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Books and Boycotts in Galle

by Irfan Husain, 3 February 2011

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Dawn, 2 February 2011

IN the hierarchy of protests, the easiest one is the boycott: it requires you to do nothing at all, and leaves you with an easy conscience. All you need to do is not go somewhere, or refuse to buy something. Thus, the appeal to boycott the fifth Galle Literary Festival (January 27-30) launched by the Reporters Without Frontiers (RSF) was an easy one for a few writers to fall into line with.

The logic underlying this appeal – signed by some very respected writers, including Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy – was that by going to the festival, writers would somehow confer legitimacy on a Sri Lankan government that has been treating writers and journalists in a particularly vile fashion. Now there is no argument at all over the repressive behaviour of the Rajapakse government towards the media and the opposition. Over the last few years, I have watched and written about the steady slide towards autocratic rule in this island paradise.

However, the fact is that the government has nothing to do with the Galle Lit Fest. Now in its fifth year, the event was initially launched by an expat in the aftermath of the tsunami to restore foreign interest and confidence in Sri Lanka. It is now curated by a Sri Lankan writer, and has a number of corporate supporters as well as a few diplomatic missions who sponsor writers and functions. All in all, it’s four days of fun and discussions.

I only wish the signatories of the boycott appeal had been present at the opening session. Organised by the BBC World Service, the discussion centred round “the lingering legacy of civil war”. The panellists were Sunila Abeysekera, a prominent Sri Lankan human rights activist, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, the famous Nigerian author of Half a Yellow Sun that won the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction. The former spoke of the trauma prevalent among Tamil survivors of the civil war in her country, while Adiche drew on the research she did for her book on the bloody Biafran attempt to break away from Nigeria, and its aftermath. While she herself had no personal memories of the bitter conflict, she talked to hundreds of people to get a sense of what they went through.

What was more revealing than the talks was the heated discussion that followed. Sunila Abeysekera came under sustained attack by a few supporters of the Sri Lankan government who took up cudgels on its behalf to attack her for her criticism of the regime. One of them even accused her of being in the pay of foreign powers, while another suggested she leave the country. This is the standard response of ignorant people who do not have the intellectual capacity to argue rationally. When Adcihe spoke out in her co-panellist’s defence, her words were greeted with loud applause.

The fact that this discussion took place at all in public rebuts the claim of the RSF: if anything, the exchange challenged the official position of the government. Given that the space for a critical examination of the government’s role in the civil war, as well as of its increasingly harsh measures, is shrinking, it is all the more important to use and expand whatever room is available.

Another controversial talk was by Jung Chang and her husband Jon Halliday. The authors of the revisionist biography of Mao (Mao: The Unknown Story) spoke of 12 years of research in Beijing, Moscow, Albania and London, and the many shocking revelations their book contains. For instance, they discovered that in the almost mythical Long March, Mao was carried in a litter where he spent most of the time reading. Chang spoke movingly about growing up during the Cultural Revolution where millions were uprooted and exiled to the countryside to do manual labour. She herself, at age 16, was required to work in the fields, and then as a barefoot doctor. Her father, a senior member of the Communist Party, was made to ‘confess’ his errors at one of the grotesque public trials that were conducted by uneducated louts. He and his wife were sent to different ‘re-education’ camps.

As Mao wanted China to be a superpower, he exported wheat and rice on a massive scale, triggering a famine in which Chang estimated around 40 million people died. According to her, Mao sent out instructions that the peasants should be educated to eat less. Mao also placed strict restrictions on the books people were allowed to read, and encouraged the growth of cruelty in the country. Chang and Halliday maintained that Mao contributed nothing to the present rise of China, and it was only after his death that the country made rapid progress.

As the moderator pointed out, there was some debate in scholarly circles about the nature of the research, and the motivation behind the book. Some have accused Chang of seeking revenge over the way she and her family had been treated. The elegant and beautiful writer countered by saying that she had already got even with Mao through her first book, Wild Swans, a saga of three generations and their trials and tribulations.

Pakistan’s Mohsin Hamid talked about his two best-selling novels, Moth Smoke and The Reluctant Fundamentalist. The latter is being turned into a film. In a packed hall at Galle’s Maritime Museum, he spoke about the creative process and his personal journey from being a lawyer in New York to a full-time writer in Lahore.

One problem with going to a festival like this one when you have your own writing deadlines to meet is that it is not possible to attend all the sessions you’d like to. And of course, there were often two talks scheduled for the same time. What pleased me specially was the presence of so many school and college students, and the fact that the festival organisers had arranged so many activities for kids. Their exposure to so many well-known Sri Lankan and foreign writers might inspire some of them to take up writing when they are older.

Such a pity, then, that these young people (as well as adult audiences) were deprived of the presence of the handful of authors who chose to take the easy way to protest and stayed away. How much more effective their protest would have been had it been made on Sri Lankan soil.