In Praise of the Tropical Literary Festival

Michael Vatikiotis
Nov 1st, 2013

The writer is something of a contortionist these days. There is a shrinking number of outlets for good writing.  Books don’t sell on their own merits and are hostage to marketing ploys and dubiously judged literary awards.  The printed media is beyond life support.  My bookshelves are a graveyard full of former publications and out-of-print sensations.  This leaves the online-sphere, where you are rewarded as a writer with little more than an emoticon.

It’s therefore of some comfort to the community of writers to which I belong in Southeast Asia that there is one remaining growth area where it is possible for talents to flourish and find appreciation.  For in a world of shrinking media exposure, it would seem we writers are forced to trade the pen for the soapbox.

Writers' festivals were conceived as opportunities for writers to peddle their books.  They are essentially business platforms where publishers and agents hawk their wares. In an age where really top-selling writers have become celebrities, they are the literary equivalent of the catwalk.  Their content is traditionally mostly about the writing itself, with authors quizzed about the how and why of their oeuvres, rather than the meaning of their stories.  There has also sprung up a parallel business in how-to workshops for aspiring writers.  The whole world, it seems, wants to write.

We writers in Asia were first exposed to the literary festival in Hong Kong at the dawn of the new century. It seemed like an audaciously creative undertaking in a city devoted to greed and mammon.  A small band of local and barely published writers mingled furtively with a smattering of bigger names for whom the organizers had scrounged an air fare or two.  We read long passages of our scribblings to hushed and appreciative audiences and later belted out poetry in boozy bar sessions.  We felt a sense of exhilarated fellowship and dreamed of an Asian publishing moment. 

That moment never quite happened.  But the festivals have flourished.

This is not really surprising. You take an exotic location, a mobile and relatively wealthy expatriate audience, throw in the global aspirations of educated indigenous elites, the ubiquity of the English language, package it in boutique hotels serving Chardonnay and Canapés and you have a the makings of a cerebral cornucopia with tropical characteristics.

Tempting though it is to dismiss these platforms as little more than languid weekend brunch buffets with an intellectual twist, they are actually rather important to the writer and for the writing.  For not only are they becoming something of a wellspring for local talent, they are a critical interface between Asia and the outside world.

The first thing to recognize is that they are no longer simply writers' festivals.  The bigger ones, like the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival that this year celebrated a decade of annual gatherings set in the lush rice fields of a Balinese artisans' town, have become international festivals of culture and thought. 

As the author of two novels set in Indonesia and a range of short stories and commentary set in Southeast Asia, the festivals are a vital outlet for my writing and also a marketplace for ideas.  At Ubud this year, as in previous years, I mingled with writers from Indonesia and the regional neighbourhood.  I also met writers and artists from Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.  In a world where professional gatherings are regionalized and siloed for the most part, the Ubud festival in particular manages to draw together a colourful and stimulating slice of the world we live in with all its triumphs and tragedies.

The serious business of publishing needs a platform where literary agents and publishers ranging from the boutique to the industrial-sized can scout for talent.  A festival as large and as well funded as Singapore’s or even the new kid on the block, a delightful start up in Myanmar, provide an ideal platform for writers to meet and establish professional ties that result in books being published, sold and read.

There are those who argue that throwing writers into the global mixer and shoving cocktails in their hands when sponsors pay is generating a homogenized literary product.  Pankaj Mishra recently argued in the Financial Times that 'Literature today seems to emerge from an apolitical and borderless cosmopolis'. He decried the emergence of the global novel with its superficial multiculturalism that denuded it of more urgent, pungent nationalist or political themes.

Mishra takes aim at what he terms 'exotically sited literary festivals' where he says writers 'can appear to embody the bland consensus of transnational elites, denuded of the differences and antagonisms that define a genuinely pluralist culture.' They 'Bennettonize' literature, he writes.

Well I beg to differ.  As a writer living in Asia, I find no difficulty highlighting the differences and antagonisms that challenge me to write either fiction or opinion pieces.  I don't attend literary festivals to seek any kind of consensus, but rather to advertise what is so different, divisive and defective in our world.  

I can see where Mishra is coming from. One recent year I was on a panel with a Palestinian writer who claimed that when Israeli shells killed his children he felt no hatred towards the perpetrators. It was nonsense, of course. I felt his feelings of hatred boiling beside me. I could sense the audience's empathy with his hatred. There are group settings where we pretend that literature salves the pain of human suffering and offers answers to the way we are. We writers sometimes allow our passions to be mistaken for objective observation. We go along with this artifice because we need to sell books.

Michael Vatikiotis' story. 'A Case of Penetration' will be included in the next issue of the Asia Literary Review.

Literary Festival Michael Vatikiotis Ubud


Michael Vatikiotis
Last blog date: Oct 18th, 2016


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