Friday, January 30, 2009

The Galle Literary Festival, 2009

When I was in Colombo last Christmas, everyone was talking about the Galle Literary Festival coming up in January. I was due to leave before the festival started and was really sorry to miss it. When I planned my current trip, I made sure that I would be here for this year’s, and I ended up volunteering to help with some of the logistics, an offer that was eagerly accepted; had I known how much work I was in for, I might not have done it and there were moments when I wished I hadn’t, but now that I’m at the festival, it’s wonderful, and I’m pleased to have had a small hand in bringing it about.

First of all, a shout-out to the “real” staff… Sunila inherited the Festival Director title when the original festival director ended up dropping out. It wasn’t at all what Sunila originally signed up for but she did an amazing job. Her main staff were all so amazing – wonderful to work with and just great people, and there were so few of them working to put on this rather large and getting-to-be-prestigious festival. I spoke to Sunila a few days before it started and she told me she’d been up for 48 hours straight, but she never lost her sense of humor or her kind and respectful way of dealing with her staff – they all seem to love her as I do. My task wasn’t nearly so involved as what the others were responsible for; my job was to book all the airline reservations and purchase the tickets for all the authors who were coming in from abroad. Most were coming from Delhi where another literary festival was taking place just before this one, but others came from England, Singapore, the U.S., Australia, and one from Entebbe, Uganda. Our two airline sponsors were Sri Lankan Airlines and Emirates. So after corresponding with 14 writers from around the world, dealing with their flight requirements and last minute changes and many phone calls with my contacts at Sri Lankan Airlines, Emirates, and Cathay Pacific, I got all the tickets booked and purchased, they, along with 36 local Sri Lankan writers arrived here in Galle for the start of the festival on January 28th.

I also arrived on the 28th for my first festival event which was a tour called “Where I Escaped the Tyranny of the Typewriter” which is a quote by Arthur C. Clarke (a long-time resident of Colombo before his death in 2008), and which was a tour of Taprobane, the private island owned by Geoffrey Dobbs, the festival founder. The island is tiny and has a wonderful history including once being owned by a British count, and Arthur C. Clark had been among its distinguished guests. Geoffrey has done quite a bit of restoration work on the house that sits on the island, as well as adding a small infinity pool and overhauling the gardens. He led us around the house and property giving us information about its past an present before having lunch served on one of the terraces.

There were only a few festival events later that day, but as soon as I got to my hotel and saw how beautiful it was, I opted to skip all of them and just enjoy my room and the sound of the waves crashing just outside my windows (for my volunteer services, the festival gave me the room for four days, an all-event festival pass, and two tickets for the island tour which wasn’t covered by the pass).

Only 4 bungalows (left) and two rooms at this hotel. My room is the one surrounded by the shutters on the top right side of the photo - windows all the way around 3 sides.

This photo doesn't do my room justice. It was gorgeous - really plain but huge and comfortable.

The following day, I managed to wrench myself from the lap of luxury and make my way back to Galle (my hotel is about 15 minutes from town) for three events. The first was a conversation with Colin Thubron and Pico Iyer, two travel writers with very journalistic styles. They were both very interesting and since they were the two nicest authors I dealt with, I didn’t want to miss their event. The name of their talk was “Global Souls” and it was about their work traveling and writing around the globe, and about how technology has made it so much easier for so many of us to be global souls – that is to understand the world globally, even though we may not travel to the far-flung, we can still understand it. At the end of the discussion, the moderator (who is a professional media-type which made a huge difference in the quality of this interview) asked the two gentlemen if there was any place to which they would not travel or recommend as a travel destination. She prefaced her question by saying that when she interviewed Paul Theroux, he had said that he could not imagine going to a country that recruited child-soldiers (so I guess he’ll stay out of Sri Lanka); Colin Thubron said he had to agree and that there were places in Africa that intimidated him for that reason; Pico Iyer simply replied “Atlanta, Georgia.”

The second event I went to was a conversation with MJ Akbar and Ameena Hussein on writing about Muslim households. I know Ameena from Colombo and MJ Akbar was kind of a pain about his air tickets, but their conversation was very interesting. MJ is clearly very passionate about the beauty and compassion of Islam, and he was very articulate about its strengths and values and very forceful in his stance that Islam does not need reform, but Muslims do. What he said was so interesting because it’s exactly the way I feel about Christianity—that it is inherently good and valuable, that its teachings are universal, exclude no one, and don’t exist outside a spirit of love, peace, and non-judgment, but that a lot of “Christians” have corrupted it to a level of insanity. I think a lot of people in the audience were Muslim and he received a lot of applause when he made points against “the enslaving of women” and the twisting of the “marriage laws.” The third and last event I attended was a conversation with Germaine Greer and Tarun Tejpal entitled “Writing Taboos.” This was one of the most anticipated events for a lot of people and the most disappointing for me. Germaine Greer became an icon of feminism in 1970 when she published “The Female Eunuch,” a book I haven’t read, but one I’m sure I’d disagree with ideologically if her talk yesterday was any indication of her positions. Tarun Tejpal is a journalist who has recently published a novel called “The Alchemy of Desire,” which I gathered contains a lot of sex. I would have been interested in a conversation about “Writing Taboos,” but instead just heard two people discussing their political agendas.

I headed back to my hotel after that although there was programming on into the evening; this is my last beach-trip before heading home and I wanted to enjoy my lovely surroundings… the swimming pool, the palm trees, the waves crashing, and the solitude of this quiet, little, boutique hotel.

Today was day three and I went to two events: a discussion about the Dali Lama by Pico Iyer who has known him for 30 years, and a talk by Michael Morpurgo who is a British author of over 100 books for children and young adults. Two things: it turns out that I’m really not that interested in the Dali Lama although he sounds like a super-nice guy; and if you forget to remind people to turn off their cell phones, they won’t, and they might even take a call while an author is on stage, as one woman did in the second row while Michael Morpurgo was speaking.

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