The rise of Asian literary festivals

What do the growing number of lit fests mean for Chinese authors?

Asia is not a region known for its free-wheeling arts festivals. And yet, in the last few years they’ve been flourishing in the most unlikely places. Countries like Myanmar and Indonesia, with a dubious record on free speech, have been embracing grassroots gatherings. A love of opinionated authors, long queues and muddy fields appears to be catching.


The reason for the emergence of these festivals differs from country to country, but the overall message is clear: Asia is brimming with so-called ‘nerd love’. Starting at the more modish end there’s the Tokyo International Literary Festival, which launched in 2013 with a stellar international line-up of authors headed by Nobel Laureate JM Coetzee and Pulitzer Prizewinning Junot Díaz. At the political end of the spectrum is the Nobel- Myanmar Literary Festival. The third annual event was held last month in Yangon (Rangoon). The three-day event connects writers, poets and former political prisoners. Themed ‘Literature for Peace’, it has Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi as its patron.


The most recent addition to the region’s literary timetable came in February. It ushered in regional, intergovernmental co-operation through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations itself. They launched the ASEAN Literary Festival at Taman Ismail Marzuki Art Center, Jakarta. A more ‘for the region, by the region’ affair.


Progress has not come without conditions, however. Last year Ovidia Yu, a member of the Singapore Writers’ Festival steering committee, resigned in protest after the National Library Board (NLB) decided to pulp children’s picture books featuring any homosexual themes – the NLB is a programme partner of the festival.


In China, government interference is a given. So, will the wordsmith wave reach China’s shores? The simple answer is not any time soon. State censorship and tight regulation of NGOs means that unofficial gatherings of writers and journalists are a no-no, for now. Instead, sprawling, state-run book expos reign. Thankfully, there are some notable exceptions including the Capital M Literary Festival in Beijing, the former Shanghai Literary Festival and the Bookworm Festivals (Suzhou, Chengdu and Beijing), but these are notably expat-orientated. Though even these do not pass by without scrutiny. Last month’s Beijing Bookworm Literary Festival had numerous visits from plain-clothed police and we have to assume they were there in a work capacity. Especially when filming was happening.


In the meantime, the rash of regional festivals in Asia is giving Chinese authors a place to rally. The first Irrawaddy Literary Festival in 2013, for example, was attended by Jung Chang and Victor Chan.


Rupert Arrowsmith, author and co-organiser of the Irrawaddy Festival, told Time Out, ‘I think authors like Jung and Victor in particular would have a hard time speaking freely within Mainland China itself, and so find that literary festivals in other parts of Asia provide a more viable platform for their views.’ He notes that this year there has been a shift more towards Indian authors.


Arrowsmith believes the new fests are indicative of greater tolerance of free speech. ‘Independent literary festivals can only be a good thing for freedom of expression, and I think the number of new events around Asia is a reflection of the positive direction. Not all countries in Asia have strong histories of tolerating free speech, therefore many authors might justifiably feel uncomfortable at the concept of a government-run literary festival.’


Janet DeNeefe is the founder and director of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF) in Bali, which has been going for 11 years. The festival came about in response to the 2002 Bali bombings as a way of bringing people together and creating a meaningful dialogue in the community. Last year’s programme featured more than 150 writers from over 30 different countries, including China.


‘We’re seeing more and more grassroots festivals crop up across Asia,’ says DeNeefe. Do Chinese writers find it easy to plug into festivals like Ubud? ‘We pride ourselves on being a platform for authors, artists and performers on global issues,’ says DeNeefe. ‘That being said, there are still many challenges to helping promote Chinese authors to the world, such as the language barrier and a lack of translated materials. Indonesian literature faces similar issues, so it’s important festivals such as the UWRF help explore how these can be overcome.’


The sooner these issues are overcome, the sooner we’ll be writing from a muddy field somewhere in China.


Asia’s top literary festivals to check out


Japan

Tokyo International Literary Festival; June (dates tbc). tokyolitfest.com


Indonesia

Ubud Writers Festival, Bali; October 28 to November 1 ubudwritersfestival.com


Hong Kong

Hong Kong International Literary Festival; October 30 to November 8. festival.org.hk


India

ZEE Literary Festival, Jaipur; January 2016. jaipurliteraturefestival.org


Myanmar

Irrawaddy Literary Festival, Yangon; February to March 2016 irrawaddylitfest.com

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