For Bookworms, a Historic Event in Burma’s Biggest City

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 2 February 2013

RANGOON—Renowned writers from around the world are meeting local authors and readers in Burma’s biggest city this weekend as the country hosts its first-ever international literary festival after decades of isolation.

Organized under the patronage of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, the English-language Irrawaddy Literary Festival is bringing together at least 120 local authors and about 25 international writers, said Andrew Heyn, the UK ambassador to Burma, in opening remarks on Friday at Rangoon’s Inya Lake Hotel.

The three-day festival will showcase well-known international writers including Chinese-born British author Jung Chang, Indian novelists Vikram Seth and Sudha Shah, and Irish writer and former BBC correspondent Fergal Keane.

Historian Thant Myint-U and best-selling author Pascal Khoo Thwe, known for his autobiographic writing about growing up in Burma under military rule, are among local authors in attendance.

At the opening ceremony, Jung Chang said she had been following the news in Burma for years.

“I’m from China, and I really wish the changes happening in Myanmar [Burma] would happen in China too,” said the writer of “Wild Swans,” which chronicles a family’s saga during China’s tumultuous past.

Pe Myint, a famous writer and editor of The People’s Age, a local journal, said the festival was a novel opportunity for Burma’s literary circle.

“I really hope it’s just the beginning, with many more festivals to follow,” he said. “I want it to become a tradition here.”

Running through Sunday, the festival will feature nearly 70 programs, including workshops, panel discussions and individual readings by authors, along with a marionette theater, a magician show and traditional chinlone (cane ball) performances.

Hundreds of people came out for the first day on Friday, with a packed schedule ranging from poetry talks to lectures on the country’s oral and literary traditions.

“This is a historic occasion,” Thant Myint-U told The Irrawaddy after moderating an afternoon panel discussion on Sudha Shah’s book, “The King in Exile,” about Burma’s King Thibaw. “Even though Burma has a long literary tradition, this is the first time we’ve ever held a festival with internationally acclaimed authors.”

Pascal Khoo Thwe, the best-selling author of “From the Land of Green Ghosts,” said the event was an opportunity for local writers to expand their audience.

“When I was abroad, it seemed like the international community didn’t know much about Burma’s literary circle,” said the Burmese writer who has lived in exile for more than two decades. “I see this event as an introduction of the local literary community to the international community, as well as a chance to inspire young writers here.”

For Sudha Shah, the festival has been a long time coming. The Indian writer who has long followed developments in Burma said the Southeast Asian country “pulled her heart strings.”

“It seemed like people here couldn’t get access to literature as much as they wanted,” she told The Irrawaddy, referring to the country’s isolation for nearly five decades under military rule. “I’ve long hoped they would gain access to many things, including literature. And now it’s happening. It’s really superb.”