia.”

George Town, Penang, is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a title it truly deserves. Its old shop houses, its narrow streets, the Chinese temples whose curved lines seemingly reach for the sky – you walk down the city and you feel you have been transported to the 19th century, when Penang was an entrepot of the British Empire and a melting pot of commerce and culture.

Zairil Khir Johari, executive director of the Penang Institute, thanked the 50 writers and moderators who came from Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Netherlands, Norway, the Philippines, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It was an amazing group – none of the bloated egos and noses turned up in the air that one would see in other gatherings.

Much credit, of course, should go to Bernice Chauly, our festival director, who is a Malaysian poet, writer, and educator. She is the author of the award-winning memoir, Growing Up With Ghosts (2011) and her critically acclaimed third collection of poems, Onkalo (2013). Bernice is also the founder and director of the Kuala Lumpur Writers’ workshop and a lecturer of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham Malaysia campus.

I also visited briefly at the University of Nottingham’s lovely campus in Malaysia, where I gave a workshop on writing flash fiction to a group of enthusiastic students. I also read my poems and an excerpt from my novel Riverrun, in the class of Dr. Malachi Edwin Vethamani and helped in the discussion of the Author and Authorial Intrusion in his class. The Nottingham campus reminded me of the campuses of the British universities, clustered in beautiful buildings set on green and sprawling grounds. I was also happy to meet the other faculty members of the Department of English, including Dr. Derek Irwin and Dr. Shivani Sivagurunathan, who said she admires the short stories of the expatriate Filipino writer Eric Gamalinda.
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The theme of the festival was “We Are Who We Are: Are We Who We Are?” It is not just a play of words, slippery syntax and all, for it delves deeply into what concerns us now: notions of cultural identity and formation of the self (or the selves), diaspora and migration, globalization and its discontents.

Marina Mahathir gave the keynote speech that sounds like her bestselling books – In Liberal Doses, Telling It Straight, and Dancing on Thin Ice. These are compilations of her brave and witty columns published in the Star newspaper in the last 20 years. She talked about the paradoxes of life in 21st-century Malaysia, bright and sharp words that explode in the mind like fireworks.

Our dinner for the first night was held at the Revolving Restaurant, and it truly revolved 360 degrees throughout the course of the night. There I met Lawrence “Larry” Ypil, my former student at Ateneo de Manila University who has taken not one, but two Master of Fine Arts degrees in Creative Writing: one at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, the other at the University of Iowa, no less. He is now teaching at the National University of Singapore-Yale College in the Lion City.

After the opening ceremony, there was a performance from the Wayang Kulit Seri Warisan Pusaka from Machang, Kelantan. The group was led by Abdul Rahman Dollah (Dalang Nawi) and Mohamad Hassan Noor. They have performed to great acclaim both nationally and internationally, and have just completed a US residency with the Caravan Serai in a month-long tour of six cities in the American Midwest in Spring 2015. Their performance reminded me of the wayang kulit I have seen in Yogyakarta when I visited there ten years ago to deliver a paper held at a Jesuit-run university. This shadow play about gods and goddesses lasted for hours, with puppets made of carabao skins, telling powerful stories that resonate still to this day. But after the performance in Yogyakarta, I saw the performers back stage, taking off their masks and later changing into ordinary clothes and riding their bicycles back home: the gods and goddesses finally returning to the life of ordinary mortals.

But for a moment, the poets themselves seemed to be gods and goddesses reading their poems at the elevated platform of The Canteen in ChinaHouse, a long and narrow place divided up into several restaurants. It was a privilege to read with some of the finest poets now writing around the world, and I was in awe of the themes they dealt with: science and childhood memories, the hammer of oppression and protest, skin color and accents, the flux and fluidity of the postmodern life.

I was also part of a panel on “Futile States,” dealing with the integration of the ASEAN economies starting this year. I said that the member-countries of the ASEAN are linked by common histories of colonization (even Thailand had to fend off the British and the French from slicing its northern and southern provinces), pockets of poverty and the challenges of globalization. Yin Shao Loong was a great moderator, navigating us through the shoals of the discussion, along with Chuah Guat Eng (Malaysia), Joshua Ip (Singapore), and Lily Yuliani Farid (Indonesia).

Dr. Vethamani also launched a second edition of Bibliography of Malaysian Literature in English (Maya Press, 2015), which documents Malaysian works in English from the mid-1990s to the present. He also gave me a free copy of the book for the Rizal Library of Ateneo. The controversial cartoonist Zunar also held a basic painting and cartoon workshop, as well as an exhibit of his satirical works at The Space@216.

My second panel was a reading and discussion on Poetry and the World. In the very capable hands of Kate Rogers as our moderator, our panel covered much ground: the role of the poet and its urgency in the 21st century, the audience now and reader-reception. Southeast Asia WRITE Awardee Lim Swee Tin, Pablo Jofre and Joshua Ip were the other poets in the panel.

And pretty soon it was time to go, to say goodbye to the excellent food and the great company and the world of words that we inhabited for three wonderful days, in the heart of George Town, in the old and beautiful city of Penang.