In 2009, writer Ma Thida attended Brown University in the United States as a fellow of the International Writers Project.
During her stay the university organised an event called There Will Still Be Light: A Freedom to Write Literary Festival, and declared their plans to invite Bengali writer Amitav Ghosh, author of the novel The Glass Palace.
Ma Thida suggested that well-known Myanmar novelist Nay Win Myint also be invited, but when the organisers tried to find information about the writer on the internet they came up empty. There was simply no information about Nay Win Myint that had been posted online in the English language.
This was despite the fact that in his home country he had published nearly 200 short stories, as well as novels, travelogues, translations and more. He had also won the National Literary Prize in 2007.
“Because the festival organisers couldn’t find information online, they thought Nay Win Myint was not a popular author,” Ma Thida said.
“But it’s not surprising that the names of many writers who are well-known in Myanmar are unheard-of in the international literary field.”
She said she hopes this will start changing when the English-language Irrawaddy Literary Festival is held at Inya Lake Hotel in Yangon from Friday, February 1 to Sunday, February 3.
Ma Thida will be among more than 100 local authors who are expected to participate as speakers and facilitators at the event, which she feels is the “first hopeful sign” that the works of Myanmar will soon be listed among the classics of world literature.
Ma Thida said the festival is the brainchild of Jane Heyn, the wife of the British ambassador to Myanmar. Among the international authors who will participate are Jung Chang, Sudha Shah, Timothy Garton Ash and Vikram Seth.
“When I give literary talks in Myanmar, I feel it’s a one-sided conversation like giving a lecture. I hope the festival will change the entrenched habit of one-way Myanmar literary talks,” she said.
“We will also gain valuable experience in learning how to host literary talks and festivals in a way that is totally different from the way we have done in the past. The talks will be thrown open to the audience and to readers, and they will involve discussions, and question-and-answer sessions.”
Ma Thida said such two-way interactions will benefit both readers and writers.
“There are numerous literary genres and subgenres, and the works of local authors will be categorised. We will form the authors into groups, and members of each group will discuss the themes from their works,” she said.
Alintan (Ray of Light) journal is publishing a series of brief biographies of the participating authors from abroad, to help familiarise local readers with their works. Last week’s edition included a biography of Chinese-born British writer Jung Chang, author of Wild Swans and Mao: The Unknown Story.
“I can’t guess to what extent local readers are familiar with the works of authors from abroad. They might not know anything at all, and I don’t know to what extent they are enthusiastic about the festival,” Ma Thida said.
“But they will be inspired by the works of foreign authors and have a desire for reading English-language literature.”
Historian Thant Myint-U has also been invited to attend the festival, and said he is very much looking forward to it.
“I have attended literary festivals around the world. I am delighted that we will be having one here. I hope that the Yangon festival will become one of the best in Asia,” Dr Thant Myint-U told The Myanmar Times by email.
He said he has suggested many authors to invite. “I believe several authors have been invited, including my old friend, the historian William Dalrymple who organises the Jaipur Festival yearly held in India,” he said.
“The Jaipur Festival attracts over 200,000 people, most of them school children who come from around India. This festival in Yangon will of course be far smaller, but I hope that we may also have young people come from other parts of the country.”
Dr Thant Myint-U said the festival will be a wonderful opportunity to interact with some of the top writers from around the world.
He added that Myanmar has a long history of literary festivals, but this might be the country’s first such event in the English language.
“It is a great opportunity to put Yangon on the international literature map, though I hope that in the future there will be equal attention given to Myanmar-language works and works in Myanmar minority languages,” he said.
Dr Thant Thaw Kaung, the managing director of Myanmar Book Centre, said the festival was organised by the British embassy and sponsored by the British Council, along with local organisations.
“The festival will be the first, but not a one-off event. It is going to be a continuous event in the future. The objective of the festival is to promote literary works, including English-language literature,” he said.
He added that they will be displaying books by many famous authors during the festival.
“We are going to invite world-famous publishers and they will also display their books at festival,” he said.
Ma Thida said an official launch ceremony for the festival to be held on Sunday, January 6 at Inya Lake Hotel. The patron of the festival, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, is expected to attend the festival.