Rangoon to Host First International Literary Festival

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 7 January 2013

RANGOON—For the Burmese, who until recently lived under one of the world’s most isolated military regimes, it must seem that nowadays, international organizers keep coming up with events that most have never enjoyed before. The latest treat for the Burmese public: an international literary festival.

After tens of thousands of revelers enjoyed a MTV-organized concert by Grammy-award winning American musician Jason Mraz on Dec. 16 and a Thai-sponsored first-ever New Year’s Eve countdown, it is now Burmese readers’ turn to get excited.

On February 1-3, ‘The Irrawaddy Literary Festival’ will be held at Rangoon’s Inya Lake Hotel. Organized under the patronage of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and the first event of its kind in decades in Burma, the English-language festival will host a series of acclaimed international authors and well-known local writers.

The festival’s aims to provide a catalyst for the exchange of ideas across cultures and literary genres and “will reflect the extraordinary cultural vibrancy of a country in the midst of immense change,” organizers said in a press release.

During a press conference on Sunday, Nobel laureate Suu Kyi and Jane Heyn, the event’s lead organizer and wife of the UK ambassador to Burma, explained how the event came about.

Heyn said she discussed the possibility of organizing an international literary festival with Suu Kyi sometime in 2011and the NLD leader—who herself has written several books—had immediately supported the idea.

“At that stage it would haven’t been possible to organize such a festival. I don’t need to tell anyone how different Burma was back then,” Heyn said, adding that it only became possible to invite international writers and organize the event after the Burmese government lifted visa restrictions early last year.

Suu Kyi said she was glad to support and participate in the festival. “Literature has always been a big part of my life and I hope everybody will profit greatly from this event,” she said. “I’m grateful to Jane for making it possible for us to bring in writers from other countries who will share their ideas and experience with writers from our country.”

The three-day festival will showcase nearly two dozen international authors and more than 30 Burmese writers, and the program includes workshops, panel discussions and individual readings by authors. A small fee of $2 will be charged, according to the festival’s website.

Historian Thant Myint-U and Pascal Khoo Thwe, who is known for his autobiographic writings about growing up in Burma under military rule, will be among the Burmese authors participating.

Some well-known international writers include Chinese-born British author Jung Chang, Indian novelists Vikram Seth and Sudha Shah, and Irish writer and former BBC correspondent Fergal Keane.

The works of some of these acclaimed international writers has yet to hit shelves in Burma, where publications were tightly controlled by the government until recently. Jung Chang’s famous ‘Wild Swans’ for instance—which chronicles a Chinese family saga during China’s tumultuous past—has only just been translated into Burmese.

Local writer Min Khaik Soe San said the event would expose Burmese readers to open, free-flowing discussions on literary themes, for example during public questions and answer sessions with the authors—something that was uncommon in the ‘literary talks’ that were organized in Burma until now.

“I hope we Burmese writers could manage to hold a festival like this in future, based on the experience we get from this one. By doing so, I dream of to have a strong and concrete writers’ society,” said Min Khaik Soe San, who will also help facilitate panel discussions on short stories.