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Sunday June 16, 2013

Celebration of words

The Singapore Writers Festival last year saw the likes of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham turning up for a book signing session. In time, Malaysia too may be able to boast of such ventures, beginning perhaps with events such as #Word: The Cooler Lumpur Festival. The Singapore Writers Festival last year saw the likes of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham turning up for a book signing session. In time, Malaysia too may be able to boast of such ventures, beginning perhaps with events such as #Word: The Cooler Lumpur Festival.

A three-day word fest promises writers and readers a literary feast.

SINCE time immemorial, language has been linked to civilisations and societal development.

Whether spoken or written, words give shape to a language and make it beautiful. They also transcend mediums – from books to films and poetry – in versatile ways that connect people, bring to life heartwarming tales, as well as inspire and fascinate readers and viewers.

Indonesia’s Bali and Singapore host regular writers’ festivals of international repute, so what about Malaysia, which has no shortage of talent? While there are many small book-related events (such as the long-running Readings in KL), those that bring in international authors are few and far between.

But we are getting there, it seems, beginning perhaps with #Word: The Cooler Lumpur Festival, organised in partnership with the British Council, MINI and Borders Malaysia to celebrate words.

The three-day festival – which takes place from June 21 to 23 at MAP@Publika, Solaris Dutamas, Kuala Lumpur – comes at a time when Malaysia’s literature industry is ripe with potential and promise.

It is a “dream come true” for festival director Umapagan Ampikaipakan, who has been wanting to organise something like this for a long time.

“You can say I have this crazy obsession for words and books,” Umapagan, or Uma as he is known, enthuses during a recent interview.

“Organising a literary festival was, for me, the next level of progression for publishing works in Malaysia, whose book scene has become a lot more vibrant than it was say 10 years back.

“The prospects are exciting, too, as we wanted to have our own local writers mingle with international authors, a chance they don’t often get. Where festivals would usually be headed along the route of attendees meeting authors and getting book autographs, we wanted to offer a platform for writers to engage in fruitful collaborations through meaningful discourses or projects among themselves,” explains Uma, a radio presenter and literary critic. “Even with the numerous readings being held from time to time, there is still no real connection between the authors specifically.”

He says while there was a literary festival organised several years back by Silverfish Books, sustaining it in subsequent years had not been possible.

“We hope we can turn this around by making #Word sustainable. Our plan is that starting next year, the festival will be expanded into an all-encompassing multi-arts fest – which will include theatre and music, among others – with words being the centrestage element.

“For this year, we have divided the programmes into five separate venues (all within Publika) to cater to different tastes. We reckon that people might be put off if it is curated solely as a literary fest, so it was important to ensure the sessions would be as diverse as possible.”

The festival will gather reputed local and international writers together, including award-winning author of teenage novels Nicola Morgan, novelist Benjamin Markovits, journalism professor Janet Steele, as well as poet and broadcast journalist Lourd de Veyra from the Philippines. On the local front, there is writer, photographer and filmmaker Bernice Chauly; publisher and independent filmmaker Amir Muhammad; prominent journalist and writer Rehman Rashid; and writer, columnist and activist Marina Mahathir.

“I think it’s very important for us to promote and encourage local authors, something that Singapore has done really well,” says Uma. “There is a growing number of Malaysian writers who are making their mark internationally, and we should strive to keep them writing and see value in their work.”

A closed-door full-day journalism campus will be held on Friday before the festival proper kicks off at night. From then, it will be a packed schedule consisting of lectures and workshops, film screenings, and even a ghost story-telling session at midnight!

Currently, one can already participate in the mini-fiction tweeting competition called #MINIfiction, organised in partnership with MINI, with weekly winners walking away with a new Amazon Kindle.

Uma adds that #Word will also play host to the only South-East Asian segment of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference (EWWC), the world’s largest travelling conference on the state of literature. The KL conference will have three panels – covering the topics of “Censorship Today”, “Should Literature Be Political?” and “A National Literature” – that will address critical questions affecting literature and society.

“We are thankful to both the British Council and EWWC for contributing to this festival’s seed funding,” he says.

British Council Malaysia arts and programmes manager Grey Yeoh says coming onboard for a project such as this is was a “no-brainer” as the organisation is committed to bridging culture and relations in English and the arts, while engaging society in a cross-country exchange of collaborative projects.

“We have previously participated in the George Town Literature Festival, which was slightly more cerebral in context, the arts festival Urbanscapes, and now #Word: The Cooler Lumpur,” says Yeoh.

“Looking at the quality of the programmes, we are confident the festival will do well, as it caters to readers from all age groups and interests. What’s also interesting is that we are enabling livestreaming for the event so that countries of different time zones can also participate instantaneously, in real-time.”

Uma says the take away for him from having organised this festival would be the engagement between people that he seeks to build.

“It is important that people talk, connect and learn from each other, not just merely show up at these programmes. We are keeping as many of the sessions free so, hopefully, that becomes an incentive.

“With Malaysians reading ever more voraciously now and picking up alternative materials, we know they are ready for a festival like this.”

#Word: The Cooler Lumpur Festival will take place from June 21-23 at MAP@Publika, Solaris Dutamas, Kuala Lumpur.

For programme details go to coolerlumpur.com/word.

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