Striking the right balance between literature festivals and politics

-Highlights from Festival Directors’ Roundtable AT JAIPUR BOOKMARK

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How literature festivals reflect the politics of our times and what are the problems they face were elaborately discussed at the Festival Directors’ Roundtable held recently. Excerpts.

The first roundtable

A Festival Directors’ Roundtable was held on January 25, 2019 titled “Festival Directors’ Roundtable” at JBM Haveli. The session cue included ‘Do literature festivals reflect the politics of our times?’ The panelists Ahdaf Soueif (Palestine Festival of Literature), David McWilliams (Kilkenomics Festival; Dalkey Book Festival), Geoffrey Taylor (Toronto International Festival of Authors), Namita Devidayal (Times LitFest Mumbai), Neelesh Misra (Swayam festival) and Paul McVeigh (London Short Story Festival), were in conversation with Sanjoy K Roy.

As literature platforms continue to be at the forefront in the fight for freedom of expression, festival directors shared their stories, challenges and learnings in the continued fight to protect this much needed space.The panel discussion was followed by the assembled festival directors responding to the issues discussed and introducing their festivals for 2-3 min each.

The Second roundtable

A second roundtable was hosted at the Press Terrace on January 26, 2019. The session cue was as follows: ‘Literature festivals are the new platforms for debate and dissent.’ Festival directors from across the world shared their challenges in a free flowing exchange of thoughts with Sanjoy K. Roy.

The panelists included Ajit Baral (Nepal Literature Festival), Cherilyn Parsons (Bay Area Book Festival), Emmanuel Delloye (Etonnants Voyageurs), Jayapriya Vasudevan (Times LitFest, Bangalore), Oliver Møystad (Senior advisor at NORLA – Norwegian Literature Abroad) and Omar Robert Hamilton (Palestine Festival of Literature).

What the speakers shared…

Paul McVeigh, London Short Story Festival — “Aim of the festivals was to make it diverse, apart from being just accessible. Initially, we found that Europe had 3-5% of non-white participation only. So we had to take certain steps to make it inclusive.“

Namita Devidayal, Times LitFest Mumbai — “In the current scenario, there are no systems of distributing Hindi books, i.e. an exclusive system. So much is yet to be tapped to bring about a single dedicated system for Hindi book distribution, and that is a challenge.”

Geoffrey Taylor, Toronto International Festival of Authors — “The purpose of the festival is to reflect the city we live in on the stage, and that is what we have to encourage. The writers are there – we just have to find them.”

Ahdaf Soueif, Palestine Festival of Literature — “Because of their current circumstance in Palestine, audience are afraid to attend. Speakers express their fright of coming to the festival, in the sense that they are scared of the Palestinians. In the end, I had to assure them by saying, “Anything that happens to you, will also happen to me”. It has to be acknowledged that there is danger and hardship – but it is worth it all.”

Ajit Baral, Nepal Literature Festival — “The major challenges we faced were in terms of funding, since there are no big corporations in Nepal to back the festival. Secondly, there are not a lot of English writers in the country that we can avail for the fest. Thirdly, a strong government is a necessity if such an undertaking has to happen successfully, and that is not the case in Nepal.”

Ajit Pradhan, Patna Literature Festival — “Our first year of the festival was really good. It was during the second year that the government got involved. The influences and pressure from the political agencies was something that was not preferred, and so we had to take a stand and that led to there being no festival for three years. This year, we have managed to ensure that a festival indeed takes place, and are currently working on it.”

Namita Gokhale — “Government sees us both as an example and an irritant.”

Cherilyn Parsons, Bay Area Book Festival — “The challenges that we have include security issues, meagre resources, avoiding the right wing influence and staff’s censorship.”

Emmanuel Delloye, Etonnants Voyageurs — “We started the Word Alliance with Jaipur-Toronto-Beijing-Edinburgh-Melbourne-Saint Malo. The organisation aims at bringing together festivals/festival organisers that value and follow similar principles, and do not hesitate to prioritise freedom of expression.Freedom is always the freedom of the one who thinks differently.”

Jane McCredie, Quantum Words Festival — “My goal was to put together Arts and Science, and that was the mission of Quantum Words Festival. For instance, one of our panels had an astronomer, a poet and an indigenous speaker.”

Janhavi Prasada, Himalayan Echoes, Kumaon Festival of Literature and Arts — “As we are still in the ‘toddler’ stage in terms of festival organisation, we have not faced as much of a political exertion like other festivals have.”

Jayapriya Vasudevan: Times LitFest, Bangalore — “Politics intervening in the process of festival programming is something that one has to look out for.”

Mary Therese Kurkalang, Cultures of Peace: Festival of the North East — “I am also a part of ‘Gorilla Programming,’ where we conduct workshops and plays on diversity, inclusion and national identities. In this project, the major challenges are the restrictions that the government imposes on us.”

Meenakshi Alimchandani, associated with Toronto International Book Fair, and Festival of South Asian Literature and Arts — “I have been a part of several festival advisory panels in Toronto, and inclusivity in panels is what I aim at. An important point to encourage is that people should be discouraged from polarising.”

Oliver Møystad, Senior advisor at NORLA — “One of our book fairs faced a mass boycott situation since one of the right wing journals/papers was given the approval by the organising committee to put a stand at the fair. The approval was given in order to respect the principle of freedom of speech, but it did not bode well with the audience. Other issues include keeping the balance between the conducting of the said events and environmental degradation, which is a pressing issue.”

Marieke Hardy, Melbourne Writers Festival — “Programming controversial and conservative speakers in a left wing atmosphere and choosing where to stage the platform and where not to, is a challenge.”

Pariksith Singh, founder of Optimum Health Care and Auroveda —“I quite prefer to keep the youth engaged, in order to keep it alive and interesting.”

Pravin Sharma, Indore Literature Festival — “We have to find how to bridge differences and bring people together.”

Preeti Gill, events at Majha House, Amritsar — “The view of Amritsar now is that of guns and violence, and that of the stereotypical Sikh community: dealing with drugs, images, stereotypes, conflicts and partition. So it is important that we try to bridge the difference.”

Raghav Chandra, Bhopal Literature & Art Festival — “Our main challenge is choosing the writers appropriately and having to justify them. What we have found is that the government officials or the influential people seem to ‘support’ us, but later turn away. Changes that happen in the government also add to this challenge.”

Rima Hooja, Bhopal Literature & Art Festival — “The prime challenges that I would like to point out are that of the pressures imposed by the government, where we have to find ways to tackle them efficiently. It is also equally our duty to safeguard speakers and ethics in the process.”

Smita Parikh, Lit O Fest, Mumbai — “We employed a few smart strategies to ensure that government intervention does not become a problem. Our next project is to bridge the gap between literature and literacy, and we hope that will create a big positive change.”

Vincent Montagne, President of the Syndicat National de l’Edition – French Book Publishers Association — “India is a very important country culturally. My organisation, the French Book Publishers Association wants the countries and people to come together and for the writers to get the exposure that they otherwise do not get.”

Sanjoy K. Roy summed up the discussion with these words, “It becomes difficult with this phenomenon of ‘cultural boycott’, where writers and speakers in an international arena face consequences of what they do and say. Art is the only way to bring people together, despite or irrespective of the result – that is the only way to try, because it has value. Despite there being contradictions and clashes, it is pertinent that we try and give access across the spectrum.”

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