By Bernice Chauly
One of the most intriguing guests at the 2nd Kuala Lumpur International Literary Festival, held between March 28th to April 1st, 2007, was the Czech writer Eda Kriseova. We clung to her every word. Born in 1940, the daughter of an architect and a sculptress, Eda studied journalism at Prague’s Charles University and travelled extensively after her graduation, working as a voluntary worker in many countries: at a kibbutz in Israel, a herring farm in Hokkaido, an earthquake ravaged village in Sicily, and at a mental hospital in Prague during the Soviet invasion.
“You can be free, even if you are in prison,” Eda said. “People in mental hospitals can be more free then the people outside.” Open and frank in her clipped accent, she talked about her life and work, and engaged us in ways that only one who has suffered can.
After the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Eda’s texts were banned. Her documentary-filmmaker husband was persecuted, and their family was put through many years of hardship. When she faced her interrogators, “I confronted them with silence, and they did not know what to do.”
Forced to make a living as a writer of tourist guides in the 1980s, Eda struggled to raise her two daughters — and wrote children’s fiction as well to get by. “I began writing stories for them,” she said, “Imaginary tales to detract them from the war.” Eda became a member of Prague’s many dissident groups, and her radical writings were published underground until the Velvet Revolution in 1989. She then became an advisor to Vaclav Havel, and worked closely with him when the playwright became President. She later became his biographer.
For those of us who had honour of listening to Eda speak, we were left inspired and moved by such courage. Sadly, her session was attended by less than ten people.
The first KLILF, founded by Silverfish Books owner Raman Krishnan, was held at the Renaissance Hotel in 2004. It was themed “Evolving Faces: Identities and the Printed Page”, and featured names like Amit Chaudhuri, Ken Saro-Wiwa and Ayu Utami. This year’s festival was not necessarily bigger and better than its predecessor — but it was certainly cheaper, more intimate and more accessible.
A series of readings, workshops and Q & A sessions, all within walking distance of Bangsar’s chic, sleek new mall, the 2nd KLILF featured events that many found useful - students especially, as apparent from the many who packed out Tash Aw’s “Endings” workshops.
Using Nabokov’s “Lolita” and Hemmingway’s “Farewell to Arms” as examples, Tash - whose debut, “The Harmony Silk Factory” won the Whitbread Prize in 2005 — showed his apprentices how crucial it was to tie up loose ends and secure the plot. He used Yasmin Ahmad’s film “Sepet” as an example of how a “misguided ending ruined the film.”
Participants were asked to then write their own endings, based on the openings they wrote in an earlier workshop (“Beginnings”). Many were easily coaxed to read their furtive attempts, and Tash was generous with comments and critiques. One young woman was praised at her attempt at an elliptical ending — she had ended her story at the point at which she began.
It was reassuring to see at least a hundred people cram into Alexis Bangsar’s Sino Bar at ten-thirty in the morning for “Endings”. All six of KLILF’s venues — Marmalade Cafe and Starbucks at Bangsar Village 2; Café 1920 at Bangsar Village 1, Alexis Bistro; Silverfish Books; Ronnie Q’s Pub — offered their spaces to the festival, and did so in a spirit that embraced the possibilities and importance of the written word. That, in itself, was significant.
KLILF’s venues hosted a generous list of invitees: Tash Aw; cartoonist / writer/ activist Antares; columnist Dina Zaman; Jade Ong and Brian Jones, who make up Cloudbreak; 2005 Nobel Literature nominee Cecil Rajendra; poet and playwright Wong Phui Nam; and Prof Lim Chee Seng, President of the Malaysian International Literature Society, represented Malaysia. (Unfortunately, a much anticipated appearance by Salleh ben Joned did not happen, as the poet was simply too unwell to attend the launch of his newest collection, “Adam’s Dream”.)
Asia Pacific writers were represented by the Word Forward Slam Poets (Singapore), Laksmi Pamuntjak (Indonesia), Sumithra Rahubaddhe (Sri Lanka), Randa Abdel Fatteh and Brian Castro (Australia), and Elizabeth Smither (New Zealand). From Europe came Eda Kriseova, Benjamin Zephaniah (Britain), Holger Warnk (Germany) and Conor O’Cleary (Ireland). Canadian writer Camilla Gibb was the only North American representative.
However, with a schedule that began at 10.30am and ended at 6.30pm, you had to choose between 13 events, which were divided into three sessions that lasted an hour and a half, each. For example, one had to choose between Benjamin Zephaniah, Eda Kriseova, Elizabeth Smither, and Tash Aw. At best, you would catch three sessions, but miss out on the other ten — or, like me, dash unceremoniously from one session to the next and try to give each writer justice. The venues were minutes apart, but there should have been a disclaimer somewhere, saying: “Sensible shoes required.”
Benjamin Zephaniah, the Birmingham-based Rastafarian writer and dub poet, was undoubtedly the star attraction of KLILF. His performances at Marmalade (and later at the Central Market Annexe, which also clashed with Cecil Rajendra’s reading at Ronnie Q’s) drew audiences by the hundreds — a relative horde. He did not disappoint. As a purveyor of spoken word poetry — sometimes personal, more often political (Benjamin is also vegan) — he did what he does best:
“I used to think nurses / Were women/ I used to think police/ Were men,” Benjamin said with stoic sarcasm, “I used to think poets / Were boring / Until I became one of them.”
The poet certainly scores points among cultural renegades. In a November 27th, 2003 interview with The Guardian about being awarded the Order of the British Empire, Benjamin woke up, one morning, “Wondering how the (UK) government could be overthrown and what could replace it, and then I noticed a letter from the prime minister’s office. I thought, OBE, me? Up Yours, I thought … I get angry when I hear that word ’empire’; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds of thousands of years of brutality.”
To others, however, his socio-political poems are less effective. In reference to a racist attack in an affluent London neighbourhood — a young black youth was brutally killed, but the killers were never charged for their heinous crime — Benjamin chastises the police: “We know who the killers are / We have watched them strut before us / As proud as sick Mussolinis.” One local academic, watching Benjamin’s readings at KLILF, observed that that poem would not bring justice to the killers or their victim, and argued that that Benjamin was nothing more than a glorified stand-up comedian.
I beg to differ. Benjamin spoke to the unconverted in a way that always works: passion, coupled with humour. The poet has found — as all seasoned performers should — a formula that is his and his alone. In an impassioned plea for vegetarianism during the festive season, he intones: “Be nice to yu turkeys dis Christmas / Cos’ turkeys just wanna hav fun / Turkeys are cool, turkeys are wicked / An every turkey has a Mum.”
Undoubtedly, Benjamin is a rock-star prophet of the spoken word. He deserved the standing ovations he received.
KLILF attracted more than one verse-maker; it inadvertently brought Malaysians our first poetry slam, at 67TempinisSatu, a gallery across the street from the Telawi addresses of the other venues. Led by Chris Mooney-Singh (from Singapore’s Word Forward) and organised by Sharon Bakar (who organises the monthly “Readings”), the session featured a vibrant line-up of three Singaporean and eight Malaysian poets.
Poetry slams are where poets showcase their work in a manner they see best captures their poems: performing, rather than just reading from the page. Memorising one’s work is a necessary attribute — not to mention thick skins and bravado — if you want to compete in this kind of sport; taken to a competitive level, the KLILF slam gave contestants three rounds to go through, before a panel of judges — three rather startled individuals who were picked at random from the audience. None of the three knew any of the slammers, and little about poetry — but they knew all about the process of elimination: “Thanks to American Idol,” said one.
Chris’s poem about spoken word, “The Word Must Rock!” set the tone for the afternoon. He gave us the low-down on the rules: each poet had three minutes; if the audience disapproved of the work, they could start snapping their fingers or stamping their feet.
We could even boo the judges if they were mean. The 70-odd audience had a ball.
Our slammers entertained us: Dato Shanmulingam’s “Fatty fatty boom boom”; Sharanya Manivannan sighing: “Make love to me, magenta”; Singaporeans Marc Nair (talking about his Milo addiction) and Pooja Nansi (expounding about British stereotypes of India); newcomer kG’s wrenching love poem (his poetry was “sexual and masochistic in nature,” he said, “Definitely pain-related”); and Peter Hassan Brown’s equally naughty “Vigorous”. They read with great gusto, with sashays and seduction, with ululations and gyrations: all in the true spirit of the spoken word.
This was poetry taken to a completely new level: at times daunting for performers, yes, but loads of fun for everyone.
I caught Dina Zaman’s reading at Marmalade Cafe from her book, “I Am Muslim” (published by Silverfish Books and launched last month) — it was well attended, and a rather lively audience questioned her about her sex life, and why she did not wear the hijab. ”Not wearing the hijab does not make me feel like a lesser Muslim; I think the time is not right yet,” Dina remarked. “Yes, I am divorced, but I have three battery-operated boyfriends.”
Said in true Dina style and aplomb. There were several young Muslim women in the audience who applauded the writer on writing about topics sometimes deemed taboo and contentious in the religious quagmire that surrounds the Malaysian practice of Islam.
Sadly lacking at the festival was a coherent theme. Touted to explore “The Nation at 50”, this year’s KLILF did not really address, in one way or the other, the issues or concepts of independence. Such a theme could have added some structure to an otherwise loose collection of events. Writers love to talk with other writers, after all, and this should have been the case.
This was, perhaps, the festival’s biggest failure. The KLILF was a “gathering of world class authors,” as promised in the programme booklet — but none of the authors ever shared a venue or had a session together. Imagine Eda Kriseova, Laksmi Pamuntjak, Dina Zaman and Camilla Gibb at one session — or Brian Castro and Conor O’Cleary talking about autobiographical fiction versus fact. One of the primary reasons for having any kind of festival is to have its international participants dialogue and have discourse; to have them agree or disagree about the many issues that writers write about — and, above all, to have an audience along for the ride.
“A missed opportunity,” a local poet told me. “It would have been great to have Dina Zaman, Randa-Abdel Fattah and Camilla Gibb, for example, all talking about Islam.”
The festival’s selection of writers was also a missed opportunity. Women were better represented this time around, but the KLILF’s literal interpretation of a “literary festival” did an injustice to writers who write in a myriad of other genres — children’s fiction, food, travel — excluding them, where a less aristocratic-sounding “writers’ festival” might have not.
Brian Castro is considered one of Australia’s most imaginative novelists, acknowledged for his brilliant prose style and use of language. Born in 1950, during a typhoon between the seas of Macao and Hong Kong, he is of Spanish, Portuguese, English and Chinese heritage. Also an essayist, he is the author of eight novels, including “Shanghai Dancing”, which won the Victorian Premier’s Award for Fiction and the NSW Premier’s Book of the Year Award in 2004; Brian’s 2005 novel, “The Garden Book”, has also been short-listed for some of Australia’s top literary awards.
As a writer inspired by his own family stories, Brian weaves fiction and non-fiction in ways that defy ethical limitations “Go for broke,” he told his audience. “If you write a story, make it as intriguing as possible. Take risks and move beyond. You have to keep the idea that if the passion is starting to disappear, then your story is all wrong. Writing has to become an exorcism of the self.”
Brian’s session was rather well-attended — he must have quite a following in KL, judging by the way all copies of his book were snapped up. When asked about the manner in which he tells his stories, he said: “I can’t tell. I can only show.”
A diminutive man, he spoke in quick, sharp sentences, and you could feel him picturing words in his mind as he spoke. He read an excerpt from the first chapter of “Shanghai Dancing” — “Sometimes you suffocate when you think of the past; of a life that never was, flashing up in sepia. Memory which is creamy-yellow, cracked; composed of protogallic acid, protosulphate of iron, potassium cyanide. Let’s not get too technical. Not right now. It makes for too much exposure. Still in the dark, you remember that in Shanghai they used to wrap tomatoes in tissue paper. Like this story, like the way everything in history is always wrapped in a tissue; of words, of memories, of lies.”
This was a man that truly loved his work and the nature of words. “A real writer’s writer,” said one participant.
“If you write — even if you are an amateur — write as a lover,” Brian told his audience. Listening to him, as to much of KLILF, for all its faults, left me with the same feeling that many festivals had in the past; what with writers sharing their words with people who paid to listen — it answered that age-old question as to why writers write.
In the words of Eda Kriseova was our answer: “Writing saved my life.”
First Published: 01.05.2007 on Kakiseni