The Galle Literary festival is a haven of civilised values in a country that is no stranger to strife
by Robert McCrum
Associate editor, The Observer, UK
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Ever since the Hay festival set up shop overseas in Cartagena, Colombia, in 2006, literary festivals have been going global, like the English language.
The marriage of international literary stars with local and expat audiences in exotic locations has inspired an unprecedented surge in book tourism, from Shanghai to Byron Bay, Australia. In Jaipur last month, for instance, you could bump into JM Coetzee, Richard Ford, Martin Amis and Candace Bushnell. With the export of festival UK, ambitious writers today are advised to carry a pen and a passport.
The importance of this phenomenon is marked by the way successful festivals are getting bogged down in politico-cultural controversy. In 2009, in Dubai, there was a row about medieval censorship. Last week, in Jaipur, the organiser, William Dalrymple, was accused of neocolonialism, promoting English and American writing at the expense of Indian culture, a charge he swatted as if it were a lazy mosquito.
A few hundred miles further south, in Sri Lanka, the Galle literary festival was also caught up in politics. The brutal regime that crushed the Tamil insurgency is rightly charged with repressing, "disappearing" and allegedly killing journalists. So Galle was accused of collaborating with an enemy of free speech. The Booker-shortlisted South African novelist Damon Galgut pulled out.
Last weekend I attended the Galle festival as a guest. It would be difficult to miss the military tenor of Sri Lanka's government, but this friendly week of books and conversation in a world heritage site on the south-western tip of a magical island is also a showcase of international literary values and a haven of benign civility. Far from being the dupe of a dreadful regime, Galle represents the best of the amateur principle and provides an impressive voluntary programme of social and cultural renewal.
First, just as Hay reflects the personality of its founder, Peter Florence, so Galle is made in the image of its creator, Geoffrey Dobbs. You might mistake him for a character from an Evelyn Waugh novel; actually, he is a courageous cultural entrepreneur who, like Dalrymple in Jaipur, is not afraid to stand up to cant. He started the Galle festival, singlehanded, and has worked tirelessly to raise audiences and sponsorship, develop local literary workshops and promote education.
As well as attracting literary superstars, from Colin Thubron to Germaine Greer, the festival has championed local writers and addressed Sri Lankan issues. This year, there was a session, covered by BBC reporter Bridget Kendall: "After the Shock: the Lingering Legacy of Civil War". The locals turned up in force. If you read Jon Lee Anderson in the New Yorker, you will know that President Mahinda Rajapaksa is an exceedingly brutal dictator. However, his people are not yet cowed into silence.
Galle is obviously a world away from the 30-year war with the Tamil Tigers, but it has also known tragedy. The 2004 tsunami struck this corner of Sri Lanka with particular ferocity. Despite massive reconstruction, the coast road from Colombo still takes the visitor past ghost villages. The formerly Dutch Galle fort, protected by 17th-century stone ramparts, was unscathed. It remains an oasis of colonial history and is the focus of the festival.
So the Galle festival has been at the heart of the socio-cultural renewal of a shattered community. Amid the oppressive gloom of Sri Lankan politics, it looks like a beacon of hope, optimism and good taste that will, with a bit of luck, shine for years to come. No one should mistake it for Sri Lankan reality, but at least it offers a little bit of literary freedom unintimidated by President Rajapaksa's autocratic regime. ~ courtesy: The Guardian. UK ~