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Sunday June 30, 2013
By SHARMILLA GANESAN firstname.lastname@example.org
The inaugural Cooler Lumpur Festival proved that interest in literature is alive and well in Malaysia.
THE haze wasn’t the only thing in the air in Kuala Lumpur last weekend; if you were in Publika at Mont Kiara, you may have noticed a fair number of words buzzing around too, thanks to The Cooler Lumpur Festival that was held there. The multidisciplinary festival kicked off its first-ever incarnation with the theme #Word, intended to be a celebration of words in all their forms, be they written, spoken or performed.
Curated by PopDigital in collaboration with the British Council, MINI (yes, the car!) and Borders Malaysia, the theme of the three-day festival meant that there was a definite literary bent to the proceedings, from the presence of authors, lectures and panels on literature; book launches; readings; pop-up bookstores; and even book-themed ice cream flavours (sold by “queens of ice-cream”, The Last Polka).
And most hearteningly, the event attracted about 2,700 people – a real achievement for a country that is so often said to have a dismal number of readers.
Needless to say, the festival’s literary director, Umapagan Ampikaipakan, was thrilled.
“#Word went far beyond our expectations. I went into this not knowing how Malaysians would react to a festival that was inspired by ‘literature’. We aren’t a reading population and I had absolutely no benchmarks to gauge how a KL population would react to #Word. Some of our literary panels had 100 people in attendance! That isn’t just great by Malaysian standards, it’s great by any standard,” he explains.
The diversity of the crowd, he adds, is another reason to rejoice.
“We had hipsters, we had academics, we had young parents, we had older people, it really was quite the mixed bag. That kind of engagement for me was absolutely crucial.
“Now, I’m not getting ahead of myself. I am in no way convinced that Malaysians are suddenly readers. I’m just excited with the progress, that Kuala Lumpur is ready for this kind of festival. Heck, if you build it, they will come!”
And come they did, especially since there seemed to be a bit of something to satisfy most literary tastes.
The variety of panel sessions ran the gamut from fashion writing and music journalism to Malay literature and cultural identity.
“New Malay Literature: The Changing Face Of The Malay Author” provided insight into why authors like Uthaya Shankar and Gina Yap have chosen to write in Bahasa Malaysia, with Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa’at being an interesting counterpoint as a writer of Malay descent who uses both English and his mother tongue in his works.
The “On Identity & Culture” panel proved to be a lively one, with Malaysian author Chuah Guat Eng, playwright Huzir Sulaiman, American writer Rishi Reddi and Thai author Wipas Srithong each providing different takes on notions of identity. Interestingly, despite the often-touted advent of globalisation, the panellists seemed unconvinced that a “melting pot” of cultures is taking place, saying that the world still remains a factionalised place.
The panel on “Malaysian Noir: The Real And Unreal In Crime Fiction”, meanwhile, was both insightful and entertaining, as authors Shamini Flint, Brian Gomez and Rozlan Mohd Noor, together with film critic Johanan Sen, dissected why crime fiction is often a way to talk about contemporary issues by couching them in a “mainstream” guise.
Chalking up another first, #Word also played host to the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference (EWWC), the world’s largest travelling conference centred on literature, with three special panels being streamed live over the Internet from KL (see story on page 14).
Alongside these panel discussions were a series of lectures tackling various facets of the literary world by various prominent authors, such as one on reading and the brain by award-winning teen fiction writer Nicola Morgan, on publishing by local writer and publisher Amir Muhammad, on censorship by Alfian, and on freedom and literature by Burmese surgeon, human rights activist and writer Dr Ma Thida.
Budding writers, meanwhile, were given the opportunity to hone their craft in workshops by Morgan and Benjamin Markovits, one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists of 2013.
The festival also highlighted the performative potential of words, through events like film screenings, a ghost story session at midnight by Patrick Teoh and Jo Kukathas (which attracted a whopping 350 people!), spoken word performances, and readings. Livening up the proceedings was a special children’s programme by Borders Malaysia, #Word Junior.
With #Word’s success, The Cooler Lumpur Festival is set to become an annual fixture, and Umapagan shares that the organisers already have a theme for next year in mind: #Fast, because the event is scheduled from June 20 to 22, 2014, the weekend before the start of Ramadan.
“We want The Cooler Lumpur Festival to be a ‘third weekend of June’ festival. Mark your calendars. We’ll be here, every year,” he says.
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