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The downs and ups of the Irrawaddy Literary Festival

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Duncan Jepson, Douglas Kerr and Tom Vater (left to right) speak about crime writing at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Mandalay on February 14.

The second edition of the Irrawaddy Literary Festival, held in Mandalay from February 14 to 16, produced its share of controversy.

A month before the festival even started, about 50 local poets and 30 cartoonists announced plans to boycott the event for a smattering of reasons, including harboring bitter feelings about the inclusion of authors from government-linked writers’ associations.

Once the festival got underway, there was grumbling among a few international authors about Htoo Foundation’s sponsorship of the event. One Bangkok-based writer told me that he would not have come to Myanmar had he known Tay Za was involved, and he named one other prominent author who felt the same way.

These feelings were a source of minor amusement among my local friends, including a small-business owner I ran into at the Yangon Airport on the way back from the festival. Her response was typical: “Tay Za is no worse than the rest of them. To be fair, you’d have to boycott everything sponsored by a major Myanmar company.”

Meanwhile, the festival’s opening day descended into confusion after the Ministry of Culture revoked permission for organizers to hold the event at the last minute at Kuthodaw Pagoda, forcing an abrupt change of venue to Mandalay Hill Resort.

The venue switch resulted in the circulation of a rumor around Mandalay that the first day’s events had been cancelled. In reality, the transfer to the hotel was made with impressive speed and adeptness, and the first round of panel discussion kicked off only about an hour behind schedule.

The cancellation rumors ensured that the crowds remained small throughout the opening day. The first discussion I attended – featuring authors Douglas Kerr, Tom Vater and Duncan Jepson talking about crime writing – was held under a tree behind the hotel and attracted about a dozen people. Triple that number found their way to a talk by Mr Vater later in the afternoon.

One of the main draws at the festival – and for many, the only draw – was the appearance of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on February 15.

I had mixed feelings about her inclusion in the event: Sure, she’s swell and all, and of course her presence was an enticement to foreign authors who attended.

But it seemed unfair that only one Myanmar parliamentarian among many should be invited to the festival. Also, 10 other literary panel discussions – which, ostensibly, were what the festival was all about – could have been held in the time slots taken up by Daw Suu Kyi’s two appearances.

I attended the first talk, which featured Daw Suu Kyi “in conversation” with Dame Joan Bakewell.

Getting a seat in the rather small venue involved wrestling my way through an anarchic scrum of idolaters. My media pass helped me make the cut, as the National League for Democracy (NLD) security detail first allowed foreign authors to enter, followed by foreign media, followed by everyone else.

I was also lucky to be white, as the NLD’s Keepers of the Gate waved me into the room but stiff-armed the media-pass-bearing Thai journalist who had been standing next to me. He eventually made it inside, but only after submitting to the NLD’s seating hierarchy.

The “conversation” itself was rather tepid, retracing ground that has been covered hundreds of times before: How did you pass your time under house arrest? Have you read many books on politics? I thought things would heat up a bit when Ms Bakewell mentioned the “trouble in Northern Ireland” between Catholics and Protestants and asked how Buddhism applies to political life.

“Here we go! Religious conflict in Myanmar!” I thought.

“I don’t think Christians are quite Christian in political life, are they? Buddhists are not necessarily Buddhist in political life or even in their social lives,” Daw Suu Kyi responded. “There are good Buddhists and not-so-good Buddhists.”

That was about as controversial as it got.

I didn’t bother struggling my way into the “Literary Heroes and Villains” discussion that also featured Daw Suu Kyi later that same day. Instead, I remained outside and watched the event on the big video screen that had been erected near the hotel’s swimming pool.

This talk was marginally more interesting than the first, but, disappointingly, most references were to authors of ages long gone by: William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, George Eliot.

Participant Louis de Bernières, the author of the novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1994), deserved hearty applause for at least bringing the discussion into the late 20th century with his mention of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Meanwhile, the welcome and informative references to Asian literature were left to the other panelists, Chinese-born British writer Jung Chang and Myanmar Book Center chair U Thaw Kaung.

For me the highlight was Sunday: The crowds were bigger than the opening day, but the shouting mobs of Daw Suu Kyi’s Saturday appearance were gone, and the attention reverted back to the participating authors and literary agents where it belonged.

Some of my favorite moments of the festival occurred during my one-on-one conversations with writers like Duncan Jepson and Michael Vatikiotis, and literary agents such as Marysia Juszczakiewicz, Kerry Glencorse and Kelly Falconer.

At a time when foreign “experts” are flooding into Myanmar to instruct local policymakers on how to behave democratically, hold a census or kick-start the economy, it was heartening to hear the degree to which these writers and agents were actually interested in literature written by Asian authors.

I didn’t get the sense that they had come to the festival with the pompous goal of “teaching” the locals about writing and publishing, but instead were here to learn about Myanmar’s literary scene and take some of that knowledge back home with them.

In the future, the Irrawaddy Literary Festival would do well to pour all of its resources into accommodating this kind of cultural exchange – in particular, giving authors who are little-known to the international community a rare chance to shine – rather than providing space to celebrity politicians who have plenty of other platforms from which they can speak.