Thursday, September 1, 2016

Mountain Echoes Literary Festival, Bhutan, 2016

I am a great fan of Asian literary festivals and have been lucky to take take part in a number in the region over the past decade. So when I heard the seventh edition of the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival was to be held in Bhutan this August, I knew I had to be there. I had met one of the directors  the previous year at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Mandalay, and was delighted when Mountain Echoes producer Mita Kapur (CEO of Siyahi Literary Consultancy in Jaipur) asked me to be involved. My task at Mountain Echoes 2016 was to be in conversation with best selling Australian author Graeme Simsion on his books The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect. We were the Aussie contingent among a list of seventy-eight authors and commentators (mostly Indian and Bhutanese) and proudly so. It was a great privilege to be sharing the festival bill with festival patron, Her Majesty the Royal Queen Mother of Bhutan, Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk (herself an author), Amitav Ghosh, Pico Iyer, Damey Tenzin Norgay ( the son of Everest climber Tenzin Norgay Sherpa), Kunzang Choden ( Bhutan's first female novelist) and all the other esteemed guests. See the full list here.

A lucky autograph hunter gets a signature from Her Majesty, The Queen Mother of Bhutan.

Full house for all sessions at the Royal Bhutan University Auditorium.

Amitav Ghosh also signing autographs, Dhamey Tenzin Norgay in foreground.

Myself in conversation with best selling author Graeme Simsion (The Rosie Project)
As is my habit I organised an itinerary for other writers to join— a twelve day tour of Bhutan including two days at the festival and a climb to the famous Tiger's Nest Monastery for our grand finale. By the time we arrived at Mountain Echoes we had a little more understanding of what it means to live in a country of tall mountains and rushing rivers, where the only way to anywhere is via a single wild, winding mountain road (made even wilder by the national road widening project currently underway). A journey from one valley to the next, timed to take four and a half hours, took eleven, due to landslide delays, rain and mud — all grist for the writer's mill, with some great poems and stories eventuating from my group. Each valley so different from the next, each monastery, temple, dzong, totally unique. How perfect then to arrive at the festival with so many questions on our minds about this extraordinary mountain nation we had been traversing.

Our Writer's Journey group, happy they have made it across another pass.

The famous iron link bridge.

The Dzong in Trongsa, with moody Sept skies.

Sessions on Climate Change (with Amitav Ghosh), Brand Bhutan, Retelling Our Stories and Histories, Of Everest and Unclimbed Mountains, Story of The Lotus Born Guru, all helped to expand our knowledge and fuel our group's discussion on the Bhutan Government's aspirational policy of Gross National Happiness.  Is it working or not?  How can a government gauge if its people are really happy, or not quite happy yet? It was interesting also to witness the close relationships between Indian and Bhutanese writers, and the support given to this event by one of their chief sponsors, the Tourism department of the Rajasthan Government. Represented at the festival by their Chief Minister, Vasundhara Raje  who spoke in the session enitled, Of The People For The People, about her hands on approach to governance and helping to empower village women.

The Chief Minister of Rajasthan in converation with Malvika Singh.
A wonderful introduction to Kashmiri poet, Lal Ded.
In a performance event by Mita Vasisht and Sangita Kathiwada we learned of the fourteenth century Kashmiri poet Lal Ded. Married off at age 12, and mistreated by her husbands family, she renounced material life and marriage to wander naked as a follower of Lord Shiva. Her poems are the earliest compositions in Kashmiri language and she is still quoted and worshipped by everyday Kashmiris.  How wonderful to discover her in this place!

At the writer's dinner at the Taj Tashi Hotel, I was able to catch up with Bhutanese authors I had met on my first trip to Bhutan. Rinzin Rinzin and Chador Wangmo were launching their new books at the festival— Chador's novel Kyetse, is the tale of a girl born in a time rife with superstitious beliefs, and Rinzin's Depa Bondeypa's Relatives tells "of the world of a legendary mermaid and riches, and also to the times of kings when modern road was not even a dream." Launching with them was Lingi Jamtsho's Gyalo — a sneak peek into the life of a Bhutanese soldier. It was great to see local and emerging writers being supported by the festival. Chador introduced me to Bhutan's grand dame of letters, Kunzang Choden. I'd read her wonderful novel Circle of Karma and a number of her childrens books after my last trip and was thrilled to experience in person her softly spoken wisdom and  generosity of spirit. 

Ciler Ilhan, myself and Chador Wangmo.
I also met  festival co-director Siok Sian Dorji, a wonderfully intelligent and articulate speaker who gave the opening address,  along with screen writer and author Venita Coelho and Turkish writer Ciler Ilhan. Ciler's collection of short stories, Exile, won the EU Prize for Literature in 2011. Each monologue tells of the suffering of fictional and real life characters caught up in global injustice. While the moderator at her first session, Zak O'Yeah, a Scandanavian crime writer and translator, described her work as dark, if not very dark, Ciler is a delightfully bubbly person. At the same table I met Sadaf Saaz, poet, writer, entrepreneur and women’s rights activist who co-founded the Dhaka Literary Festival in 2011 and  is the author of That Which Cannot Be Said, a collection of stories about Bangladeshi women's experience. Another festival to add our wish list!

Pico Iyer in conversation with Namgay Zam
On day two, the renowned Indian travel writer, Pico Iyer, stole the show with his session on The Art of Stillness, telling how after his family home burnt down he went to stay for three days at a Benedictine retreat centre  As well as stillness, he discovered that "home is not where we live, but what lives inside us"and urged everyone to try just sitting still for at least five minutes a day. (See his Ted talk on stiillness here).

Another highlight of the day was the session with singer and ex diplomat, Dasho Tshering Wangda, and Indian musician Rahul Ram, in conversation with Kunga Tenzin Dorji.  Each told their musical history in song, playing and singing together and apart, treating us to Hindi and Bhutanese favorites that had the crowd swaying in nostalgic bliss. The Memory Project introduced us to the writings of Renuka Narayanan, whose memoir, A Madrasi Memoir details her story of growing up female in a high caste Brahmin family in Tamil Nadu. Her Bhutanese counterpart Lily Wangchuk, author of Facts about Bhutan: The Land of the Thunder Dragon, recalled her journey to discover the father she never knew, through the photographs he took from the 50s until his early death.  

In the afternoon, following a delicious lunch, I listened to Omair Ahmad (India), Witi Ihimaera (New Zealand) and Kunzang Choden (Bhutan) in conversation with Sadaf Saaz (Bangladesh) on Retelling Our Stories and Histories. Each had important things to say on the value of storytelling, and when Witi began his talk in Maori song, I found myself moved to tears. His way of story telling had much in common with the next panel, where oral story tellers, grandmother Angey Nagley,  and ex monk Agey Dregang, told tales in dzongka, with translations on the screen for non dzongka speakers.  They introduced us to lozey, stories told in poetic form, sometimes sung, which were commonly performed at festival times or when workers gathered together in the village.

Dancers at the festival entertaining the writers and delegates.

Outside in the tea breaks writers and students attending the festival gathered for delicious snacks entertainment by dancers and a roving jester. Groups of students had came from Rajisthan, Nepal and other parts of Bhutan and had asked some of the best questions at the end of sessions. I was thrilled to meet a group of literature students from a college in Trongsa (where we had spent a magical day and night) and was more than happy to be mobbed by autograph hunters from Mayo College, Rajasthan.

With the students of Mayo Colllege from Rajasthan.

Amitav Ghosh in conversation with journalist Namgay Zam  ended the panels for the day, describing how writing a character is a long process — slowly you get to know them, then you find you can't let them go, which is why he ended up writing his Ibis trilogy. To finish the day a group of Rajasthani folk musicians took to the stage as a warm up for a free evening concert in the Clock Tower Square with Rahul Ram's band Indian Ocean and local band Yangchen and The Able. The square was packed as young and old came out to see and hear their compelling raga rock rhythms.

Singer, songwriter Shisir at the open mike. Photo Mt Echoes.

Sadly we had to leave on day three, but with two venues running it was even more jam packed with great panels and events. The festival ended with an open mike event where many visiting and local authors and poets gave readings and performances. Catch up with all the fun here.

While it is impossible to mention all the sessions and writers, I hope  to have given a taste of the literary and cultural delights that Mountain Echoes offers. With its efficient team of organisers and volunteers it is surely one of the best festivals in Asia and maybe one of its best kept secrets.  It usually takes place in the second half of August, attendance is free for all, so start making your plans now to visit the hidden kingdom of Bhutan, with Mountain Echoes as an added bonus.

Mountain Echoes Festival is produced by the Sihayi team in association with the India Bhutan Foundation and the Rajasthan government's Department of Tourism.

Many thanks to festival producer Mita Kapur and her team at Siyahi, as well as directors: Siok Sian Dorji,  Namita Gokhale, Pramod Kumar KG, Tshering Tashi, and all officials and volunteers!

View Mountain Echoes website here and their Facebook page here.

Siyahi is India's leading literary agency and works towards carrying Indian literature to the world. They also organise literary events of all types, from international festivals to intimate readings and book launches.

Jan Cornall is a writer, performance poet and singer based in Sydney Australia. Since 2004 she has taken part in a number of festivals in the Asia Pacific region, including: Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (Bali)  Utan Kayu Literary Biennale (Java)  Irrawaddy Literary Festival (Myanmar), Hong Kong International Literary Festival, The Northern Kingdoms Poetry Festival (Cambodia),Open Art Festival (Beijing), Women's International Playwrights Conference (Mumbai), Wordstorm (Darwin), Two Fires Festival ( Braidwood),  Woollongong Writers Festival,  Sydney Writer's Festival.

Jan also teaches writing and runs international writing retreats. Her next writer's journey is to Morocco in Jan/Feb 2017. Find out more at

In Bhutan Jan travels with Bhutan and Beyond and the Tourism Council of Bhutan.

(c) Jan Cornall  Sept 2016. Photos by Jan Cornall except first and second last pics from Mountain Echoes Facebook page.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Stitch, Weave, Write

Last month we were fortunate to have a new venue for some new writing workshops. Author Jennifer Smart  (her novel Wardrobe Girl is published by Random House) invited us to workshop in her new venture in Newcastle, Mulberry and Flax, a wonderful store filled with fine fabric, yarns and wool.

I asked writers to bring a piece of favorite fabric and our exercises were based around this and other memories we had of stitching, sewing, and messing around with yarns, wools and threads.

Helen Stevenson brought an embroidered table cloth she purchased in pre war Syria. 

Others brought a piece of clothing, a woven cloth from Burma, an embroidered piece from Laos, and we had a bunch of remnants to inspire us as well.

Attendees included poet, Samantha Ogilvie and her seeing eye dog Roscoe, novelist Jennifer Moore who took the train from Sydney, poet and memoir writer Helen Stevenson, former midwife and teacher Cath Whelan (working on a history of the midwifery movement in Newcastle in the 80s and 90s, jeweller, former fashion designer, Cyd Joyce, her kids (my grandkids) Alfie and Vivian and our host, novelist and blogger, Jennifer Smart.

Sam and her faithful Roscoe
Such a patient being!
My grandkids Viv and Alfie
Cath and Sam exlporing the feel of Syrian embroidery
Jennifer stitches and writes in her  Mulb &Flax workshop space
Helen is a quilter, knitter and embroiderer from way back
   My daughter Cyd and her daughter Alfie 
Yummy snacks courtesy of Mulb & Flax

We did do some writing too!

Monday, January 11, 2016

Loneliness and the long distance writer

Over the holiday period I was fortunate to have the offer of a log cabin for a writing stint. Just an hour or so out of town, the idea seemed perfect to me.Tucked away in a eucalypt forest beneath a magnificent rocky outcrop, just me on my ownsome with no neighbours in sight and no convenience store just around the corner (none for miles in fact). My expectations were high. I would arrive with all the food I needed, and dig in. I would write all day and all night, I would not allow myself to be distracted by anything. I would turn off my phone and I pad and luckily with no wifi I wouldn't have all the distractions of Facebook, YouTube and email to lead me astray. Besides it was Xmas Hols and all would be quiet in the virtual world.

It started out well and ended quite well too. I managed to reread my draft manuscript, make notes for rewrites, make lists and maps of where to next, put all the existing scenes on one set of index cards, put all scenes I need to add on another set of index cards, make jottings and notes and forays into the new bits. I had relevant reading materials too, so in my non-writing times I could lounge about and immerse myself in the world of my book.

But, despite all this, I still managed to fall into a hole which opened into a tunnel which opened into such a huge underground cave of lonlieness and negative self talk, I could have been buried alive if it were not for the advice of a number of experts who came to my rescue.

Experts you ask? Where did I find them? Wasn't I way out in the woods with no wifi?

When I realised things were getting desperate I turned my trusty phone into a hot spot and called on the gods of the internet: The Ted Talkers, the Homespun Gurus, The Wise Women, the Spiritual Soothsayers.

I thought I would share some dos and don'ts and new found wisdom with you in case you need it on your next writer's getaway.

DON'T start your personal writer's retreat on Christmas Day. Even though you had Xmas a week earlier and think you will be ok being alone on the one day of the year when everyone is not only playing happy families but sending pics to each other about how happy their happy families are, it is not a good idea.

If you already spend most of your days alone as writer in the city, DON'T assume that spending even more time alone in the country, will lead to writing bliss. It won't. If anything it will be much harder.

DON'T trick yourself into believing that solitary confinement is neccessary for the writing process.It's not.

DO take an array of delicious treats to reward yourself with when you have a good day on the page.

DON'T eat them all on the first day after you fail to get any words on the page.

DON'T listen to the voices that tell you:
you can't write
you are pathetic
you are alone
you are a fake
you are a fraud
nobody likes you
nobody loves you
nobody wants you
nobody cares about you

DON'T be afraid to have a good cry when it all gets too much. Crying releases toxins and has many health benefits. Read more here.

DO program yourself when you wake and several times a day, that:
today the writing will flow
today the writing is effortless
today brilliant ideas come to you
today you write all day and into the night and can't stop
(If this works and you do write all day and all night and you are afraid you will never sleep again, DON'T worry, it won't last).

If your writing getaway heaven is slowly turning into a writing getaway hell, DON'T worry. Just remind yourself it happened last time and you survived. At least you are alive with a roof over your head and you will live to write another day.

If you are gripped by fear, any kind of fear, DO watch this clip with rocket scientist, Olympia LePoint on reprogramming your brian to overcome fear.

DON'T forget that writing is a lonely business. It's one of the hazards of the job. You have to look after yourself when you write. Psychologist Guy Welch tells you how here.

DON'T get cold feet and think that writing is not your life purpose. If you have any doubts you can check them here.

DO keep going back to the wise ones who have helped you in the past. DON'T forget it takes courage and bravery to write, to face the blank page and yourself. Listen to my favourite wise woman,  buddhist nun, Pema Chodron,  reminding us of this very fact.

Happy Writing Getaway!!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Meeting Bhutanese Writers

 In Aug/Sept 2015, our group was lucky to meet and workshop with a number of Bhutanese writers.

In Thimphu we met Pema Gyaltse, Chador Wangmo and Karma Norbu, also Rinzin Rinzin (not in this pic).

After our workshop an impromptu book signing with Pema. her childrens books are widely available in bookstores across Bhutan.

Karma Norbu also brought copies of his novel. Here he is signing a copy for Australian author Walter Mason.

 In Punakha we met with Dechen and friends

It was fantastic to have them join in our workshop

In Paro we met another Karma

And his poet colleague Ugyen Tshomo

It was an excellent exchange!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Writing in the Kingdom of Bhutan

In late August fourteen adventurers left Bangkok, headed for the Kingdom of Bhutan.

We stopped in Kolkata but didn't get off, and not far past Mt Everest (yes this pic the real thing, not a mountain shaped cloud!) our small plane, imagining it was a helicopter, wound its way through a narrow steepsided valley (so close we felt we could reach out and touch the valley sides) and landed on the short runway at Paro airport.

Our guide Tenzin, tall, handsome and elegantly dressed in a traditioal goh, shook each of us by the hand and said in his slow, calm voice 'welcome to Bhutan.'

On the way to Thimphu, he took us to the famous chain bridge, one of 108 chain bridges built in the 1300s.

The river rushes beneath the chain mesh, not as easy as it looks to cross, but our gentleman guide was ready with a helping hand.

Thimphu is the capital of Bhutan and consists of a charming sprawl of houses and apartment buildings built along the Thimphu Valley. Mist hung low over the surrounding mountains giving the hill town a suitable air of mystery.

First stop was the Memorial Stupa, to join the locals in circumnabulation.

Next stop, the Takin Reserve.  The takin is the national animal and looks like a cow with a goats head. It is said that when asked to perform a miracle, local saint, Drukpa Kunley (see more below) took the head of a goat and placed it on the skeleton of a cow, and so the takin was born..

After lunch we browsed the local shops and craft market...

On the second day of our writing workshops we were joined by Bhutanese writers Chador Wangmo, Pema Gyaltsen and Karma Norbu, Namgay and Sonam. One of our group Carolina, told of her journey to Bhutan in 1968, when Mrs Ghandi came to open the first sealed road.

Postcard circa 1968

Some of the other sights we visited were the impressive Trashi Chhoe Dzong where monks were reahearsing their mask dances for the festival in Sept.

 And the sun broke through the misty clouds on our visit to the giant Buddha watching over Thimphu valley. In its final stages of erection it should be ready next year.

We were invited to come to Sonam and Pema's school to meet their students.

And we stopped in at a paper factory before lunch.

The Natonal Library was a treat...

But the highlight of the day was a visit to the School of Thirteen Arts. The college was is sponsored by the 5th King of Bhutan. Here tuition is free and  students are instructed in the major arts and craft skills. Read more here.

 On Day 4 we headed up and up along steep windy roads to Dochala Pass.

The pass was shrouded in mist so we missed the view of the Himalayas, but we could imagine...

We coasted down into the Punakha Valley to visit the temple of Drukpa Kunley, The Divine Madman. Known as a practioner of 'Crazy Wisdom' he loved women and ara (local wine) is still revered as an irreverant saint. Animated representations of his phallus adorn houses all over Bhutan as a symbol of fertility and women come from all over the world to take part in a fertility ritual at his temple.

At our new hotel, the glasshouse by the wide glacial river was the perfect spot for our workshops. More Bhutanese writers joined us, Karma, Dechen,  all teachers from the area.

Next day we visited the stunning Punakha Dzong, built at the confluence of the the confluence of the Pho Chun and Mo Chuu Rivers...

and hiked through the rice paddies to Khamsum Yulley Namgyel Chorten.

Inside was a treat for those of us who knew a little about Tantric Buddhism — four floors of  sculpted wrathful deities and wall paintings (no photos allowed), with a spectacular view over the valley from the top.

We all agreed we could have spent an extra day in Punakha Valley.

Back over Dochala Pass and on to Paro, we visited  Paro Dzong (no, we were not Dzonged out yet!)

And then checked into our red carpeted cottages at Olathang Resort. This was the first hotel to be built when Bhutan opened its doors to tourism in 1974, and it has lost none of its charm.

Day 7 and it was time for the climax of the trip, our hike to Taktsang Monastery, or the Tigers Nest, which is perched way up on a cliff side in the Paro Valley  and is where the legendary Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambava, who brought Buddism to Tibet and Bhutan) is said to have flown in on the back of a tigress and meditated in a cave there for three months.

It's an hour's steep walk to the teahouse and viewing point ( you can do this section on horse back) and then another hour to the monastery.

It's a great spot to view Tigers Nest and hikers have the option of continuing on to the next stage of the walk.

Paro Taktsang was shy at first, hidden in the mist.

But then the clouds parted and revealed her splendour.

At the end of the walk there are a thousand steps along the cliff face that take you down to the cave of Yeshe Sogyal ( Padmasambava's consort — it was she who transfomed her self into the tigress to bring him to this extraordinary place), and up to the Tigers Nest.

No gadgets allowed here either,  no phones, cameras, not even pens or note books. There is even a mantra singing police man to frisk you as you enter.

We arrived in the small gonpa that has been built around Guru Rinpoches's cave (we could see the door to the cave that is rarely opened) and thirteen monks an their lama were doing a long life puja for the Queen Grandmother (she is a great supporter of the Dharma). Chanting and sounding the trumpets, drums and cymbals —it really is a deeply primordial sound.  We visited other small temples, rang the big bell given to the monastery by the people of Kobe, Japan. Its sonorous tone sounded out across the valley and one could imagine the flight of the tigress with its valuable charge,  and its arrival  in the small gap in the rock our guide called the landing strip.

We lit butter lamps in a room next door and each made a wish. The lamps would burn on for 24 hours sending their smoke out into the mist that swirls around the Taktsang cliffs and up to the heavens.

Lunch time for the monks and the policeman  meant closing time for us so we picked up our things from the locker room and started the climb down. A few of us visited the cave of Yeshe Sogyal just below, no time limits there.

We said some more prayers and wishes at her altar and took note of the sign, Quiet Please Hermit in Residence. In a small closed room built above the cave we imagined and old nun sitting with her prayer wheel sounding out her mantras as everyone here loves to do; the chef at our first hotel, the doorman with his deep low timbre and the police man we had just left behind.

On the way down some of us found time to write

others practcally skipped down the track

and while we may have just experienced the highlight of our trip, we knew it wasn't over yet.

To be continued...

More pics here

Read some of our writing here

We will visit Bhutan again in August 2016 to attend the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival and explore the valleys we didn't get to this time. All details here.

Jan Cornall leads international writer's workshops and retreats. Find out more here