The best of 2014's literary festivals in Asia

With literary festivals blooming across Asia - from Bali, India and Myanmar to Beijing, Hong Kong and manymore - Ambika Behal pinpoints some of the best

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 January, 2014, 4:05pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 January, 2014, 4:05pm

Ah, literary festivals. The words once conjured images of staid affairs in which authors mingled with privileged readers, exchanging literary concepts in a linguistic cloud - but times have changed, particularly in Asia.

With the region's burgeoning significance on the global scene, the past decade has seen an explosion of "lit fests", all accessible to pretty much anyone who is interested.

It's a cultural window and a defining factor of Asia's importance. This is why it is so important to hold literature festivals across the region
Jayapriya vasudevan, bookworm festival

"It's a cultural window," says Jayapriya Vasudevan, managing partner of the [email protected] literary agency, "and a defining factor of Asia's importance. This is why it is so important to hold literature festivals across the region."

Vasudevan, one of the original voices behind Beijing's Bookworm International Literary Festival, says Asian festivals give more space to emerging writers, which is part of the appeal for attendees: to discover lesser-known voices while visiting often lesser-known destinations.

"When you get to meet a Canadian crime writer while sitting in Shanghai, there's a certain beauty in that," she says, highlighting the global appeal of events that can bring cultures together.

According to author and ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival co-director William Dalrymple, since the Indian city established itself as a winter literary hub after humble beginnings in 2004, more than 60 festivals have sprung up across South Asia alone.

"It's all very much for the good. At a really good literature festival, it's like a free university for a few days. What's not to like?" says Dalrymple. The Jaipur event, which takes place this month, also features some top academics - from scientists to historians - alongside a gamut of global authors.

So what to expect from 2014's line-up of Asian lit fests? We've picked out the best of the bunch with a few highlights.

ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival

January 17-21, Diggi Palace, Jaipur

The Jaipur festival, which kicks off the literary festival season on Friday, takes pride in billing itself as the "largest free literary festival on earth" - and the event sees a healthy mix of attendees rubbing shoulders, from rickshaw drivers to members of Jaipur's erstwhile royal family.

History, science, technology and mathematics are just a few of the themes for this year's event. Dalrymple says highlights include Pulitzer-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri who is set to make a rare appearance at an India-based event this year, Chinese filmmaker and writer Guo Xiaolu, and Reza Aslan, the controversial Iranian-American author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.

From 14 attendees in 2004, the Jaipur Literature Festival now has a quarter of a million people joining the festivities. Part of the appeal may be the colour: India's pink city plays host, and the evocative Diggi Palace, a genuine lived-in part-family-palace, part-hotel, with royal mosaic walls and perfectly manicured gardens draped in colourful awnings for the festival, is a beautiful bonus.

And there's another notable plus: the JLF Music Festival, held each evening at nearby Clarks Amer hotel, has been voted by The Guardian newspaper as one of the five leading music festivals in the world. This year will see traditional Rajasthani folk artists and global names including electronic fusion artists Karsh Kale and Midival Punditz.

Karachi Literature Festival

February 7-9, Beach Luxury Hotel, Karachi

A relative newbie, the Karachi Literature Festival began in March 2010 with an audience of 5,000 - but the 2013 event recorded 50,000 participants and a line-up of Pakistan's best authors, including The Reluctant Fundamentalist author Mohsin Hamid and British Pakistani writer Nadeem Aslam, one of this year's shortlisted authors for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature to be announced at the Jaipur festival. If you're looking for Pakistan's own cultural voices, this is the event to attend, with discussions presented in a range of languages from Pashto to English. The 2014 line-up is yet to be released.

Irrawaddy Literary Festival

February 14-16, Kuthodaw Pagoda, Mandalay, Myanmar

A major lure for booklovers at this festival is likely to be the "world's largest book", set on the grounds of the venue, Mandalay's Kuthodaw Pagoda, a Unesco World Heritage Site. The "book", an inscription on 730 marble tablets - each housed in its own gem-topped stupa - contains Theravada Buddhist scriptures written in gold. This means the festival venue is a place of religious significance, and there are strict dress codes for participants, which include no shorts, sleeveless dresses, not even sneakers.

It's the second year of the gathering and its patron Aung San Suu Kyi should again be just as much a magnet to draw attention to Myanmar's literary talent as she was in 2013. This year's bill includes Man Asian Literary Prize winner Tan Twan Eng, as well as Fergal Keane, BBC correspondent and author of Road of Bones, a novel about the siege of Kohima during the Burma campaign in the second world war.

Shanghai International Literary Festival

March 7-18, M on the Bund, Shanghai

Held at the stylish M on the Bund restaurant, this event began in 2003 as a sister festival to Hong Kong's International Literary Festival, and has grown into a significant part of the mainland's annual arts calendar. The festival remains intimate - numbers haven't gone far past 4,000, possibly because there's a fee for attendance at sessions.

Lit-fest alumni include New Zealand author Eleanor Catton - who last year became the youngest winner of the Man Booker Prize - as well as celebrity authors Amy Tan, Gore Vidal (who died in 2012), and historical fiction author Simon Winchester. The festival uses social media to crowd-source ideas for writers the audience wants to hear, which has attracted a strong assembly of emerging authors. Tash Aw, author of Five Star Billionaire, was considered one to watch in 2013, and was subsequently long-listed for the Man Booker Prize that year.

The Bookworm Literary Festival

March 7-21, The Bookworm, Nan Sanlitun Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing

It's a bookshop, a library, a bar, a restaurant and an events space - and it all comes with international flair. Launched in 2007, the Bookworm Literary Festival has grown into a gathering of almost 100 Chinese and international speakers hailing from 24 countries. It has even expanded to create Bookworm festivals for Chengdu and Suzhou. Highlights include workshops and programmes just for children.

Byron Bay Writers' Festival,

August 1-3, North Byron Events, Byron Bay, Australia

The picturesque Byron Bay festival is firmly focused on highlighting Australian writers, although Asian authors have been added to the docket in recent years, along with a close relationship with Bali's Ubud Writers and Readers Festival.

One special feature of this event is the workshops that begin a couple of days before the festival, which focus on fostering budding authors. For a fee, those wanting to learn the art of storytelling or figure how to get published can show up with a pre-requested manuscript and get cracking on becoming a fully fledged author.

As for the festival itself, which is held in a series of marquees, all sessions are open to attendees who have purchased a pass for the festival, and one can wander in and out of various gatherings.

Current affairs form a large part of the forum itself: last year's discourse on feminist issues and sexism in Australia were sparked by prime minister Julia Gillard's departure from office.

Ubud Writers and Readers Festival

October 8-12, Sanginngan, Ubud, Bali

Since its initiation in 2003 as a project to help the island recover from the bombings of 2002, the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival has grown not only in stature but also in cultural significance.

Programmes encompass a smorgasbord of genres, from travel writers to comedians to musicians, with themes get authors and audiences talking. Smattered between the day's bookish events are graceful Balinese dance performances which do much to prove that pictures can paint a thousand words.

The festival is a project of the non-profit Yayasan Mudra Swari Saraswati foundation, created by foundation co-founder Janet DeNeefe. In honour of this, the 2014 festival is set to pay tribute to its namesake Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, with a focus on the themes of "Wisdom and Knowledge".

Singapore Writer's Festival

October 31-November 9, Singapore Management University Campus

With an established line-up of programming, the festival's slightly lengthier time-line also allows for participants to sign up for a Literary Walking tour or dine with their favourite authors, who more or less cover the gamut of the Asia region.

Everything takes place within the allocated festival "district" which encompasses a portion of the Singapore Management University campus, and some of city state's last standing heritage buildings. Last year's highlights included the launch and screening of cinematic poem Requiem for Beauty by Gao Xingjian. Perhaps this has influenced the theme of "The Prospect of Beauty" for the 2014 chapter.

Hong Kong International Literary Festival

November 1-10, held at various locations across Hong Kong Island

It's come a long way since the early years: when Booker Prize winner Yann Martel spoke in 2003, the event was a quiet affair presented by the South China Morning Post, and held at Hong Kong Central Library.

These days the festival's programmes take place at several venues, and there's even a colourful brochure for attendees to mark out the sessions they want to attend. In the past three years alone, the festival has grown from a small series of talking events into two separate festivals.

One is a 10-day journey into the world of books for adult readers; the second - the Hong Kong International Young Readers Festival - is for readers under the age of 10 and is held in March.

With an eclectic representation of global writing, last year focused on Scandinavian literature and themes, while also representing the budding contingent of global authors. Novelist and City University of Hong Kong assistant professor Justin Hill created an informative, much-posted video blog on the most prominent guests at the 2013 festival.

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