Looking back at the 2018 Galle Literary Festival
5 February 2018
Why couldn’t the organisers of Galle Lit Fest tap into the vibrant civil society of academics, writers, and journalists in Sri Lanka?
The recent edition of the Galle Literary Festival made Chhetria Patrakar mull over a number of things, including such grave matters as the state of decolonisation in Southasia – something one tends to avoid amidst the glamour of most litfests. If the form and content of cultural events are any markers of that state, what could one say about the Galle litfest, its organisers, and its audience?
The ninth Galle litfest appeared designed for a globally mobile Anglophone audience. Nothing inherently wrong in that, of course, except that such a demographic tends to be more invested in what’s happening in the other side of the world, as opposed to in the other side of the town, country, or region. But catering to such globalised interest doesn’t naturally produce a global discourse. Often what is of interest to London or Washington DC or even Delhi can be as parochial, if not more so, than that of Jaffna or Janakpur.
Held in the precincts of the Galle Fort, the litfest draws at least part of its character from its surroundings, an area built as a colonial outpost now given over primarily to tourism. At the festival this time, both the Fort (or at least its keepers) and the Fest encountered a sibling in the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town, South Africa, distant both geographically (7850 kms away), but also conceptually. If Galle Fort has centred its identity on being a well-regulated UNESCO heritage site, with preservation and tourism as the key elements, the Castle of Good Hope appears to be challenging the colonial narrative and purpose through both confrontation and repurposing of the site.
Although both Forts were built by slave labour, the Galle Fort seems largely sanitised of the seamier side of its past history, perhaps in deference to its role as a high-end tourist hub that requires a feel-good ambience. The Castle of Good Hope, on the other hand, draws directly on the history of land dispossession and cultural genocide, and has lent its space to vibrant civil society activism. Its CEO, as Calvyn Gilfellan is called, sees the role of the Castle as a link between the past, the present and the future, albeit often shocking his board as with a recent hosting of a carnival of the LGBT community titled ‘Dungeons and Dragons’, a move he himself termed the crossing of the last rubicon. Could Galle Fort enlarge its role of engagement with a new Sri Lanka similarly? Currently, the ghosts of CEOs past (of the VOC and the East India Company) seem to rule the roost.
Barely one and a half pages of writing was the foundation of a book of 240 pages by the German novelist Michael Kumpfmüller, who imagined the love affair between Franz Kafka and Dora Diamant, his last love as Kafka was dying of tuberculosis, in a book titled The Glory of Life. The one and a half pages were all that Dora had written about her time with Kafka in her last years, the actual correspondence between the two lovers having been lost, perhaps to the Gestapo, when they raided Diamant’s home.
While some writers might consider the historical evidence too scant, Kumpfmüller says it is this very gap that fascinates him. The author, who was in Sri Lanka to participate in the Galle Literary Festival, spoke about how the gap allowed him to imagine what might have been, while the kernel of facts tethered him, not allowing him to be completely free in his imagination. Indeed, Kumpfmüller confessed that the absence of documents allowed him to create an imagined history, although he wasn’t losing sleep over the possibility that the discovery of the diaries and letters might overturn his own book.
While Kumpfmüller was drawn to the untold story of Diamant, architect and writer Shiromi Pinto was impelled by her fascination for architect Minette de Silva to create an imagined life. While De Silva, unlike Diamant, is well known in her own right for her body of work, Sri Lanka’s first woman architect seems to be barely acknowledged in current times, her buildings in ruins and her life largely undocumented. In fact, the power of recreation is so strong, and the respect and love of the writer for her subject so real, that even those who knew Minette De Silva could not bring themselves to quarrel with the author, except to gently point out that her writing might benefit from speaking to those who knew De Silva well and are still around to tell the tales.
The reputed Sri Lankan architect Anjalendran, who was in the audience, cautioned against the danger of myth-making, where the stories come to replace the real person, a caution that the author seemed to take on board. But what of the stories which are unlikely to ever be recorded? Even Kafka’s existing letters to others in his circle barely mentioned Diamant, and this, says Kumpfmüller, is what drew him to her story, bringing centrestage a life that may have been not much more than a footnote to glory.
The conversation between retired Indian diplomat and former Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao and David Dabydeen, a Guyanese writer and former ambassador to China, was supposed to be on geopolitical tussles between India and China. But it soon became reduced to a parlour chat about grand movements of international politics, with Rao and Dabydeen batting for India and China respectively. Rao unsurprisingly thought India was a complicated country but ultimately a force for good and democracy. Dabydeen thought China was complicated too, and like India, ultimately a force for good. At one level, it was a strange talk to have here in Sri Lanka, where relations with those two countries could be a fodder for a much more enriching conversation. But the organisers of the festival are too aware of its exclusive audience’s interests and inclinations to risk that.
The moderation (or the lack of it) during several other talks made it even more clear how the Galle festival wasn’t a Sri Lankan festival as much as it was an ‘international’ festival. In one panel for instance, that had two expatriate Sri Lankan novelists Shankari Chandran and Nayomi Munaweera, the moderator showed light interest in the communities and characters the novelists had written about – Sinhala and Tamil – but was more keen on what they thought about the many online feminist movements. The intersection of politics and literature is, of course, a fundamental issue of debate. But that debate never began. In instances like these and others, the moderators were satisfied with questions and answers that elicited standard response. Nothing, it seemed, was supposed to confuse or challenge the audience of largely Western and Sri Lankan elites.
While the Jaipur Lit Fest is at times derided for being too much of a tamasha, a spectacle of performers and voyeurs underpinned by crass commercialism, CP found a creeping sympathy for Jaipur dawning in the face of the recent La-di-da exclusivity of the Galle Lit Fest. While both festivals whisk away their star authors to exclusive events and invitation-only dinners and lunches, the Jaipur Lit Fest’s sheer size and exuberance ensures a feeling of community, while the Galle Lit Fest suffered far too much from the exclusivity which left many seats empty, and several good events under-attended. The popular Bangladeshi band Chirkutt for example found itself playing to a sparse crowd, albeit the band’s professionalism and the small audience’s enthusiasm smoothed over the contretemps. Attempts to interview participating authors, publishers and organizers fell flat. CP found it rather galling to be out in the cold in Galle but was saved by the warmth of old friends of Himal who reached out enthusiastically to the magazine’s nascent team in Colombo.
CP tips its hat to the festival, which managed to get some great writers even though the dates overlapped with the mega literary festival in Jaipur. But many events turned out to be missed opportunities relying far too much on western moderators with a limited sense of history and politics of the region. Why, CP wondered, couldn’t the organisers have drawn on the vibrant civil society of academics, writers, and journalists in Sri Lanka? But perhaps that may have made the event far too exciting, detracting from the identity of Galle – in the words of the festival’s founder Geoffrey Dobbs – as “the alternative Riviera between Galle and Tangalle.”
~ Read more coverage of the Galle Literary Festival 2018 by Chhetria Patrakar, including interviews with some writers at the festival.