“FOR 50 YEARS, Asean was no more than a slogan and a series of meetings of elites. If we want to be a real community, we have to work at the grassroots level,” said Indonesian novelist Okky Madasari on Monday.
Held over the same weekend as the region’s top annual security forum, the Asean Literary Festival (ALF) was held from Aug 3 to 6 in Jakarta and brought together writers from more than 30 nations, celebrated freedom of speech and the rich literary traditions of Southeast Asia.
While foreign ministers and diplomats deliberated upon thorny issues like North Korea, the South China Sea and human rights in Manila, artists from across Southeast Asia converged in the tourist-heavy district of Kota Tua old town for four days of discussion panels on everything from beat poetry and feminism to Wikileaks and the Iranian Revolution.
The ALF was established in 2013 by Okky and her husband Abdul Khalik, a former editor of the Jakarta Post newspaper, to promote freedom of expression and discuss contentious issues in a region that has long grappled with authoritarian politics.
“We came up with the idea about how to make nations in Southeast Asia get more connected as we realized actually, we don’t know each other,” Okky told Asian Correspondent.
She said Abdul had attended many high-level meetings on diplomatic and economic cooperation in his work as a journalist, but observed politics alone had failed to engender a meaningful sense of understanding or community among the peoples of the region.
The 2017 ALF focused on contemporary issues for the region including radicalism, blasphemy and persecution of minorities. “Since the beginning, the festival aimed to promote a free and just society in Southeast Asia,” said Madasari.
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In 2015, for example, the festival organizers released a statement on Rohingya refugees in which it expressed “grave disappointment” with Asean governments for not accepting those fleeing persecution.
“This is a betrayal of Asean community’s basic principles as enshrined in its charter and values held high by the festival,” it declared.
Okky told Asian Correspondent:
“Freedom of expression is still a big issue in every Southeast Asian country. We will always give room to these kinds of issues in our society to be discussed at the festival.”
Over time the ALF has grown, with this year being its largest incarnation yet. In 2017, the festival was endorsed by Indonesia’s Culture and Education Ministry as well as its Foreign Ministry.
“This year is more special because of the 50th anniversary of Asean and we wanted to make the festival as part of the celebration. Now the festival belongs to not only the people of Indonesia, but Southeast Asia as a whole.”
Prominent Malaysian author Faisal Tehrani – six of whose books have been banned by the government in his homeland – delivered the opening speech of ALF 2017 about the experience of writing in a politically and religiously repressive environment.
In addition to being targeted by Malaysian authorities, Faisal regularly receives death threats from Islamic conservatives for openly exploring issues around the Sunni/Shia divide.
In another session on Sunday, Australian journalist Andrew Fowler discussed his writings on Wikileaks founder Julian Assange – another figure who has been targeted by governments, albeit the purportedly liberal democratic ones of the United States, Australia and Britain.
— Mai Nardone (@MaiNardone) August 6, 2017
Writers Tra Nguyen, Clara Chow and Alanda Kariza from Vietnam, Singapore and Indonesia respectively, meanwhile, discussed their experiences writing as women in highly patriarchal cultural contexts.
While previous festivals had drawn the ire of hardline Muslims for providing a forum for the discussion of controversial issues like communism and LGBT rights, Madasari said no such problems were faced in 2017.
“I hope this is a sign our society is more mature now,” she said.
In addition to its staunch agenda to promote freedom of speech, the ALF also aimed to promote a love of reading and writing among the wider community in Indonesia and elsewhere in the region.
A 2016 study from Central Connecticut State University ranked Indonesia 60 out of 61 countries for reading interest, right below Thailand and above only Botswana.
“Indonesia doesn’t need ambitious dreams of becoming one of the world’s great literary nations,” wrote the founder of Makassar International Writers Festival Lily Yulianti Farid last year.
“What Indonesia does need, however, is to recognize that creativity and innovation are urgently needed to address the reading crisis.”
The ALF 2017 may have had some success in doing this. “I can’t move on yet from the ALF 2017,” lamented one Twitter user on Sunday.
**This article first appeared on our sister site Asian Correspondent