Dive into reading: George Town Literary Fest 2023 season is around the corner


Visitors browsing for books at last year’s George Town Literary Festival in Penang. This year, the festival will be jazzed up with 'book parties' hosted by Fixi Books and Penguin. Photo: GITF

Those attending the 13th edition of the George Town Literary Festival (GTLF) in Penang will be excited at the number of new titles to add to their TBR (to be read) list, as an impressive 19 books are expected to be launched throughout the four-day festival.

Taking place Nov 23 to 26, this year’s GTLF embarks on a literary exploration of uncharted territories through its theme, "Terra Incognita", calling on festival-goers to gaze towards unexplored horizons through its wide range of events and activities, from panel discussions and readings to book launches, exhibitions and screenings.

The festival’s main sites – Loft29 at Gat Lebuh Gereja and Mano Plus at Beach Street – will serve as vibrant hubs for literary enthusiasts, while most of its other venues are merely a stone’s throw away in the heart of George Town.

So far, the festival has announced an enticing line-up of 35 writers from 13 countries, including distinguished Malaysian guests, such as Professor Lim Swee Tin, who was recently awarded the 2023 National Poet Award; Saras Manickam, winner of the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Contest (Asia); and Shih-Li Kow, winner of Prix du Premier Roman Etranger.

'A Chance Encounter At Sungai Chiling And Other Stories' will be launched at Mano Plus on Nov 26 alongside other Maya Press new books. Photo: Handout 'A Chance Encounter At Sungai Chiling And Other Stories' will be launched at Mano Plus on Nov 26 alongside other Maya Press new books. Photo: Handout

Additionally, the festival welcomes renowned international literary figures, including English novelist Geoff Dyer; award-winning Thai authors Veeraporn Nitiprapha and Uthis Haemamool; two-time Miles Franklin Literary Award winner Michelle de Kretser; multi-faceted Myanmar artist and poet Maung Day; and Tamil writer and poet Yuvan Chandrasekar.

Multidisciplinary Taiwanese artist and author Wu Ming-yi, as well as American professor of journalism and international affairs Janet Steele will be in attendance.

A wider audience

“The festival has grown from its beginnings as a small literary festival with 10 writers to a major internationally-acclaimed literary festival that features over 75 writers, poets, translators and moderators, showing that Penang is a natural place of creative confluence and is certainly conducive to nurturing a fertile literary imagination,” says GTLF director Pauline Fan.

One of the GTIF highlights, 'Salleh Ben Joned – Truth, Beauty, Amok and Belonging' by Anna Salleh will be launched on Nov 25. Photo: HandoutOne of the GTIF highlights, 'Salleh Ben Joned – Truth, Beauty, Amok and Belonging' by Anna Salleh will be launched on Nov 25. Photo: Handout

This year, GTLF expects at least 5,000 attendees. To attract a wider audience, the organisers have introduced some new additions to the festival to diversify its 33 sessions.

“We wanted to be more inclusive and open in our curatorial process, so this year, we initiated an open call, inviting proposals for sessions, workshops and book launches. We are also introducing a new format called Creative Huddles, where the audience gets up-close and personal with the writer and asks their questions without a moderator,” adds Fan.

So what can festival-goers expect at GTLF 2023?

“As always, you can expect intelligent, intense and insightful conversations at GTLF. There are so many wonderful speakers this year, but I would like to highlight a few: the singular Geoff Dyer, Thai novelist Veeraporn Nitiprapha, Belgian non-fiction writer Lieve Joris, Taiwanese writer Wu Ming-Yi, Swedish crime writer Johan Theorin, French writer Edouard Louis and our very own Tash Aw,” says Fan.

'Bone Weight And Other Stories' by Shih-Li Kow is a new release from Fixi Books.'Bone Weight And Other Stories' by Shih-Li Kow is a new release from Fixi Books.

On Nov 25, Fan will be hosting the opening of the "Clarice Lispector: The Hour Of The Star Of Brazilian Literature" exhibition at China House Gallery.

“The exhibition celebrates the life and work of one of the most iconic modernist writers of the 20th century, made possible through a collaboration with the Embassy of Brazil in Malaysia, Instituto Moreira Salles and Instituto Guimaraes Rosa.”

A treat for bookworms

Thanks to the breadth and depth of the festival’s programming, there is undoubtedly something for all readers, whether you’re into prose or poetry, fiction or non-fiction.

For fans of local publisher Buku Fixi, they’ll be launching four titles simultaneously at GTLF.

Buku Fixi founder Amir Muhammad tells us that the best part of literary festivals such as GTLF was that “writers get to meet their readers, and vice versa”.

'A Spoonful Of Malaysian Magic' anthology, edited by Anna Tan, will be  launched at Loft 29 on Nov 23. Photo: Handout'A Spoonful Of Malaysian Magic' anthology, edited by Anna Tan, will be launched at Loft 29 on Nov 23. Photo: Handout

“The festival has stayed quite modest in scale, but it is a serious event for literary exchange. It is one of the events in the region that people look forward to,” he adds.

As to which events or speakers he was personally looking forward to (besides Buku Fixi’s book launch event), Amir shares, “I would like to listen to Geoff Dyer and Veeraporn Nitiprapha, as I’m interested in unconventional non-fiction and Thai storytelling respectively.”

Poet and academic Malachi Edwin Vethamani is looking forward to moderating the Maya Press book launch event.

“The triple Maya Press book launch will be an exciting meet, with two poets debuting their poetry collections and several authors from the short story collection, A Chance Encounter At Sungai Chiling And Other Stories. The writers will be reading the works and there will be short interviews too. The audience will get to have a Q&A session with the writers too,” he says.

The touring exhibition series 'A Wasteland Of Malaysian Poetry In English' is part of the satellite programme at the George Town Literary Festival this month. Photo; Imran Sulaiman The touring exhibition series 'A Wasteland Of Malaysian Poetry In English' is part of the satellite programme at the George Town Literary Festival this month. Photo; Imran Sulaiman

Malachi goes on to say that GTLF has been “very supportive of Malaysian poetry in English”.

“Over the years they have provided Malaysian poets an international platform to launch their new books and have invited Malaysian poets to be on discussion panels to talk about their work and topics related to their interests. Many young poets, especially from universities, have been given the opportunity to read their poems in several GTLFs. This is a great boost to these young writers,” adds Malachi, who is also an Emeritus Professor at the University of Nottingham Malaysia.

As a labour of love, the Salleh Ben Joned – Truth, Beauty, Amok And Belonging book launch at GTLF is going to be a special occasion for the late poet’s eldest daughter Anna, who put together the archival project.

Salleh’s bilingual poetic playfulness and well-read provocations on race, religion and identity explored themes that still resonate today in contemporary Malaysian debates.

The George Town Literary Festival offers a wide range of events (free and ticketed) and activities, from panel discussions and readings to book launches, exhibitions and screenings. Photo: GTLFThe George Town Literary Festival offers a wide range of events (free and ticketed) and activities, from panel discussions and readings to book launches, exhibitions and screenings. Photo: GTLF

Anna, who is based in Sydney, Australia, established the Salleh Ben Joned Literary Legacy Project that will spearhead a diverse range of initiatives designed to preserve her father’s legacy, including this new book, published by Maya Press.

With support from Salleh’s family and close friends, Anna dedicated much of her time over the past three years laying the groundwork for this book and other projects, and the GTLF book launch session on Nov 25 promises to be packed out affair for Salleh’s loyal fans.

Beyond the pages

Bahasa Malaysia poetry is also in the spotlight with the Bingit Redam Dari Kebok Kelam live performance, featuring guitarist Zulhezan (formely Akta Angkasa, Dirgahayu) and poet-publisher Hafiz Hamzah.

The hour-long contemporary showcase at Loft29 on Nov 25 will see the duo presenting a set of poetry and moodscapes, a performance that they have toured bookshops and black box theatres with in the last two years.

“The set is a conversation between two individuals ... it’s as basic as that. Zul has a broad understanding of how music can be expanded and I use poetry as a form of performance. Together we work out a unique balance of a ‘framework’ and the freedom of improvisation,” says Hafiz.

The 'Bingit Redam Dari Kebok Kelam' live poetry performance on Nov 25, features guitarist Zulhezan and poet-publisher Hafiz Hamzah. Photo: Api HusienThe 'Bingit Redam Dari Kebok Kelam' live poetry performance on Nov 25, features guitarist Zulhezan and poet-publisher Hafiz Hamzah. Photo: Api Husien

Coinciding with GTLF 2023 is A Wasteland of Malaysian Poetry In English, an audio-exhibition articulating Malaysian poetry in English as an audioscape of spoken word. This will be the third iteration of the exhibition, featuring new recordings of exclusive audio.

The “satellite” exhibition – to be held at Hall 1, Jetty 35, George Town from Nov 20-29 – showcases original, never-before-heard recordings of poetry from respected figures such as K.S. Maniam, Lee Kok Liang, Malachi Edwin Vethamani, Omar Musa, Muhammad Haji Salleh, Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, Wang Gungwu, Wong Phui Nam and more, tracing the work of foundational Malaysian poets in English from the 1940s to their legacies in emerging poetic voices today.

The exhibition, which was shown in Melbourne last month, will also host live readings, open mics, exhibition talks, poetry workshops and open recording sessions. Entrance is free, but registration is required for workshops.

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