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Wild Speculations on the Nature of Festivity and the Practice of Friendship

The 2022 Commonwealth Short Story Prize winner reflects on his appearance at the George Town Literary Festival, Penang.

Posted on 21/02/2023
By Ntsika Kota

The morning I left home for an island off the west coast of the Malaysian Peninsula, the sky was crystal clear. I remember the light of the rising sun shining off the bitumen of the empty airport parking lot. Shortly after that, I watched as the red and green tapestry of rural Eswatini sank below clouds.

About two dozen hours later, I arrived in Penang—sweaty, tired and profoundly excited. The door of Arrivals slid open, and I got to say hello to a whole new place. The first thing the island said to me was, “HUMID!” From above came the clarion chorus of thousands of birds nestled in the giant, four-lanes-wide awning over the pick-up zone. After a shuttle ride up the island’s flank, we entered the UNESCO World Heritage area and the stage was set for the George Town Literary Festival (GTLF).

The next morning was the first of four days that felt like four hours filled with four weeks of living. Imagine transplanting hundreds of conversations from dozens of dinner parties—the kind attended by the most fascinating, illustrious and passionate of people. What ideas would be shared? That, essentially, is the objective of a festival like the GTLF: conversations. Illuminating, difficult, important, funny conversations.

‘[It was] four days that felt like four hours filled with four weeks of living.’

Conversations; about the original, indigenous name for orangutans (maias). The nature of mythology—part of an entire society’s sense of self. The single right way to navigate the publishing industry as a young writer (doesn’t exist). One way to process your feelings about a great injustice (write a funny, gory, beautiful story about it). How to decide, when translating, whether to focus on the author’s intention or on exactitude of meaning (do neither and both. Transcribe the feel of the text).

Discussions; concerning the role, beyond entertainment, of written fiction—as activism. On the nature of dreams and nightmares—sources of inspiration or idle curiosity? The state of publishing in Southeast Asia (diverse—the generic ‘Southeast Asian reader’ does not exist—and disperse—the experience of diasporans is not inferior or inauthentic, just different). About how faith, ethnicity and politics shape modern Malaysia.

Dialogues; exploring the oft lonely path that writers walk in the months and years spent breathing life into text (perhaps unpublished, or, being published, unread, or, being published and read, unacclaimed). Describing an oppressive society in which a woman with a pen—a poet—is, merely by expressing herself, in rebellion. Unpacking more subtle forms of resistance, like surrealism—confrontation veiled in metaphor.

‘The objective of a festival like the George Town Literary Festival is connecting diverse people from all over the globe.’

The other objective of a festival like the GTLF is connecting diverse people from all over the globe. Allowing those transplanted conversations to multiply and evolve in trendy restaurants and on shaded benches. That’s when the real joy of a festival like that is realised.

When I left home that sunny morning, I expected to be challenged, I expected to be surprised and to learn brilliant new things. What I didn’t expect was to meet a group of brilliant new people and connect with them so profoundly. Brief though our time was, that brevity does not, in my opinion, detract even slightly from the immense value of that connection.

So, if you ever get the chance to attend a literary festival on an island off the west coast of the Malaysian peninsula, you should take it. Also, if anyone asks whether you’d like to join them for some herbal tea, perhaps a couple of Tigers? Say yes. It could well be the highlight of your year—even if that year was already the most extraordinary of your life.

Nstika Kota won the 2022 Commonwealth Short Story Prize with ‘and the earth drank deep‘. He was attending the George Town Literary Festival with support from the Commonwealth Foundation.