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PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 February, 2006, 12:00am

Settling down to early morning coffee in Causeway Bay, Madeleine Dignam could hardly contain her excitement.

It was September. With the 2006 Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival six months off, pressure was mounting to better the 2005 lineup - and it was never going to be easy to trump a bill that boasted literary heavyweight Shirley Hazzard alongside Man Booker Prize winners Thomas Keneally and Alan Hollinghurst.

But the festival general manager had pulled the rabbit out of the hat.

Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney will headline this year's festival.

'He's the biggest author we've ever brought. It's a real coup. We've been asking him to come for the past three or four years. He accepts few invitations so we feel incredibly privileged. Few people of his calibre come to the region,' Ms Dignam said.

The celebration of writing coincides with the release of Heaney's new collection of poetry, District and Circle, and a limited number of signed copies will be on sale in the festival bookshop during his events.

Competition for the Man Booker Prize was just beginning to heat up in September. Judges and commentators agreed that the standard of entries marked out 2005 as exceptional for fiction. Among them was John Banville's The Sea, which the judges, in awarding it the coveted prize in October, described as 'a masterly study of grief, memory and love recollected'.

Banville, who scooped the Booker from under the noses of the more fashionable Julian Barnes and Zadie Smith, will join his fellow Irishman centre stage.

The festival has grown in size and prestige for each of the five past years. With more than 60 authors speaking at more than 70 events, the organisers plan to serve up the biggest and best celebration of the written word Hong Kong has ever seen.

Elizabeth Wong Chien Chi-lien will set the ball rolling - not Libby Wong, Queen of the Polls, but Libby Wong The Novelist. Rainbow City is set in Hong Kong around the time of the handover and is the former Legco member's first foray into fiction.

'If I don't succeed as a writer I can always make it as a cook,' she joked. 'I make excellent onion cakes.'

Two of the mainland's most talked about authors will be leading the way in a South China Morning Post sponsored double bill entitled China's New Iconoclasts. Dissident Ma Jian, whose newly translated into English Stick Out Your Tongue was banned in the mainland in 1987, will join Mian Mian, a bad girl of Chinese literature whose recurring themes are sex, drugs and nightlife, to talk about their controversial journeys to literary success.

Another hot ticket is for Shirley Lim and the darling of the US critics, Gish Jen. Ms Lim is launching her new novel, Sister Swing, at the festival. They join forces to discuss the literature of displacement.

Travel writing is always a hot topic in Hong Kong, and Pico Iyer is one of the most accomplished in the genre. His wry humour meets the fast wit of Hong Kong's Nury Vittachi as the pair discuss Iyer's recent work. On the same bill, historical novelists Robert Elegant, a winner of the Edgar Alan Poe Award, and Kunal Basu, whose Racists deals with the racial science of the 19th century, talk about their craft.

Suketu Mehta's enthusiasm for that most mesmerising of metropolises, Mumbai, is sure to rub off on those who catch the author at the Fringe Theatre in the festival's second week, where he will be talking about his passion for the city. His first book, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, won the Kiriyama Prize last year and he came within a whisker of walking away with a Pulitzer Prize. But, he said it was the book's bringing together of his mother and an old friend that gave him most satisfaction.

'You can't ask more than this from anything you produce: that it makes your mother happy.'

Indonesian writer Ayu Utami's presence will add spice. Her novel Saman caused a sensation in her home country with its taboo-busting exploration of female sexuality. It is now available in English.

And for those seeking inspiration, Doris Pilkington will be in town to talk about her remarkable life and works. The author will attend a screening of the award-winning film adaptation of Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence before taking questions from the audience. It is sure to end in tears.