Their liberties curtailed for decades by illogical and counterproductive censorship laws, Myanmar writers had the chance at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival earlier this month to make connections and trade ideas with authors from around the world.
Writer Khin Pan Hnin, a participant in one of the panel discussions at the festival held in Yangon from February 1 to 3, said she struck up friendships with authors Sudha Shah from India and Jung Chang from China.
“Most Myanmar writers have shut themselves away from the rest of the world. They are quiet and more interested in spending their time writing,” Khin Pan Hnin said. “The festival was good for making friendships with fellow writers outside Myanmar.”
She added that she was looking forward to reaping the benefits of buying and reading the books written by international writers who participated in the festival.
“I once visited a literary festival in Bangkok and noticed that attendees were quite open about talking to strangers. Here in Myanmar, people usually only talk to people they already know. This was a major problem for some people at the Yangon festival,” she said, adding: “Just a few writers tried to talk to international authors, but most didn’t. The language barrier was one issue for us.”
Writer Maung Lwin Mon, who participated in an English-language panel discussion about short story writing, admitted that he felt uncomfortable approaching foreign authors whose books he had not read.
“I met some of them but my conversation was tempered by lack of knowledge about their works, so I avoided asking literary questions about their books,” he said. “But the festival was an ideal platforms for Myanmar writers to talk to the world about the plight we have lived through for the past decades. I hope it will lift up their interest in Myanmar literature.”
Khin Pan Hnin said more effort could have been made to mix with international writers and other participants “to broaden their minds”.
“At dinner [on February 1], the local participants just sat next to their local friends,” she said, adding that only a few local participants expressed interest in taking part in the English-language sessions.
“The international writers showed respect for us, but the local writers failed to pay heed to them whenever the language barrier came up,” she said. “But the completion of such a festival in our country was a great success.”
Ma Thida, who took part in a panel discussion alongside Irish writer Fergal Keane and British author Rory Stewart, said the festival failed to live up to her expectations, perhaps because she “raised [her] hopes too high”.
“I expected closer cooperation between local and international writers, and the organisers should have helped establish links between writers ahead of time by email,” she said. “Since the festival was not well prepared, I recognised the authors on my discussion panel only after I took a seat. And it seemed that our relationship ended after the discussion.”
Khin Pan Hnin said it was obvious that some local authors lacked experience participating in panel discussions.
“For some it was clear that it was their first experience leading a panel discussion. Though each session lasted an hour, some authors talked too long and didn’t allow time for question and answer session,” she said.
Ma Thida agreed that the international authors were more accustomed to panel discussions, so their sessions tended to go more smoothly.
“For local writers, some discussions went awry. Some just read the papers they had prepared, leaving the moderators unsatisfied,” she said.
She said that some local writers started out speaking English, but when discussions grew more dynamic they often switched to Myanmar language, leaving the international participants and moderators feeling ignored.
One problem, suggested Khin Pan Hnin, was the lack of interpreters, which prevented foreign guests from hearing the whole story of how Myanmar writers had struggled with censorship.
“The foreign participants lost a chance to gain a better understanding of Myanmar authors,” Ma Thida agreed. “ I think the international visitors had looked forward to hearing more local authors talking about how they had overcome whatever obstacles they faced under the military government.”
Despite the perceived problems, Ma Thida said the festival was a good first step toward starting the culture of interaction between authors and readers.
“Overall, it was satisfactory,” she said.
Poet and satirist Saw Wai, who took part in a session on cartoons and satire, said many local writers attended the festival “to break the habit of one-way Myanmar literary talk” even though participating posed a bit of a financial burden.
“The writers received an honorarium of K5000 a day, but it cost me K38,000 to photocopy my cartoons, not to mention taxi fees,” he said.
“That was one of the factors behind the absence of some bestselling local authors at the festival. They didn’t receive fair recognition and respect, or a deserving honorarium,” Ma Thida said.
Writer Min Khite Soe San, who took part in a panel discussion on modern and postmodern Myanmar literature on February 2, admitted that much of the blame for missed connections between participants lay with the local writers, who were not well prepared for the festival.
“Before the festival the organisers arranged many meetings. I only attended two of these meetings, so I didn’t have a clear idea in advance about what we should do during our panel discussion,” he said.
“It was only the day before the discussion that the panelists got together and sat on the lawn to start our preparations.”