KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 20 — “Writers are solitary creatures,” say Bernice Chauly, the director of the recently-concluded George Town Literary Festival, which celebrates the literary world of poetry, prose and spoken words. The literary festival, held from November 27 to 29, gave Penang-born Bernice an excuse to return to her hometown and to interact with other writers from around the world.
“Writers are solitary creatures,” repeats Bernice, author of five books of poetry and prose including the award-winning memoir Growing Up With Ghosts. “So this was a rare opportunity for us to be sociable, to meet up in person and to exchange ideas.”
One of the writers Bernice got to catch up with was Norwegian novelist Hanne Ørstavik, winner of the Dobloug Prize (2002) and the Brage Prize (2004). Relatively unknown in Malaysia, Hanne has written 14 novels and been translated into 18 languages.
She says, “However, my only novel to be translated into English is Like Sant Som Jeg Er Virkelig. Its English title is The Blue Room.”
So how did the two writers meet, given their distance in geography and language?
Bernice says, “I met Hanne at the Worlds Literature Festival in Norwich last June. We clicked instantly, which isn’t always a guarantee because writers are just like any other human beings; we have different personalities and it’s not a sure thing that we get along simply because we write for a living.”
This first meeting led Bernice to inviting Hanne to participate in the George Town Literary Festival, which turned out to be an eye-opening experience for the Norwegian author.
“I feel privileged to come here because Norway is such a protected society,” says Hanne. “In Asia, I am confronted by such an urgency of different social and political issues. I wouldn’t know how to live with censorship, for example. I feel I haven’t been exposed much to the rest of the world. This is why festivals are so important: if we are willing to be vulnerable, and be present physically, we open ourselves to new ideas and experiences when we meet other people.”
Bernice agrees that it’s important to expose oneself to new experiences, especially to explore how different cultures react. She recalls, “In KL, when I performed one of my poems, which was about the physical abuse a woman received from her lover, an audience member came up to me afterwards and asked, ‘How could you write about that? How could you write about a woman being beaten?’ I think what she meant was ‘How could you write about something so personal and broadcast it in public?’
“Some time later, when I performed the same poem in Cape Town, the audience – mostly female students – burst into tears. They told me that in South Africa, for them, domestic abuse is such an everyday affair. No one had put their dire situation into words before.
“And that was what struck me, how in Asia we still have so many taboos, so many things we aren’t supposed to talk about. But not talking about these things only hurt us. ‘How could you?’ How could I not?”
One of the themes that Hanne can’t help but write about is the power of language. She explains, “I ruminate about language, life and death. I ask, ‘Can we actually kill with language?’”
In her book Presten (“The Priest”), which won the 2004 Brage Prize for Best Norwegian Novel , Hanne tells the story of a parish priest in northern Norway who studies the language of the Bible as a means of understanding the conflict between the Norwegians and the indigenous Sami people in Kautokeino.
“What I’m asking is ‘Can language kill or help us to live?’ I’m interested in the concept of mercy but will this happen? What happens when we find our words to be empty... or when they are full of meaning?”
Therefore literary festivals aren’t simply a reason for writers to congregate but a platform for them to ask painful but necessary questions. Of course, it’s one thing to attend a festival and quite another to plan one as Bernice would attest to:
“Curating is a huge challenge. This is the biggest festival I’ve organised thus far: almost 50 participants, including moderators. I prefer to start at least six months in advance because we need time to invite writers. Some writers have to be booked a year or two in advance due to their popularity and busy schedules.”
How does one decide which festival to attend then? For Hanne, it’s all about following her instincts. She says, “I took part in the George Town Literary Festival because of my rapport with Bernice after we met last year in Norwich. I have never been to Asia prior to this. Serendipitously I was invited to China for the ‘New Text, New Stage II’, a playwright workshop by Ibsen International in Shanghai. It took place right before Bernice’s festival so I managed to visit two countries in Asia!”
Bernice’s prior experience with other festivals around the world has also shaped her direction. “Our sister festival is the Writers Unlimited in Hague. Its director, Ton van de Langkruis, is my mentor. I learned to curate and plan festivals from him. Honestly, it’s tiring but I enjoy doing this – especially coming up with themes for panels. I love using catchy phrases or song names such as ‘Shame on Me’, which is more open to interpretation.”
Fresh interpretations are what Hanne delight in when she discusses ideas and literary works with other writers. She says, “Personal meetings with other writers and poets can lead to the unexpected. What they share can touch you, reach something inside of you and energise you. As Bernice says, writing is such a solitary experience, after all. It’s good to know, to hear from someone else, that another person gets it too.”
Bernice interjects, “Writers can be crazy. But at least we are an interesting bunch too.”
She pauses, then adds with a grin, “Well, maybe not all of us.”