The Lakbima News editor Rajpal Abeynayake has written an article as a response to my critique of the Galle Lit Fest — a programme which, as I have argued, is a business venture involving VVIP class literary consumption. Rajpal’s article opposes my stance — my stance being “boycott GLF” — by encouraging the would be participant with a host of “merits” that get offred by the showpiece. Rajpal argues against my statement that the GLF is a host for a series of “B Grade overseas writers”. He lines up a series of “top writers” he had met over the past editions of GLF and boosts reader interest with a photo accompaniment where we have a beaming Orhan Pamuk, Chimamanda Addiche with a pensive looking Kiran Desai.
The GLF, argues Rajpal, has brought in much needed capital to the country; foreign exchange being an asset in this post-war (?) scenario. He agrees that the prices are high; but, for the entertainment that is on offer, one has to pay the price and run the risk of being called a “VVIP orgy lounger”.
Well, I do not intend to speak against Rajpal, for, as much as my view has a validity, so does his. His interests of the GLF need not coincide with mine. Besides, the entry point to the discussion that he assumes is different to mine. Therefore, my task should be to improvise on the stance that I have adopted on the issue in question.
Between the publication of my blog entry — the impetus to Rajpal’s article — and the time of writing this, I had the opportunity of having a discussion on the GLF with Dr. Nihal Fernando of the Peradeniya University. This informal exchange was enriching, as some points made by Dr. Fernando set me thinking of my own position taken on the issue. As Dr. Fernando tells me the GLF does not promise to be an ally of “Sri Lankan English Writing”. Nor is there a promise that this event should be of a “national coverage”. Galle, he argues, is the premise. A premise rented without undue promises.
Well, for one thing, when GLF started out 5 years ago, there were covert and open hints at incorporating / promoting Sri Lanka as a “literary space”. At the initiation, I recall, the online dialogues among the organizers and the critics of the programme also included topics such as “how to widen the Sri Lankan participation?”; “how can we incorporate the peripheral occupants of the SL literary discourses?” etc. So, at least at the outset, Sri Lanka and its creative, literary discourses were very much a part of the GLF agenda. Whether this was a genuine concern or a parade to gain mileage is not clear. But, on document, the objective was made vocal.
As the GLF evolved and became “big”, as the money became “heavier”, the “set objectives”, too, seem to have evolved. Evolution, of course, is not too bad. But, when that inevitability presents us with detriment one has to be more aware and circumspect. The GLF has evolved in a way that the “representation of Lankan Literature” or the promotion of it has became subservient and next to “non existent”. Now, as a writer and a reader, for me, it is not straight where you have a “festival” in promotion of “English Literature” in Sri Lanka, where the “English Literature” of the nation itself goes unheeded or rejected. For me, this is an issue — maybe it is not for Rajpal or a third or fourth person; but, for me as a writer / reader who relates to the socio-political space of this island — the site of the circus –, this is a form of “exploitation” and “cheating”.
If Sri Lanka is a place without any substance in English Literature the matter, then, would have been different. But, this is not the case. Besides, the very orchestration of the GLF is exclusivist and elitist in manner that the “wider participation” of Sri Lankan creativity in English and its readership are guaranteed to be excluded from proceedings. The point is not as to whether Pamuk and co are being showcased at Galle. From a Sri Lankan writer’s perspective, the question at hand is to which extent the Lankan cerative fora is promoted and made accessible.
It is from this position that I wrote demanding a boycott of Galle. This demand was primarily aimed at the 5 Sri Lankan writers whom the organizers have chosen while sidelining the rest. Surely, if you — the five — feel that you are the “chosen”, feel free to feel mistaken. Your representation of “Sri Lankan writing” is just the maple leaf with which the nudity of the crass capitalist interest that determine the programme is screened. Liyanage Amarakeerthi, as I argued, is the “easy access” Sinhala writer as well as the predictable bilingual-competent inclusion at this programme. The hint is that GLF “is going national” (You see — within the GLF set up, that pretension / impulse to “go national” still persists). But, then, why Amarakeerthi (and Maunaguru) alone? Where is the commitment of the organization to genuinely cut through to the wider Lankan representation?
The essence here is not whether internationally known writers come here or whether they don’t. Nor is it whether we should be ready to “pay the extra dollar” to break some bread with these items. That is the least political perception one can adopt of the issue. One’s questions have to be directed at the “politics of the programme”. For whom is the money that is made? What are their underlying, “real” interests? Is it unfair a demand to make that Lankan Literature be given a wider run?
Rajpal is quick to hammer Ashok Ferrey and Sam Perera (a writer and a publisher who have suffered heavily at the hand of Rajpal’s pen over the past few weeks), and denounce Lankan Literature as by-and-large “no literature”. But, this “no literature” needs a forum. These writers need to come out, their newer work have to be shared, diversity has to be put in dialogue / debate — it isn’t important at this point whether Lankan English Literature is “big” or “small”. What about the readers? Do you suppose the GLF and its tickets promote the ethic of democratic inclusion where the non-VIP reader is concerned? Sincerely hope that this is not too rhetorical a question that I am asking.
How many Lankan writers are going to Galle as general participants of the event? The numbers have been dwindling over the years. There are many readers that I meet who are disillusioned with the politics of the programme. Even the general reader — non-VIP class — who has grown up close to ground, has an expectation to see the home literature be given a booth; it being put on platform. It’s not that the organizers cannot organize a forum to accommodate the writing. It is just that the need for such an accommodation is beyond their priority.
Foreign Exchange matters. But, when a games festival is held in a country the sports of that country is given wider representation. You hold the Olympics in Barcelona, and you enhance the participation of Spanish athletes. You bring in a group of writers and entertain a group of VVIPs with their mavericks, while a diverse body of writing from home are discarded from the checklist: you call that crass elitism.
A fellow writer writes to me after the (GLF) blog entry was posted that we should not “boycott” GLF; rather, that the approach should be to “sabotage” the show. A more productive alternative would be to encourage alternative fora. Fora that would ensure wider representation and positive treatment of the lesser than VIP readership. To sabotage the GLF should not be; as it is larger than me or the fellow writer I speak of here. It is a business venture, and we don’t want that inflow of foreign exchange to stop.
Rajpal had mentioned that I have never been to the GLF and that I am “doing a restaurant review without having in fact tasted the victuals”. Rajpal’s quick eye for the alcoholic metaphor is noted right across the article. Just to set the record straight, I have been to 2 GLF’s as a general participant. I have been invited twice to read at the programme (including an invitation to read at one of their “sunset whatevers” this year). A victual I may have obliged, but you don’t mouth the shit to test its compatibility with your amylase.