LITERARY festivals around the world have long attracted scores of visitors – inquisitive, worldly, and waiting to meet their favorite authors.
For instance, the Edinburgh International Book Festival – the biggest literary festival in the world – sees the historic Charlotte Square Gardens transformed into a tented village that welcomes upwards of 200,000 visitors each year. And it’s not just the locals who flock to the grounds; the festival has proven its global reach and manages to attract both readers and writers from the world over.
In Asia, the appeal of literary festivals is sometimes limited to avid readers or to those in the arts, and doesn’t yet draw mainstream interest. This could be attributed to many factors: a fragmented reading culture, restricted freedoms of speech, or a lack of funding and marketing.
Whatever the reasons may be, literary festivals in Asia should get more attention than they currently do, especially considering the region’s rich literary history and diverse make-up.
There are a few players in the region already helping the cause. The annual Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (UWRF) in Bali has grown to be one of Southeast Asia’s biggest events in the literary world owing to appearances by high-profile writers and the mainstream appeal of Bali.
This year’s edition of the UWRF – set to take place from Oct 25 to 29 – will feature celebrated crime novelist Ian Rankin, Canada’s breakthrough star Madeleine Thien, revered Indonesian journalists and novelists Seno Gumira Ajidarma and Leila S. Chudori, as well as Malaysian minority rights activist and columnist Marina Mahathir.
Festival director Janet DeNeefe told Travel Wire Asia that Australia makes up the biggest market of international attendees at the festival. “Given the proximity to Australia and the nation’s love of reading and enthusiasm for writers’ festivals, that they make up almost half the foreign audience is entirely unsurprising,” she said.
“In the past few years, we’ve seen a steady increase in attendees from Asean nations. The UWRF has put Ubud on the map not only for literature lovers – many of whom continue to make the pilgrimage year after year – but also for those eager to discover more about Indonesian and Balinese culture.”
On top of that, the festival has helped put Ubud put “on the map” given that 65 percent of attendees are international, and 83 percent of last year’s audience visited Ubud specifically for the event.
“The annual injection into the local economy – both in Ubud and throughout Bali – is something hundreds of hoteliers, restaurateurs and drivers anticipate every year,” DeNeefe said.
Ubud, approximately two hours from south Bali, is home to some of the best luxury hotels in the region, many of which capitalize on the area’s lush foliage.
Moving up north in the region, the George Town Literary Festival (GLTF) in Penang, Malaysia is the country’s pioneer literary festival and is supported and funded by the state government of Penang.
In this case, the festival attracts mostly locals, or what made up 90 percent of last year’s total attendees. Festival director Bernice Chauly told Travel Wire Asia: “The majority of our audiences are local and comprising of young people – students of literature especially, and people who are involved in the arts. I would say that less that 10 percent of our audiences are expats and tourists.”
The festival was inaugurated in 2011 with only five writers, but this year’s events on Nov 24 to 26 will see 40 writers and poets from around the world.
“This year is our biggest and most ambitious yet – we will have a Translators’ Roundtable, panel discussions, book launches, readings, and at night, we will have a Festival Fringe for the first time. More than 50 events in three days,” Chauly said. Most events are free to the public.
The Penang government’s enthusiasm to fund the event is also a boon for the festival and Malaysia’s reading culture at large. Chauly said: “Not all state governments believe in this and are committed to investing in the arts. It takes an enlightened bureaucrat to understand that culture is a basic need in every society, and that literature and poetry are important to the quality of human life.”
In the vein of Chauly’s words, literary festivals are less about business and tourism than they are about encouraging discussions on politics, social issues, culture, and the arts.
The recent Asean Literary Festival (ALF) in Jakarta saw artists from across Southeast Asia converge in the tourist-heavy district of Kota Tua for four days to discuss everything from beat poetry and feminism to Wikileaks and the Iranian Revolution.
Contemporary issues battling the region including radicalism, blasphemy and persecution of minorities were hot topics as well. “Since the beginning, the festival aimed to promote a free and just society in Southeast Asia,” Indonesian novelist Okky Madasari told Asian Correspondent during the festival in August.
On top of tourism dollars and building a fundamental love of reading and writing, literary festivals prove to have a larger cause in the region – that is to contribute to the shaping of national paradigms and cultural intellect in an Asia that’s still grappling with its identity.