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International Authors Boycott Galle Literary Festival

Jan 29, 2011 2:14:14 PM - thesundayleader.lk
  • Among many other attacks on the freedom of expression
  • Festival participants take a stand on the disappearance of cartoonist Prageeth
    Ekneligoda and the unsolved murder of The Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge

By Raisa Wickrematunge

Shyam Selvadurai

The Galle Literary Festival hit another low when Damon Galgut, an award-winning South African playwright and novelist also decided to pull out after arriving in Sri Lanka to attend the festival, based on an appeal by two media rights organisations, Reporters Without Borders and Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS), calling for writers to boycott the festival in the backdrop of serious freedom of expression issues in the country and attacks on journalists.

Galgut followed Nobel prizewinning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, and Man Booker Prize winner Kiran Desai when they too cancelled their appearances amidst rumours of external pressure. Curator of the Galle Literary Festival, Shyam Selvadurai  himself an author whose first novel, Funny Boy, established him as a new talent capable of earning a place next to some of his more well-known expatriates spoke to The Sunday Leader about the issue.

Lasantha Wickrematunge and Prageeth Ekneligoda

Q: Damon Galgut pulled out of the festival last week. What are your comments on the issue, and is it true he did so because of the RSF petition?
Yes, Damon Galgut pulled out because of the RSF release. I respect his right to have an opinion. I’m not saying that I disagree with what RSF says, but I disagree with the method of using the festival as a platform to voice disapproval. Galgut writes beautifully on Apartheid South Africa. So it is a loss and I am sad about it. There will be a void left by what he could have contributed.

Q: The Festival ran into problems from the beginning with Louis de Bernieres who was unable to attend the opening event. What went wrong?
Well, he missed his flight. He thought he was flying in on Thursday, as opposed to Wednesday. He was obviously appalled and apologised immediately, but he is coming for the festival. He’ll be leaving this Thursday and will be here for the Saturday programming. He’ll be filling Kiran’s slot in the afternoon and then will be the guest on at the dinner at Kantha Kanna, which was going to be a Kiran and Orhan event. So in an odd way it worked out perfectly. He’s hugely entertaining and charming. The other thing is, a lot of people have actually read his book, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which is on the A/Level syllabus list, I believe. Personally, I love his book. It’s wonderful to read.  Of course Pamuk is wonderful too. He is a Nobel Prize winner and he’s a great writer but Bernieres is more read here.

Q: What about the rumours surrounding Orhan Pamuk’s and Kiran Desai’s cancellation? Was it indeed due to pressure from the Reporters Without Borders petition?
There is no truth to those claims at all. I was appalled at the shoddy journalism. In that first article, they very cleverly linked the two incidents without actually linking them. The press release by Pamuk didn’t say it was about the petition at all. In fact it was said that it had been an ongoing issue for about three weeks, which we had been trying to resolve.  The Indian High Commission was wonderful, and went all out to make it happen. There was nothing more that could be done by us or the Indian High Commission. But Pamuk decided that he wasn’t satisfied by what we had done.  You can take the horse to the water but you can’t make it drink. That’s exactly what it was. So what can you do at that point?

Q: So the Indian High Commission press release saying that the cancellation was not, in fact, due to visa entry restrictions was correct?
It wasn’t because of the visa issue. He could have definitely re-entered (India) there’s no question about it. People come and go all the time from India on a multiple entry visa. He has a multiple entry visa. He wasn’t satisfied. So what can you do? It wasn’t the Indian High Commission’s fault. It was the fault of Indian emigration law. I mean it does allow for this situation, for people to re-enter. You just have to make your case.

Q: So was he afraid that something would happen if he did leave and re-enter the country again?
No matter what we said to him, he thought he couldn’t get back in. He didn’t want to go and do whatever it is he had to do to get back in. He was just not willing to do that little bit. I mean, maybe when you’re a Nobel Prize winner, you think you don’t have to do that kind of thing. I don’t know. Again the Indian High Commission did try to smooth it out as much as they could, but you know, the law is the law. Whether you win the Nobel Prize or not you have to follow the law, frankly. It wasn’t a problem with the law. The law was perfectly fine and fair. I mean, it allowed for him to go back. It was Pamuk’s fault. Pamuk was not convinced and there was nothing to be done about it.

Q: There were also reports of a panel on media freedom, which was eventually cancelled. What went wrong there?
We just couldn’t put it together. It was a last minute thing. It was just hard to find the panel we wanted because it has to be fair and balanced. You have to give voice to both sides, it’s very important we have to appear non partisan and impartial and we couldn’t find the panelists that we felt would reflect a balanced point of view.  We stand above all this partisan politics and it’s very important we keep that.

Q: Is it true that you were unable to find any government representatives who were willing to speak at the panel?
We looked. It was a bit hard. But at some point we just couldn’t, and you have to move on. At the end I wasn’t happy with what I had before me and as a curator you should always stand behind it. Being fair and balanced is very important for me. We thought Louis de Bernieres could only make it for Sunday, but later we found out he could do Saturday. So we felt like it was time to move on, frankly.

Q: In the email announcing the cancellation, it was mentioned that the issue had been ongoing for three weeks. Do you think people who bought tickets should have been warned beforehand of the problem?
Well no, because there wasn’t a problem. We just had to work through the steps to fix it. We did what would have been done. The Indian High Commission worked beyond what had been done. So at that point it was here’s what we have, but (Pamuk) was not satisfied. It didn’t seem an insoluble problem at all. It wasn’t. But the solution wasn’t satisfying.

Q: What are your opinions on freedom of expression in this country?
Well, I think it’s an ongoing problem that has to be addressed.

Damon Galgut Also Walks Away

Damon Galgut

Despite arriving in Sri Lanka, South African writer and Commonwealth Prize winner Damon Galgut decided not to participate in the Galle Literary Festival.
“Galgut however was not participating in too many events,” curator Shyam Selvadurai said. The Breakfast Bookclub event Galgut was hosting on January 28 was replaced with a private book club event which Selvadurai himself was finally forced to oversee. While, the literary dinner on January 27 was hosted by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie alone in the absence of Galgut.
Hundreds Of Tamils Sign RSF Petition
Hundreds of Tamil Internet users signed the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) petition calling for people to boycott the Galle Literary Festival, which is being held this weekend. The petition itself urged those invited to attend, “to consider Sri Lanka’s appalling human rights record and targeting of journalists.” Already signed by literary activists like Arundhathi Roy and Noam Chomsky, the list shows that many more have already signed the petition calling for a boycott. Meanwhile, newly appointed permanent delegate for UNESCO, Dayan Jayatilleka spoke out against the ‘moral high ground’ taken by the organisation at an international symposium. He questioned their right to sit as ‘judge, jury and executioner’ on such issues, even calling the material published by RSF defamatory. He asked UNESCO not to be misled by them. Below is the RSF petition in its entirety, including the signatories.

The initial signatories:
Noam Chomsky
Arundhathi Roy
Ken Loach
Antony Loewenstein
Tariq Ali
Dave Rampton
R. Cheran