George Town Literary Festival looks at where Malaysians are... and where we think we're going

Acclaimed Malaysian writer, poet and educator Bernice Chauly (left) and award-winning Norwegian novelist Hanne Ørstavik. — Picture by Choo Choy May
Acclaimed Malaysian writer, poet and educator Bernice Chauly (left) and award-winning Norwegian novelist Hanne Ørstavik. — Picture by Choo Choy May

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 26 — The George Town Literary Festival, which celebrates the literary world of poetry, prose and spoken words, is back and will run from November 27 to 29. Noted Malaysian writer, poet and educator Bernice Chauly also returns as the festival director, having curated the first three editions of the event.

She says, “The festival is now in its fifth year and its theme – ‘We Are Who We Are/Are We Who We Are?’ – is more urgent and timely than ever before. It’s about taking a serious look at where we are, at what we have become, and where we think we’re going.”

Born in George Town, Penang to Chinese-Punjabi teachers, Chauly is the author of five books of poetry and prose including the award-winning memoir Growing Up With Ghosts.

She is also the founder and director of the KL Writers Workshop.

“I remember when we started in 2011. We only had five writers for the first festival! Back then, Penang was just awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status so our theme was ‘History & Heritage: Where are our Stories?’ Over the years, we have covered our migrant past (Voyages. Hopes. Dreams in 2012) and how these disparate threads make us stronger when united (The Ties that Bind in 2013).”

Chauly explains, “This is an issue that concerns us all and will not only address obvious questions of identity, but delve into topics that force us to look at the human condition in ways that are not always pleasant, looking at how we treat each other. It’s about our judgements and prejudices – not just as human beings – but as writers and commentators of society.”

On the subject of writers, Chauly has assembled some of the brightest lights in the literary world, numbering nearly 50 participants, the most thus far for the festival. This group of celebrated writers and poets include Malaysian author and Man Asian Prize winner Tan Twan Eng, journalist and translator Maureen Freely, and Al Jazeera America host and playwright Wajahat Ali.

Based on past experience curating previous George Town Literary Festivals, Chauly has learned how best to pick writers and moderators.

“I know what works for me. For example, I don’t like big festivals as everyone tends to get lost without much of an opportunity to engage the audience or each other. I prefer more intimate festivals with fewer writers but really good ones.”

Chauly acknowledges the quality of the writers matters, one reason why so many invited participants are literary award winners.

“It’s not just about the awards though. There must be a personality fit. This is why I tend to invite writers I know or who are recommended by people I trust. When the participants have chemistry, especially on panels, you get really compelling discussions.”

One of the featured panellists is Norwegian novelist Hanne Ørstavik, winner of the Dobloug Prize (2002) and the Brage Prize (2004).

She has written 14 novels, including the critically acclaimed Like Sant Som Jeg Er Virkelig (The Blue Room), and been translated into 18 languages.

“We need to create a safe and welcoming ambience for ideas to flourish,” says Ørstavik.

“Not only to repeat what we’re taught, no, but having the space to really listen to the voice in your head in order to think critically. How else would we find our authentic voice? Just like an infant learning to crawl and walk, we need this secure environment to explore our thoughts, our writing and life around us.”

Two panel discussions Ørstavik will be taking part in are Shame on You!, an open discussion into the ethics of shame and guilt in writing, and Hello Darkness, which will investigate why writers enjoy creating characters who do bad things.

Chauly hopes that the festival “manages to be both critical and provocative, in terms of a mirror for us to truly see ourselves. Humanity is at a crisis point, not just Malaysia but the rest of the world too. There is this sense of prevalent danger – of anger and frustration – so it’s all the more urgent that we are able to explore issues such as shame and powerlessness.

"We have to push the boundaries.

"We have to be able to discuss and ask questions.”

George Town Literary Festival 2015

27-29 November 2015

Venues: Black Kettle, The [email protected] Beach Street, Hock Teik Cheng Sin, ChinaHouse and Cheah Kongsi

For more information and festival programme, visit