Side Views

From one ‘Penangite’ to another — Alan Wong

December 06, 2012

DEC 6 — I was reading about the recently concluded Hay Festival of Literature and Arts in the Bangla Academy at Dhaka and the protesters who felt the event, which focuses on English literature, shouldn't be hosted at the venue.

Though the protesters in Bangladesh had better reasons to object in comparison, the planners of Hay in Dhaka:  

"...went to great lengths to ensure due homage to local culture and history, as the opening ceremony presented classical Indian dances performed to Bangla poems, and ended with a jatra, a form of folk dance-drama. Out of 41 panels, at least 15 were in Bangla, and the stage was taken by four times as many Bangladeshi writers as foreign ones. The Bangla panels found equal room for new poets, like Trimita Chakma, who writes in the minority Chakma language. And the event marked the time at Hay that women outnumbered men on stage."

Closer to home, there's the Singapore Writers Festival, which began in 1986. Before anybody starts talking up the lack of local culture there, just look at these names.

Which is probably why I felt the podcast about the George Town Literary Festival devoted too much time on the grouses of an allegedly "fed-up Penangite". 

The irate letter he sent to The Star complains about the festival not featuring any Georgetown talent, and how the event was dominated by imports from outstation and overseas.

"How long do you think Penangites are going to put up with these so-called George Town Festivals that have got nothing to do with the real history, culture and people of Penang?" he asks in the end.

As I understand it, a "George Town Literary Festival" is "a lit fest held in George Town", not "a lit fest about George Town." I doubt the Singapore Writers Fest would be as fun or exciting if it were held in the spirit of the latter definition.

I'm from George Town, and though I rarely go back, I feel pretty confident about my hometown's quaint little charms, street food and whatnot. So it's a great place for a lit fest, next to Ipoh maybe.

To me, this hang-up about the richness and significance of our culture blinds us to other important stuff. For one, many Malaysians are, I think, more acquainted with foreign writers, so an event that gets foreign and local writers together is a treat, to say the least. 

Another important aspect of our culture we're so fond of hyping up is our hospitality. It's not just what you got, but also how you present it to your guests that keeps them coming back. That emotionless Singapore can host a bigger better lit fest than we can, even with a two-decade head-start, makes you wonder.

To see this cloying display of petty, insecure, condescending self-righteousness from someone who calls himself a Penangite is dispiriting. I wouldn't want him on the organising committee of any cultural event wherever, whenever.

I'm more embarrassed by how many Penangites, including myself, seem to be less interested in contributing to running a lit fest than attending one. I'm much less embarrassed about the "parachuted" outsiders and foreign imports that ran the show. I'll put up with anyone who cares enough to do what is currently a thankless, exhausting job.

I don't believe that that Penang-based poet is "Fed-up Penangite". If he declined an invitation to the festival, writing that letter afterwards would be an incredibly galling thing to do. By the way: that DIVA thing appears to be for real.

A more plausible reason for the letter can possibly be inferred from its first line: "While constantly preaching that the state always puts Penang and Penangites first, in practice it is quite the opposite." 

I wouldn't even call this letter a cheap shot. And why spoil it for those who hope the George Town Lit Fest will one day become something that rivals the one in, say, Singapore or Ubud?

When that day comes, or maybe — maybe — next year, I'll be happy to parachute in, even if it's just to wash the wine glasses after the party. You fed-up Penangites, stay out of my way.

* Alan Wong is an editor and book reviewer.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.