WHILE the government's agenda is to promote reading, a literary festival was held recently to take Malaysians beyond this – to show how literature and its related art forms are relevant for the life experiences.
“There is the perception that literature is very elitist and we are trying to show that it's not,” explains Raman Krishnan, director of Silverfish Books, an independent Malaysian publisher that organised the three-day festival.
“It's about real writers, real issues which are important for us to know about. And at the end of the day, we want to show that reading is fun.”
In recent years, strong emphasis has mostly been given to English language proficiency and getting people to read. But the International Literary Festival 2004, the first of its kind to be held in Malaysia, aimed to take reading to another level.
While certain talks were offered only to paying participants, other cultural shows, forums, readings and film screenings were open free-of-charge to the public.
Common to most of the talks, forums and workshops at the three-day festival was the writers' emphasis on using real life experiences as raw material for their creative work.
At a haiku workshop, for example, poet and novelist Kyoji Kobayashi from Japan took participants right back to the basic experiences of sensory perceptions. He explained that when writing haiku, poets must put themselves up close to immediate experiences and even engage their physical senses to evoke immediate sensations and impressions.
“Do away with their preconceptions and see things as if for the first time, through the eyes of a child,” he said.
The enrichment of personal experiences also comes from learning about others, and their lives or cultures in other countries.
The literary festival aimed to raise awareness not only of young Malaysian writing but also to promote an understanding and appreciation of foreign literature and different genres of writing.
“It's not enough to tell people to pick up a book and read. The danger is that lot of people start reading one genre like romance or thrillers when they're young and get trapped in it. What happens next?
“I'm more interested in the evolution of the Malaysian reader by encouraging them to read different genres, to learn about South American, English, American, Indian, Japanese writers,” said Raman.
With this in mind, foreign writers Ken Wiwa from Canada, Oscar Hijuelos from America, Amit Chaudhuri from India, Paul Bailey from Britain and Kyoji Kobayashi from Japan, among others, were brought in for the festival to speak about their work or to hold workshops.
Established writers and playwrights from Malaysian and the South East Asian region such as Salleh ben Joned, Karim Raslan, Jit Murad, Alfian Sa'at, Suchen Christine Lim also spoke in forums or gave talks on their writing, while academics from 12 countries presented papers or held discussions at seminars.
On top of this, the festival drew on a range of genres and other art forms – haiku, travel writing and creative writing workshops, cultural performances in Suria KLCC, a staged performance of Singapore writing at Zouk – the aim of which was to show how diverse literature can be.
“The aim is to create an atmosphere of fun, to get people excited about literature.
“When we think of education, it's always about children but I believe that you have to educate the parents first – it's about encouraging the adults to read so that they can share the interest with and teach their children,” pointed out Raman.
Project consultant of the Literary Festival Sharon Bakar concurred that the literary culture is still fairly small in Malaysia. “However, the interest in reading has to and can be created and sustained among people themselves. There has to more things like book cafes, more bookshops and reading groups here. It is about making reading sexy!
“Literature isn't about being elite and most people are very humble about it. Reading is just incredibly fun and that is what we have to celebrate.”
Readings and book signings held in central venues like Suria KLCC brought literature out of a dusty bookshelf and into a space that is openly associated with leisure and fun. Dr Seuss readings organised by the American Embassy for children, for example, turned the reading experience into an interactive and expressive one that could be shared with the family.
Throughout the three days, various seminars on the themes of National Identity in a Multicultural Context and Teaching Identity through Literature also introduced cultural theories and academic insights to issues in literature, particularly those of national and personal identities.
However, while these may have been useful to academics in the fields of cultural, or postcolonial theory and did discuss very relevant and worldly issues, many of the papers dealt with topics and jargon that seemed too elevated to really appeal to the average reader.
Understandably, the attempt was to expose the public to both fun events and intellectual discussions, but the presentation of academic-based papers distracts from the principle aim of making literature more approachable and varied to the average reader.