Myanmar's first international literary festival, scheduled to be held in Yangon from February 1 to 3, is expected to attract a number of high-profile authors from home and abroad, organisers said at a press conference at Inya Lake Hotel on January 6.
The festival is the brainchild of Ms Jane Heyn, who is the wife of the British ambassador to Myanmar and who has lived in Yangon since 2009.
“When we arrived in Rangoon in July 2009, everywhere we went we heard people saying, ‘Where do you come from? Where are you going?’ It was nice to hear Burmese speaking English but the conversations usually stopped there because the people were afraid and probably knew a lot more English,” she said.
Ms Heyn said that the idea of organising a literary festival to introduce novelists and poets to Myanmar came out of a conversation she had with a friend based in Bangkok who works for BBC.
“It was a coincidence that soon after that we were privileged to meet Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who agreed that a literary festival would be a very nice thing to do here,” she said. “We asked her to be patron of the event, and I think the fact that she agreed to be patron will be a huge attraction for both international and Burmese authors.”
Among the authors lined up to take part are Vikram Seth, Jung Chan, William Dalrymple and Fargal Keane.
The festival has also secured the attendance of Sudha Shah, Pascal Khoo Thwe, Thant Myint-U and Akash Kapur, alongside eminent local literary and cultural figures such as Zarganar, Dr Tin Hlaing, Dr Kin Aye, Dr Soe Naing, Dr Ma Thida, and celebrated librarian U Thaw Kaung and his son, Dr Than Thaw Kaung.
The festival aims to provide a catalyst for the exchange of ideas across cultures and literary genres, and “will reflect the extraordinary cultural vibrancy of a country in the midst of immense change”, the organisers said in a press release.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said at the press conference on January 6 that she was glad to personally support and participate in the festival.
“Literature has always been a big part of my life and I hope everybody will profit greatly from this event,” she said. “I’m grateful to Jane for making it possible for us to bring in writers from other countries who will share their ideas and experience with writers from our country.”.
Ms Heyn said the organisers will try to spread the festival as widely as possible, but they have also decided to impose a K1500 fee to attend.
“We did consider having the festival without entrance fees, but sometimes if things are completely free they are considered valueless,” she said.
“If people buy a ticket, there is a commitment to show up on that day. We definitely hope to see as many people on that day as possible, which is why there will be many outdoor activates like Mandalay Theatre marionettes, book stalls, a large market and more.”
The organisers also announced the inaugural Yoma FMI Short Story Prize, open to writers aged 25 and younger. Stories must be fictional and adhere to the theme “Changing Lives”. The word limit is 2000.
There will be two awards of US$1000 each — one for the best story written in English, and one for the best story written in Myanmar. Interested writers can send their entry to email@example.com by January 18.
The festival is also being supported by the British Embassy, British Council and the Orwell Prize, the latter of which is running a “Buy a Book from Burma” program through its website.
“We will see how this year’s festival goes, and depending on that we hope it is something we can run annually,” said Ms Heyn.
Festival tickets are now on sale at Inya Lake Hotel, the British Council and Today bookstores.