By Dimithri Wijesinghe
The Fairway Galle Literary Festival (FGLF), since first launching in 2007, has become one of the most anticipated annual literary events in South East Asia.
Held in the precincts of the Galle Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Lit Fest, draws part of its charm from its surroundings.
GLF 2019, which also marks the festival’s 10th anniversary, played host to thousands of literary enthusiasts as it has over the past decade, many of whom travelled to Sri Lanka especially to attend this edifying attraction turned booming cultural phenomenon, greatly encouraging tourism while bringing highly educated and influential visitors to the island.
The festival structure is simple enough; once you’ve collected your passes, be it a day pass, festival pass, or a ticket for a specific event – literary meals, master classes, and/or workshops, you simply head on over to your designated location.
This year, due to the festival’s regular venue, Hall De Galle being under construction, all of the author discussions were split between the Fairway Pavilion and the Spa Ceylon Royal Court. This was rather convenient considering it was barely a five-minute stroll from one to the other through the picturesque Galle streets – certainly no complaints there.
However, if you had signed up for the extra events that took place outside of the festival compound, you may have experienced a slight time constraint in getting from one event to the next.
As for the crowds, it appeared as though GLF this year lacked the presence of many locals, and while in the past it was considered a rather niche event, with the festival pass being priced at a steep Rs. 15,000, an attempt to make the festival more accessible to the public this time around, and over the years, was made.
Ashok Ferry, speaking of the criticism pertaining to GLF being rather expensive for the masses to attend, said: “While the Tourist Board is thrilled at the number of incoming foreigners, I’ve suggested that we provide the possibility to the youth in the country, maybe anyone below the age of 30 who can produce a National ID, be allowed to enter the festival for half price, at least.
“The price still remains pretty high, but at least they will feel they are allowed a special consideration, and this will retain the foreign income as it is,” he said, adding that we need to cater to the country’s youth which will increase accessibility to the Festival.
The GLF experience – In Conversation
Each session was one hour long, with about 15 minutes dedicated for questions.
The Tea Planter’s Wife – Dinah Jefferies
The first author featured on the third day of the festival, Dinah Jefferies, kicked things off, declaring from the get-go that she would not delve into huge plot details so as not to spoil it for the audience that was primarily unfamiliar with the particular novel.
The Tea Planter’s Wife is about a young Englishwoman who marries an older widower and tea plantation owner. It is a seductive love story which also explores the tragic consequences of racism.
Dinah proceeded to set the scene beautifully for what was no doubt an engaging literary discussion.
Talking about how the idea of the tea planter’s wife came about, she said: “I often wonder where ideas come from and the truth is, nobody knows,” and she further stated that the only ideas that do end up becoming something more, like a novel, are the ideas that simply will not let up, and to her, the Tea Planter’s Wife was such an idea: “She came to me as a fully-formed character, and all I had to do was decide where to place her,” which was how Dinah’s protagonist ended up in Galle.
The session revealed a host of interesting details about the author and the writing of TheSunday Times No. 1 bestseller.
Dinah revealed that she hadn’t ever based a character on anyone she knew, but that however, she does see herself in multiple characters she’s written over the years; the closest being Emma from her 2013 novel “The Separation”, and she shared an additional anecdote – Emma’s mother Lydia is closest to Dinah’s own mother in character.
About writing, Dinah Jefferies was generous in her advice when she said: “It is a good idea to write a character with qualities of courage and resilience because you are going to put them in torment.”
Finally, she revealed that, after her most recent book in 2018, she’s saying goodbye to the East and her next two books will be situated in Europe – Italy to be exact.
Red Birds – Mohammed Hanif
Red Birds is a thrilling satire of US foreign policy, a wildly original novel narrated by a teenage refugee and a philosopher dog.
This session was rather special considering it was one of Mohammed Hanif’s first with regards to Red Birds, which was published in October, 2018.
Mohammed Hanif, a British Pakistani writer and journalist, quite famously writes in three languages – Urudu, Punjabi, and English.
Speaking about the challenges that come with writing in three different languages, he said: “Each language, while situated in the same world, tells three different stories,” and so he said that the trick was to “change your writing voice”.
He then went on to say that as someone who incorporates three different languages into his writing, he’s become a “good recycler”, providing that “while my subjects don’t change, my writing voice definitely does”, which is a technical aspect to writing and is a small adjustment one can make when in a similar position.
We spoke with audience member Judy Lenaduwe who, despite not having read Red Birds, was absolutely enamoured by the session. She said: “I think he really catered to the majority, who hadn’t read the book, and the session was primarily about his experience as a journalist and a writer and I think that provided more background into the writer’s mind.”
She also added: “What I really wanted out of the session was to get some insight into how they go about writing a book, and he mentioned an interesting anecdote about blank pages and how it takes a long time to compile your thoughts and how that’s okay. I thought that was a very refreshingly honest take on how to manage your writing.”
The Lady – Rachel Johnson
The entire title of the book is “A Diary of the Lady: My First Year as Editor” by Rachel Johnson, and it is about the real life experience of the author when she became the ninth editor in the oldest women’s weekly magazine in Britain.
The book is a hilarious take on her time as the editor of The Lady and how, on multiple occasions, the owners of the magazine, the aristocratic Budworths, threatened to end her career, owing to her ore radical ideas and free spirited personality.
This particular story about Mrs. Budworth’s absolute disdain for her new-agey ways, for the time, had the audience in stitches and it pretty much set the tone for the entirety of the session which proved to be lively and hilarious all throughout.
Finally, speaking also about her time with The Sunday Times and how she was fired which was what lead her to taking up the job as the editor of The Lady, she said: “My principle when you get sacked is you smile and you thank your lucky stars because it’s always for the best.”
We spoke to some of the audience members following the session, and many were giggling their way out of the hall.
Asha Jayakodi, an undergrad from the University of Sabaragamuwa, said: “At these sessions, you end up getting really inspired by the writers. I came for today’s session because I saw her session yesterday and loved the way she spoke and how she explained how ideas flow – I was hooked. She’s really inspired me to go out and get the book and give it a read.”
Mappillai – Carlo Pizzati
Moderated by our very own Ashok Ferry, Carlo Pizzati’s session proved to be a ray of sunshine. A lively gentleman, Carlo had the audience engaged so very genuinely, they hung onto his every word.
A testament to Ashok Ferry as he did some skilled steering from one topic to the next, the totally packed auditorium filled with Carlo Pizzati’s charisma, so much so that when the question and answer session rolled around, many of the “questions” were of people stating that they’d rather have the audio book narrated by Carlo himself, thereby adding his very unique flavour to the reading.
These requests were prompted, quite hilariously, by his impromptu attempt at performing a quick operatic piece while narrating an interesting family anecdote about his mixed racial marriage which brought together a culturally rich household.
Carlo lives near a fishermen’s village in southern India with his wife, and had an interesting outlook when he was asked what he identifies as, Indian or Italia. He responded: “I am an overseas citizen of India and I have Indian eyes, but I am not an Indian,” adding that it really doesn’t matter because “we don’t need to identify as anything, identity is a trap”.
Speaking with Ashok Ferry after the session, he said: “I was very lucky to be involved in some fantastic sessions this year, and it’s no surprise that after this session, his books have been flying off the shelves.”
Audience member Venuri Gamage said: “I loved how he denounced labels, and his humour was so amazing. It was just an awesome experience.”
Anuk Wikramanayake said: “It was so very interesting. This is my third time at GLF and this was a highlight for sure.”
Trigger Mortis – Anthony Horowitz, and discussing Bond and Ian Fleming with Lucy Fleming
The two back-to-back sessions with Anthony Horowitz turned out to be wildly popular at GLF, with audience members lining up to get inside the Spa Ceylon Royal Court.
The first session was a solo one where he discussed his second Bond novel “Trigger Mortis”. However, as is his nature it would seem, he soon veered away to discussing his childhood, how he was an unhappy child despite being wealthy, and how it lead to him becoming a writer of detective fiction and espionage novels.
Anthony Horowitz, one the most prolific and successful writers in the UK, shed some light on how one is a writer, and he said: “One does not become a writer, you simply are one.”
He said: “Despite being in boarding school and not being particularly gifted in either academics or sports, the room I felt happiest in was the library and even then, I wasn’t clever enough to read great literature, for example one of my first loves was Tin Tin, a graphic novel,” providing that one shouldn’t ever let anyone tell them that they won’t amount to anything. “There’s no such thing as an untalented kid,” he said, stating that we are all born with talents and that we simply need to realise them.
At the end of the first session, we spotted British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka James Dauris making his way through the crowd. He said: “Very entertaining, Horowitz, of course, is very witty and precise, lots of fun, lots of humour, very engaging presentation, a very good way to spend an hour.”
The second session had Lucy Fleming, James Bond author Ian Fleming’s niece, join Horowitz to discuss the legacy of Ian Fleming and his eponymous hero Bond.
Lucy Fleming spoke of what it feels like to be a Fleming, stating: “It’s very nice, you mention even the name, and the world goes mad. I think it’s something to be proud of.”
The majority of the session was interestingly spent with Anthony Horowitz fawning over Bond, his love for the genre, the stories, and discovering things he himself hadn’t known about the property he has now been allowed to expand on.
One such example was when Lucy Fleming revealed to him, and us, a rather interesting story about Quantum of Solace which was actually a true story shared with Ian Fleming by his good friend Blanche, which had Anthony declaring: “There it is, the wonders of coming to Galle Lit Fest! I’ve studied Bond for 30 years now, and Lucy reveals to me this little gem I’ve never before heard.”
Once the question and answer session rolled around, Anthony began by declaring that one thing he would not comment on was who he’d have play Bond in the next installment of the franchise, and that other than that, all was fair game.
Many of the questions were surrounding how Bond, being from the 50s, would not translate too well going into the 21st century and how Anthony believes that Bond, being the 50s imagining of him, cannot be played by a woman.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe made an appearance for this second session and when we asked if he was a fan of Bond, he said yes and that he had, in fact, read all of the books.
Photos Krishan Kariyawasam