Sitting in his chair in a humble shoplot in Petaling Jaya filled with rare books, artwork and other knick-knacks that he’s collected over the years is Raja Ahmad Aminullah, eyes twinkling behind his glasses as he regales me with tales of his youthful exploits.
He’s often attributed as an author, poet and cultural activist, and to be sure, he is all that. But at his core, Raja Ahmad is an idealist. Not in a Pollyanna way, but in a way that calls out injustice as and when he sees it.
It also speaks to his innate optimism that he has been able to put together an international festival in just over two months – with the hard work and support of his friends, community and the organising committee, of course.
From Dec 8-11, the inaugural R A International Poets, Writers and Readers Festival (RAIPO) will be taking place at the Strand Mall, Kota Damansara. It will continue until Monday (a public holiday in Selangor).
RAIPO will be hosting over 100 poets and writers from 15 countries, including Puerto Rico, Bulgaria, India, Spain, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Russia, Indonesia, Singapore, Egypt and Brunei.
Sharing his vision for the festival, Raja Ahmad, 68, says, “The festival aims to showcase Malaysia's rich tapestry of thought leadership in arts, literature and history, celebrating the fusion of cultures that define our nation.”
Under the theme “Poetry, Peace and Humanity”, RAIPO aims to highlight literature's potential as a catalyst for cultural diplomacy and educational progressiveness by serving as a platform for nuanced discussions on pressing social issues within an increasingly intricate and vulnerable global landscape.
Over four days, there will be readings by participating poets and writers, as well as panel discussions. There will also be a book launch for a collection of works featuring works by RAIPO poets and writers, titled Voices Of Humanity.
Around 40 foreign poets and writers will be attending, among them: Maja Panatova (Bulgaria), Maria De Los Angeles (Puerto Rico), Mehzabeen Hussain (India), Aminur Rahman (Bangladesh), Bundo Free (Indonesia), Sudipto Chatterjee (India), Remedios Alvarez (Spain), Nguyen Bao Chan (Vietnam), Anwar Ridhwan, Lily Siti Multatuliana (Indonesia), Kirpal Singh (Singapore), Dwi Ermayanthi (Indonesia), Ahmed Al Shahawy (Egypt), Ana M. Galan (Spain), Reshma Ramesh (India) and Victor Pogadaev (Russia).
Representing Malaysia at the festival are respected poets and writers, including A. Samad Said, Muhammad Haji Salleh, Zurinah Hassan, M. Shanmughalingam, Siti Zainon Ismail, and Malachi Edwin Vethamani.
“This convergence of poetic and literary minds promises to be a harmonious celebration of creativity, diversity and the enduring power of literature to unite people across borders,” adds Raja Ahmad, who was born in Ipoh.
Even before RAIPO came to be, Raja Ahmad has always been a champion for platforming different perspectives, including those that challenge the status quo.
“My writings are 90% in Bahasa Malaysia. This is because I want to reach the segment of the population that consumes media in Bahasa Malaysia. Everyone should have some political awareness so you can make judgments and decisions without being told by others what you should think.
“I also frequently talk about how the writer should keep themselves at a distance from power. This is so they can hold and share perspectives that are apart from the mainstream,” he says.
Another way that Raja Ahmad puts this into practice is through a monthly event called “Readings @ Santai Seniman”, held in front of RA Arts Haven, his shoplot at The Strand.
Here, he invites poets, writers and musicians to share their works on a smaller scale, covering a wide range of topics.
“I want to reach out to those who aren’t a part of the arts scene, who aren’t necessarily a fan of poetry, to get them to give it a listen,” he shares.
“In the same way, in any event I organise, when inviting Malaysian artists, I will always make it a point to call those who practice in Bahasa Malaysia and those who practice in English. Because there has to be conversation between all parts of society. We cannot work and create in silos.”
R A International Poets, Writers and Readers Festival (RAIPO) will be at The Strand, Kota Damansara from Dec 8-11. Free admission. More info here.