Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Third Irrawaddy Literary Festival

The third Irrawaddy Literary Festival (March 28-30) in Mandalay, Burma, may have drawn smaller crowds than the first two, but as the saying goes, it was quality not quantity. If you were lucky enough to be there as I was, you would have been party to one of the most intimate festival experiences possible. Like the early days of the Ubud Writer's and Reader's Festival, it felt as if you had portalled into the heart of a warm and friendly literary family as you rubbed shoulders with Booker Prize Winner, Anne Enright, had a drink in the bar with best selling author, Louis de Bernieres and got to know some of Burma's top poets, short story writers, novelists and journalists.

Rupert Arrowsmith adresses the crowd at the opening ceremony.

Sadly festival patron Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, on doctor's orders, wasn’t able to join this year, but her well wishes and presence were keenly felt. Despite her absence, in the setting of the Mandalay Hills Resort at the foot of the famous Kuthodaw Pagoda, there was an air of relaxation and friendship, as the crowd moved between simultaneous sessions running throughout the day. With around 100 Burmese writers present including both Yangon and Mandalay groups (Mandalay writers boycotted the festival last year), and a line up of 30 or so western writers, it wasn’t possible to catch everyone though we did our best.

Traditional dance at the opening ceremony.

Here are some highlights...

Rupert Arrowsmith's talk on The Face of The Buddha gave a big ‘aha’ moment as he described the work of William Empson in uncovering asymmetry in Buddhist iconography. Poet Joseph Wood’s presentation on fellow Irishman Maurice Collis and his writings about Burma in the 20s and 30s and Barnaby Phillips talk on his book, Another Man’s War were similarly fascinating. An hour with Burmese women writers, Phyu Mon, Lae Win Kyi Cho, Hnin Wai Nyein on the Sound Of A Poem,  was insightful and emotionally powerful, particularly the poem read by Kyi Mwe Eain dedicated to the young people injured and imprisoned in the most recent student demonstrations at Letpadan.

Burmese women writers discuss The Sound of A Poem.
An enthusiastic band of young student volunteers were manning all sessions and providing translations via ear piece, Burmese to English, English to Burmese. Burmese writers were discussing such topics as Worlding Burmese Literature, Narcotics in Literature, Myanmar Literature and Media Freedom. In the session before mine, Kyaw Saw Min (journalist and vet) was giving a talk on the Poems of Min Thuon. His audience, a group of Burmese women writers promised to hurry back from lunch to hear me perform my Love Songs to Indonesia. What kind of translation they heard in their ear pieces, I will never know, but when I tried out a love poem written during my last visit to Yangon they seemed to approve.

Some of the fabulous volunteers.

In the non-Burmese corner, a good number of countries were represented: Ratna Vira ( India) spoke with Anne Enright (Ireland) about her best selling debut novel, Daughter By Court Order. Siddarth Dasgupta (India) discussed his novel Letters from an Indian Summer alongside Sweden’s Helena Thorfinn (Sisters by the River) and UK’s Rosalind Russell (Burma’s Spring). At the writer’s dinner on the lawns of the Jefferson Centre Library, I had the pleasure of meeting Japanese historian Natsuo Miyashita who went to University in the UK with Daw Suu and has remained close friends ever since, and Bathandwa Mcuba, a cultural activist from South Africa whose book, Creative Culture, presents a positive take on the tribal and cultural groups of her country. I also met non fiction writer Carolyn Kraus from the USA, (nursing a broken arm from a fall on the streetd of Yangon) who was to give a talk on the role of documents in personal stories. A contingent from Melbourne University led by Jacqueline Dutton included journalist and author Margaret Simon, Burmese born Australian author Michelle Aung Thint, researcher Ruth Constantine, as well as small a volunteer support team.

Australian writers discuss writing difficult stories.

Jacqueline Dutton was busy skillfully moderating a number of sessions including a spontaneous line up called One For The Road, Books You Take Travelling, with Colin Falconer, Rupert Arrowsmith and myself, and a most thought provoking panel on Borders and Crossings with Michelle Aung Thint and Ruth Constantine.

One For The Road, books you take travelling.

On the last morning poet Nyein Way and I gave our talk on collaboration, The Poetics of Possibility. Again it was a mostly Burmese audience who listened intently as we tossed our ideas back and forth. I first met Nyein Way, a respected experimental poet, critic and performance artist, when I brought a group of writers to Yangon for the inaugural Irrawaddy Literary Festival in 2013. That year in a spontaneous collaboration, I sang one of his poems, Smile of A Leaf, at the lakeside Festival's Poet's Corner.

Myself and poet Nyein Way after our session.

I am so glad I got to the session on Yangon Echoes, a new book of photos and stories of heritage houses just released by Tim Webster and New Zealander Virginia Henderson. I broke my no big book buying while travelling rule to get the first signed copy!

Yangon Echoes, heritage stories, you must get a copy!

  I only managed to catch the tail end of both Louis de Berniere’s sessions, but I did enjoy a couple of chatty meals with him where he admitted to liking writing poetry more than writing novels. It’s these relaxed and informal chats with other writers, like the ones I had with Rupert Arrowsmith, Joe Woods, Bathandwa Mcuba, Ros Russell, Ratna Vira, Siddarth Dasgupta, Nyein Way, Kyi Min, Phyu Mon and Shwegu May Hnin, that make a festival like this so meaningful and enjoyable.

Breakfast with Louis de B, Rupert, Bathandwa. (Louis jotting an idea down).

While it was clear that the organising committee were low on resources this year, Jane Heyn (festival director), right hand man Andrew Heyn (former British Ambassador to Burma) and committee member Giles Fitzherbert remain positive about the future.  With an election looming later in the year who knows what will happen, but there is a sense in Burma that there is no going back.

The fabulous Shwegu May Hnin, author of over 60 works.

The joint festival crown must go to seventy-six year old short story writer, translator and elected-but-not-permitted-to-sit MP, Shwegu May Hnin. Imprisoned for three years and banned from publicly speaking or writing for twenty, she retains a lively spirit of resilience and wicked sense of humour. I remember her joking at the first festival that since censorhip was lifted her writing felt bland and under censorship she was much more creative.

And to Anne Enright, whose insights into the art of living and writing provide an example of the kind of writer we can all aspire to be. Her readings from The Gathering and her new novel The Green Road reminded us that as an author she is in a league of her own.

Anne Enright in her session with Louis de Bernieres, moderated by Colin Falconer.

Jan Cornall is an Australian writer and performer based in Sydney who travels often in the Asia Pacific region to take part in festivals and to lead Writer’s Journey Workshops and Retreats.
Jan’s participation in the Irrawaddy Literary Festival was sponsored by Writer’s Journey.

For another take on the festival by Margaret Simon go to The Guardian

Read Jan's article on the first Irrawaddy Literary Festival here. 

Find out more about Irrawaddy Literary Festival (due to time constraints and lack of manpower leading up to the festival not all writers who attended are listed).

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