George Town Literary Festival 2019: A chance to explore history and storytelling

Linda Kumar

GEORGE TOWN, Nov 8 — The George Town Literary Festival (GTLF) is back, and this year the festival — which celebrates world literature, translations and literary arts — will explore lessons the twin narratives of history and storytelling have to offer.

Alongside that worthy ambition are hefty expectations of the festival which began in 2011 with only five writers.

Since that humble beginning, the GTLF was awarded the Literary Festival Award at the London Book Fair International Excellence Awards last year.

With a line-up that includes 2019 Man Booker International Prize winner Jokha Alharthi, American essayist Eliot Weinberger, Japanese author Hiromi Ito, Uzbek journalist Hamid Ismailov and Malaysian writer Saras Manickam, the regional winner for Asia in this year’s Commonwealth Short Story Prize, GTLF 2019 promises a diverse slate of ideas and conversations.

This year’s George Town Literary Festival will be led by festival co-directors Pauline Fan (left) and Sharaad Kuttan (right). — Pictures courtesy of George Town Literary Festival

This year’s edition will be led by festival co-directors Pauline Fan and Sharaad Kuttan. Pauline is a writer and literary translator, and the Creative Director of the cultural organisation PUSAKA. A journalist and art critic, Sharaad joined Astro Awani after seven years at BFM and currently hosts two talk shows.

The theme for GTLF 2019 is “forewords/afterwords” which revolves around notions of beginnings and transitions.

Sharaad says, “This is a year of many significant anniversaries and we need to pause to think about what these moments in history have taught us.

"Storytelling — fiction, non-fiction, prose or poetry, written or spoken — uses the stuff of our history to make sense of our contemporary lives. That’s why history is important.”

The near future is also a key point of interest. Pauline says, “Moving into 2020 — a year which, for Malaysians, symbolically marks our collective vision of the future — we felt it would be meaningful to reflect on the past century and how it has shaped our world and the way we write about our world.”

Jokha Alharthi (left) and Hamid Ismailov (right) are two of the featured speakers.

One of the festival highlights will be a focus on Mǎhuá or Malaysian Chinese literature. Sharaad first became interested in Malaysians who write in the Chinese language when he was in Taiwan and “saw the fascinating development of local Chinese literature there, which was well regarded internationally.”

To offer further insight into Chinese literature, historian Rebecca E. Karl will meditate on the various ways in which history and literature have been intertwined in China's twentieth century.

As with any major festival, literary or otherwise, one of the most crucial aspects of the preparation is the selection of speakers and panellists.

According to Pauline, “The festival line-up is an ever-evolving thing for the first few months of curation, and it takes final shape depending on the availability of speakers and also our budget limitations.”

Well-considered criteria lead to a good mix of personalities, the spark an event needs to become food for thought and the talk of the town.

A captive audience at one of the events.

Sharaad observes, “Availability is nine tenths of the game. But of course our thematic vision as well as wanting to have a festival that reflects a diversity of interests among festival-goers was important too.”

The GTLF events — daily panel discussions, showcase readings, workshops and performances — will be held at various locations in the UNESCO World Heritage site of George Town, Penang such as UAB Building, BlackKettle, Hikayat, Nook Books & Coffee and Loft 29.

As the festival approaches, the co-directors have become more appreciative of the work and nuances that go into making the festival a success. Sharaad explains, “It has been a steep learning curve, and I look forward to being part of GTLF for a few more years to really work at making the festival an event of lasting consequence for Penang and the country’s cultural scene.”

Part of the attraction for them as “showrunners” is to work together, something they haven’t done before despite having known each other for years.

Sharaad says, “While we agree on fundamental approaches, what anyone should hope in a collaborative effort is creative tensions. We are co-creators.”

Books galore during George Town Literary Festival 2017.

Pauline agrees, adding, “We occupy distinct yet interconnected areas of expertise and I think we complement each other. Festival Manager Deric Ee and Festival Coordinator Swarna Rajagopal are great to work with too, they have been working diligently to make sure everything runs smoothly.”

Has there been much change in the last few years for literary festivals such as GTLF though? Sharaad says, “When it comes to festivals, perhaps there are as many approaches as can be imagined and funded.

"What differentiates them is perhaps the mix of stakeholders — writers, readers, publishers, governments, foundations, educators — but also scale and location.”

Clearly this is an important conversation not only for GTLF but one for the cultural scene as a whole. Pauline concludes, “I find that the most interesting literary festivals are becoming more adventurous in the kinds of literature and audiences they engage with, they are becoming less confined to books and printed text and exploring other forms of writing, narrative and storytelling.”

George Town Literary Festival 2019
November 21-24. Find out more at

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