MANDALAY—I was all set to headline this blog entry “The Barefoot Lit Fest”: a reference to the unusual decision to hold an international authors gathering in the halls of an ancient Buddhist pagoda, where shoes and socks must be left at the door. But then the Myanmar government got in the way and—in a style typical of the military junta preceding it—pulled the rug out from under everyone.
This morning I arrived at the Kuthodaw Pagoda, home to the World’s Largest Book, to be informed that everyone was being turned away: permission to hold Irrawaddy LitFest 2014 at the much-heralded religious shrine had been revoked late yesterday afternoon by the Ministry of Culture. Hours before it had even begun, the entire festival was being moved to the Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel, just down the road.
“The Ministry cannot decide whether it agrees with the Union Government’s original instruction to hold the festival in the Kuthodaw Pagoda compound,” read the carefully worded festival statement this morning, a printout of which was dutifully displayed by young female volunteers who greeted befuddled literati just inside the pagoda gates. My immediate reaction was disbelief, followed by exasperation. Here we go again, I thought: the government is trying to derail a cultural event for political reasons.
I was mildly irritated by the news, since I had thought it was not only a weird idea to begin with—holding a secular cultural event in a religious place—but one fraught with risk: what if one of the visiting writers read something that was deemed by local attendees to offend Buddhism in some way, either out of ignorance or from an honest mistake of interpretation? How would the hosts handle it? How would the government respond? And what would become of the festival in the future?
Festival spokesperson Andrew Heyn, the former British ambassador to Myanmar whose wife, Jane Heyn, is the festival’s director, told me it was the Myanmar government that had insisted on holding the festival at Kuthodaw from the very beginning, once it was decided that the event was moving from Yangon to Mandalay.
“The idea was to use the festival to showcase one of Myanmar’s great religious shrines,” Heyn said this morning. “So it was a real bolt from the blue that this happened.” Heyn said the trouble began on Monday when the Ministry of Culture suddenly informed the festival organizing committee that they would have to seek written permission to hold the festival at Kuthodaw. The festival immediately replied, but received no answer until late yesterday. Thanks to some quick negotiations—and the prospect of playing host to the festival’s keynote speaker, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, tomorrow morning—the hotel agreed to serve as the new venue.
It is entirely possible, as one featured foreign author told me, that the last-minute cancellation was truly an argument between two competing factions of the government, one willing to take a chance on the festival and the other a traditionalist group concerned about blasphemy. That wouldn’t excuse the sheer incompetence, and the outrageous insult to the intellectual community, of treating an event like this in such a cavalier manner. But the theory suggests that there was no particular “shutdown” agenda or censorship at play here, as would surely have been the case during the junta years.
On the other hand, Andrew and Jane Heyn both mentioned the boycott factor, in reference to a split in both Yangon and Mandalay writers’ circles between those who consider themselves independent of government publications and those who belong to writers’ groups associated with the government. (Somehow I missed all the controversy back in January: according to a report in The Irrawaddy, the 50 poets and 30 cartoonists who decided to boycott the festival said that members of groups like the Myanmar Writers’ Association are merely propagandists who have no business being included on the agenda of a legitimate writers’ festival attracting international authors.) But would progressive writers, publicly miffed at the festival for tainting the good name of Burmese literature (“standing with the oppressors,” as they put it), then turn around and sabotage the event by colluding with the same government they abhor? That seems doubtful.
Whatever the case, another foreign author asked me if I knew which of the invited Burmese writers were from the MWA so that she could avoid their sessions in good conscience. I had to confess that I didn’t have a clue and that, in fact, at some point in the weekend I might well end up sitting in on a session with one or more of them on a panel and would just have to judge them from what they actually wrote or read in front of us. (The festival is providing simultaneous translation.) Welcome to the new Myanmar.
Meanwhile, after much confusion this morning, things eventually got under way at the hotel. Canadian author Karen Connelly, joining Ireland’s Joe Woods and Myanmar’s Ko Ko Thett for a session on romantic poetry (in honour of Valentine’s Day), read a love poem inspired by her days on the Thai-Burma border, where a long romance led to her memoir, Burmese Lessons. Later I attended a session on Burmese libraries where I learned that the government provides no operating budget for its “public” libraries, and 44 percent of public libraries in Myanmar have no funding at all. I also sat down, quite by accident, for a lengthy chat with an apparently much decorated Burmese poet and playwright who might be one of the stooges, or compromised writers, that the boycotting poets and cartoonists are so disgusted by. But then again, maybe not. Without his full CV in front of me, and some telltale rhetoric as we spoke, it was awfully hard to tell.