A new way with words

Keen book-lovers in Burma.
Keen book-lovers in Burma. Photo: Corbis

Burma is the latest country to join Asia's burgeoning literary festival circuit, with great success, writes Sally Robinson.

It's just after lunch on a scorching afternoon in Rangoon and an excited crowd is jostling for position outside the ballroom at the Inya Lake Hotel, a faded teak-floored 1960s palace. A couple of thousand throng the entrance: locals dressed in traditional longyi, NGO workers and saffron-robed monks - all here to listen to Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's pro-democracy leader, speak as patron of the country's first literary festival.

Luba Borisova, a counsellor at Rangoon's international school, is clutching her ticket, determined to get a seat. "She's inspirational," she says as we surge nearer the door.

A car pulls up and Suu Kyi gets out, smiling and serene. Her minders gently join hands to create a safe passage for her to the ballroom.

Two years ago this could never have happened. Suu Kyi had only just been released from 15 years of house arrest, the city's few bookshops were devoid of stock, and all writing was subject to government censors.

Things are changing dramatically - which is why 3000 of us have gathered at the inaugural Irrawaddy Literature Festival to be part of Burma's move to a more open society.

It's a long way from the pre-talk cocktails and canapes of other book festivals. This is a much more intense affair, reflecting the changing Burma after close to 50 years of isolation.

Our program has talks by well-known international authors such as Vikram Seth, William Dalrymple and Jung Chang, but alongside them are sessions on "Writing under Censorship" and "Witness to Violence".

The 120 local writers taking part include Ma Thida, who spent five years in detention in the 1990s for her support of the pro-democracy movement; and Pascal Khoo Thwe, who fled in 1989 after taking part in demonstrations against the military dictatorship.

Sitting here in this faded ballroom, with its sunken dance floor and acres of gold satin curtains, feels like a front-row seat to the changes as a country inches towards democracy.

Outside, the hotel's lush lakeside gardens have become a tent village. Between events, the festival-goers tuck into plates of fried rice or sip Lavazza coffee at tables shaded by palm trees overlooking the lake. In one tent, Monument Books is doing a brisk trade in titles that were banned until recently.

Rangoon is the latest city to join south-east Asia's booming book festival circuit. There are now more than 30 literary festivals in the region from Shanghai and Singapore to Beijing and Bhutan. Even the venerable Hay Festival in Britain has established satellite events in Dhaka, Kolkata and Kerala.

More than half the audiences at Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali are overseas visitors, and at last year's Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka more than 500 of the 3000 visitors were international.

Some festival-goers come to get close to their literary heroes, while others just want to engage with a destination and its culture in a more authentic way.

Each festival has its own distinctive vibe. Just as Rangoon's is defined by its pioneering spirit, Ubud's is more intimate and Singapore and Dubai's are known for their wide programming and high efficiency.

The largest, and most popular, on the south-east Asian circuit is Jaipur Literature Festival, which started in 2005 with an audience of just 14.

Last month, 200,000 people thronged through the doors of the Rajasthan capital's Diggi Palace Hotel for a packed program of talks, debates and workshops. The whole event is free, unticketed, and attracts big-name international and local writers. The atmosphere is buzzy and festive, with audiences sitting on cushions on the floor of bunting-festooned marquees.

"It's held in a charming, intimate space and a lot of our success has to do with that," says Dalrymple, the British writer and historian who is co-director of the festival. "It's a magical compound, a whole series of courtyards with big banyan trees, dribbling fountains and parakeets floating in and out."

Thanks to Dalrymple's impeccable connections, Jaipur's alumni includes everyone from Salman Rushdie and Thomas Keneally to Donna Tartt, Tina Brown and Alexander McCall Smith.

Dalrymple is particularly proud of the festival's egalitarian nature. "I like to think we are igniting minds on a seriously large scale. Absolutely anyone can walk in," he says.

It's a concept that strikes fear into the heart of Isobel Abulhoul, founder and director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature held in Dubai each March. Hers is a highly organised, efficiently run affair sponsored by Emirates (which flies in the authors) held at the luxurious InterContinental Hotel on Dubai Creek with 14 different venues on site.

Next month Abulhoul has 115 writers arriving for her ninth festival including Ian Rankin, Jeffrey Archer, Artemis Cooper and Jeet Thayil. She is expecting more than 30,000 guests.

In Bali, Ubud's annual festival doesn't have the slick organisation of Dubai or the huge crowds of Jaipur, but it's one of the most popular in south-east Asia. Its exotic setting in Bali's beautiful hinterland helps, with its forested ravines and emerald rice paddies.

The events make the most of Ubud's spectacular venues: one lunchtime we hear Fatima Bhutto speak over an intimate lunch at the Chedi Club's restaurant, a dazzling open-sided pavilion set amid lush green rice paddies. Another evening Slumdog Millionaire author Vikas Swarup chats to a small group among the twinkling lights of the exclusive Amandari hotel as the sun goes down.

It helps that festival organiser Janet de Neefe has a background in hospitality. With her Balinese husband she owns two restaurants, a bar and a cooking school in town.

"What makes our festival special is we lavish people with Balinese hospitality. It's all very friendly and warm," says de Neefe, the Australian founder and director.

She conceived the festival after the first Bali bombing in October 2002 when tourism dried up overnight. "It was such a tragic time. I just felt something had to be done," she says.

A decade down the track it has transformed the sleepy month of October into peak tourist season: last year 24,000 people attended the 220 events and 63 per cent were international guests, most from Australia.

Over the years de Neefe has hosted plenty of big names including Anne Enright, Nick Cave, John Pilger and Jeffrey Eugenides.

Back in Rangoon, Aung San Suu Kyi is coming to the end of her talk at the inaugural Irrawaddy festival.

She has spoken movingly about how books sustained her during her years of house arrest, about her favourite authors (George Eliot and Victor Hugo), and how she memorised a different poem each day she was in detention.

"I hope one day our nation will be a nation worth writing poetry about," she says, as the session draws to a close.

The rapt audience claps enthusiastically and files out of the ballroom into the afternoon sun, hands already pulling out programs to plan the next session.

SHELF LIFE: ASIA’S NEW BOOK CLUB

Shanghai International Literary Festival, China

March 1-17, 2013 (www.m-restaurantgroup.com).

Who's coming: 71 writers from 21 countries, including Man Asia Literary Prize winner Shin Sook Kyung and British poet Simon Armitage.

Where to stay: Mingle with the writers at Le Royal Meridien (www.royalmeridienshanghai.com) and the Hotel Indigo on the Bund (shanghai.hotelindigo.com).

Don't miss: The Bund Tourist Tunnel under the Huangpu River and the new China Art Museum (www.sh-artmuseum.org.cn).

Festival of Literature, UAE

Dubai, March 5-9, 2013 (www.eaifl.com).

Who's coming: 120 local and international authors including Jeffrey Archer, Ian Rankin, Ben Okri and Jeet Thayil.

Where to stay: Authors stay at the InterContinental Hotel (www.intercontinental.com) or Crowne Plaza (www.crowneplaza.com).

Don't miss: The heritage area of Bur Dubai with the distinctive wind tower houses, the spice and the gold souks at Deira, the Burj Khalifa (www.burjkhalifa.ae) — the tallest building in the world — and the desert itself.

Bookworm International Literary Festival, China

Beijing, March 8-22 (www.bookwormfestival.com).

Who's coming: More than 90 Chinese and international writers. Star attraction is Lionel Shriver.

Where to stay: Authors stay at the Opposite House (www.oppositehouse.com) and its sister East Beijing (www.east-beijing.com).

Don't miss: The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall at Mutianyu and the gardens around the Temple of Heaven.

Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, Bali

October 11-15, 2013 (www.ubudwritersfestival.com).

Who's coming: Big names are under wraps but expect more than 130 writers and 200 events.

Where to stay: Join the writers at the Maya Ubud (www.mayaubud.com) or the Amandari (www.amanresorts.com).

Don't miss: Ubud's charming back streets, cycling through the rice paddies, Monkey Forest, and a Balinese cooking class.

Jaipur Literature Festival, India

Diggi Palace, January 17-21, 2014 (www.jaipurliteraturefestival.org).

Who's coming: Still in planning stage but provisional acceptances include Jonathan Franzen, William Boyd and Ian McEwan.

Where to stay: William Dalrymple says writers stay at Alsisar Haveli (www.alsisarhaveli.com) and Saba Haveli (www.sabahaveli.com).

Don't miss: The gold makers in the back streets of Jaipur, the son et lumiere at the Junta Munta, the Amer Fort (www.rajasthantourism.gov.in), and the Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing (www.anokhi.com/museum).

Galle Literary Festival, Sri Lanka

Galle, Sri Lanka (www.galleliteraryfestival.com).

Who's coming: The festival is skipping a year but will be back in October 2014. Instead, a mini festival will run each weekend during March 2013. Guests include Fatima Bhutto and Indian poet and novelist Tishani Doshi and foodies Rick Stein, David Thompson, Skye Gyngell and Madhur Jaffrey. Details from inspiration@wherevernext.com.

Where to stay: Authors stay at the Sun House and Dutch House (www.thedutchhouse.com) or the Jetwing Lighthouse (www.jetwinghotels.com).

Don't miss: The UNESCO-preserved Galle Fort (www.gallefortguide.com), Sinharaja Forest Reserve and Unawatuna Beach.

Irrawaddy Literature Festival, Burma

(www.irrawaddylitfest.com).

Who's coming: See website for information, including dates, yet to be confirmed.

Where to stay: The 2013 festival was held at the Inya Lake Hotel (www.inyalakehotel.com). In town, pick of the bunch are The Strand (www.ghmhotels.com) and the Governor's Residence (www.governorsresidence.com).

Don't miss: The Shwedagon Pagoda, and the parade of crumbling colonial buildings around Strand Road and Pansodan Street.

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