The Old Men and The Scene

Of late Kuala Lumpur, bearing the battle scars of an economic downturn, and the promise of a moderate return to prosperity, seems to be exploring a more sophisticated road to cosmopolitanism and international desirability ­– one hinged upon the believe that a city is known as much for its culture as it is for its monuments.

It does appear that culture has become the sexy new kid on the block, with multinationals and homegrown companies forming partnerships with artists to promote their brand within the country – the Nokia Art Awards, the BOH Cameronian Arts Awards, the Philips Jazz Festival, the Heineken Green Room Sessions.

The most recent of these is the Citigroup Kuala Lumpur International Literary Festival, on from July 29 to 1 August. Sponsored by Citigroup and organised by Silverfish Books, the National Library of Malaysia, Dewan Bahasa & Pustaka, PENA, Maclals and the Australian High Commission Kuala Lumpur, the event is not without its superlatives – the organisers claim it to be the first literary festival of such a scale to be organised in the ASEAN region.

Indeed, the sponsor and organisers must be commended for taking a multi-pronged approach to literature, and for having the gumption to premier the festival at such a large-scale.

The festival program includes public readings, forum discussions, meet the author sessions, and workshops featuring writers from over 10 countries, and boasting a gaggle of awards between them. Amongst some of the participants are bigwigs such as Amit Chaudhuri, a multiple award winning novelist, Ken Wiwa, who will talk about his relationship with his martyred father, Alfian Saat, the hot young thing from across the Causeway, Ayu Utami, the hot young thing from across the Javanese Sea, Paul Bailey, nominated twice for the Booker Man Prize, Micheal Vaitikosis, editor at large for the Far Eastern Economic Review, and many more. Among the Malaysian writers are Salleh Ben Joned, self proclaimed freelance apostate, Farish Noor, our very own public intellectual, Rehman Rashid, who wrote the very popular Malaysian Journey, and Amir Muhammad, everybody’s favourite columnist turned filmmaker.

In conjunction with the festival, there are a lot of activities for the public as well. This includes a children’s writing competition sponsored by ASTRO, photo exhibits, free film screenings of Japanese movies based on famous Japanese novels, staged readings of Singaporean plays (directed by Krishen Jit), Dr Seuss Readings at KLCC, a Songwriters’ Round, and even an open mike session for anyone who fancies reading his or her works publicly.

There are rumblings at the few international literary giants and publishing stars attending. However, unlike sneaker companies, which are able to manufacture instant desirability with the help of mega advertising budgets, festivals, like cities, build a reputation over time. It is therefore crucial that the Citigroup Kuala Lumpur Literary Festival does not suffer the fate of other ambitious festivals, such as the now defunct Kuala Lumpur Arts Festival, so that it can develop and establish itself as a credible pit stop in the international festival circuit.

On the local front, the lineup of Malaysian writers headlining the festival certainly are amongst the big names in the country’s literary history. Muhammad Haji Salleh is an award-winning bi-lingual poet, scholar and Sastrawan Negara. Llyod Fernando, one of the most erudite intellectuals and writers the country has produced will see the relaunch of his book Green is the Colour. Kee Thuan Chye, whose play, 1984 Here and Now (1985) has developed mythic proportions all of its own, will relaunch three plays, 1984 Here and Now, The Big Purge and We Could*** You Mr Birch at the Festival, while poet and lawyer Cecil Rajendra will launch his latest collection of poems, Trial and Terror. Senior Malay-language writers such as S. Othman Kelantan, Dato Baha Zain, and Prof Siti Zainon will also hold a dialogue session, organised by PENA. These writers, together with other Malaysians featured, such as Karim Raslan, Amir Muhamadd and Jit Murad, certainly have enriched the literary landscape of the country, and continue to produce new works that are ever relevant.

The presence of literary heavy weights and mid-career writers is overwhelming, but not unexpected, given that this is the first international literary festival organised in Malaysia. So lets acknowledge those who’ve laid the foundation for us. The sole representative of new writings appears to be in the form of Siverfish New Writing 4, a commendable, if overly ambitious series of short stories. But surely we have more young guns out there? Or perhaps we have hardly any and this festival is aimed at hopefully feeding this lack.

One hopes that this festival will be an impetus for young Malaysians to rediscover literature and writing and be acquainted with the legacies left them by the veterans, and that future festivals will include a more prominent presence of new voices.

First Published: 29.07.2004 on Kakiseni

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