AFTER three months of preparation and with five writers now on board, the latest addition to Penang’s arts and culture calendar is set to take off this weekend.

Shih-Li Kow’s debut collection of short stories, Ripples And Other Stories, was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Award for Short Stories.

The two-day George Town Literary Festival started with a vision: when Penang Global Tourism’s managing director Ooi Geok Ling got wind of Writers Unlimited 2011 coming to Kuala Lumpur in June this year, she approached festival director Bernice Chauly to ask if she would like to do something similar in Penang.

(Formerly known as Winternachten, Writers Unlimited organises an annual international literary festival every January in The Hague in the Netherlands, as well as other literary events abroad in cooperation with local partner organisations.)

“It was a great idea, but I wanted to focus on Writers Unlimited first, so I told her that I would think about it. It was to be held less than six months after Writers Unlimited and I didn’t really want to do it myself,” says Chauly at an interview in Kuala Lumpur last Wednesday.

She decided to take the plunge when Reka Art Space owner Chee Sek Thim offered to produce the George Town fest on the condition that Chauly take on the role of festival curator.

“That’s when Sek Thim and I started working together. We spent the last three months putting this together. It’s the first literary festival in Penang, so the obvious theme was history and heritage,” says Chauly.

Tan Twan Eng, whose novel, A Gift Of Rain, was longlisted for the Booker Prize, will be giving us a sneak peek of his latest book, The Garden Of Eveing Mists.

The state-sponsored festival, with the theme “History and Heritage – Where Are Our Stories”, encourages an exploration of our roots. “It’s about that connection with the place of your birth and the place that you come from. It’s all about going back to the beginning of your stories,” Chauly explains.

She adds that Penang has changed drastically in recent years. “There is a real buzz to it now, there’s a sense of possibility in the air. The restoration looks great, but it’s not just about preserving old things; it’s also about creating new things. I think Penang is ready for the future, and ready for such a festival.

“It will also be very interesting for me because all previous literary festivals I’ve done have been held in KL. I think the Penang festival will attract a very eclectic audience and I’m interested in how they will react to it.”

The festival will open on Nov 26 with a book launch and reading of Bila Terkenang Zaman Dahulu, a book of pantun (Malay poems in traditional form) collected from the oral and written archives of Penang, and edited by National Laureate Muhammad Haji Salleh.

Penang-born 2007 Man Booker Prize nominee Tan Twan Eng, who currently resides in South Africa, will read from his second novel, The Garden Of Evening Mists, which is set in Cameron Highlands, Pahang, in the 1950s.

From Indrapura to Darul Makmur: A Deconstructive History of Pahang is the latest book by iconoclast historian and social commentator Dr Farish A. Noor, a Senior Fellow at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

“It’s kind of like a sneak preview as the novel will only be available in January next year,” says Chauly.

The other three participating writers are Farish Ahmad Noor, Iskandar Al-Bakri and Shih-Li Kow. Moderators are BFM Radio’s Sharaad Kuttan and online news and commentary portal The Nut Graph’s Jacqueline Ann Surin.

The programme line-up includes public readings and discussions by the participating writers (mostly free events) and the festival will close with a performance by guitarist-composer Az Samad.

National laureate Muhammad Haji Salleh will launch his latest book, Bila Terkenang Zaman Dahulu, which celebrates traditional poetry.

“I wanted to keep the festival small, local and intimate. Many of us (writers) perform in festivals around the world, but rarely do performances in Malaysia.

“It’s important that Malaysian writers remain in touch with Malaysian audiences. Because the festival is small, everyone will have a chance to talk to everyone else – be it a writer with another writer, or the audience with the writers,” says Chauly.

Having being part of the audience as well as a participating writer in numerous literary festivals around the world, Chauly says, “I know what writers want, and I know what audiences want. I drew on my travel experiences, participation in various festivals and the Writers Unlimited earlier this year to pull together this festival.”

Iskandar Al-Bakri’s first novel, The Beruas Prophecy, is his attempt to discover the dark history of the Malay Peninsula that involves politically influential Malay secret societies in the early 19th century.

She applauds the Penang State Government for supporting such an event: “It’s very visionary, very forward-looking of them. They gave us complete freedom in choosing the writers, content and theme.

“The long-term plan is to sustain this every year and in the future, it might even include writers who write in Chinese or Tamil. A literary festival has to be free – there should be no censorship or limitations on what you can talk about or what you can’t. And that, I think, is a big challenge for Malaysia,” she concludes.

The George Town Literary Festival will run from Nov 26 to 27 at China House (No. 183B, Lebuh Victoria) and the E&O Hotel (No. 10, Lebuh Farquhar) in George Town.

For more details, visit gtlfestival.blogspot.com, e-mail gtlfestival@gmail.com or call 017-872 7721.

Article taken from The Star

At some point in everyone’s lives, we need to know where we came from.

WHAT stands out for me when I think of Bernice Chauly’s book, Growing Up With Ghosts – A Memoir, is the story of her father’s death. It is where the book begins and Chauly’s dreamlike and poetic description of how her three-year-old self deals with the sudden loss of a beloved parent is, for me, the most heartbreaking and compelling thing in this book.

Later, when introduced to the young Bernard – the curious, adventurous trainee teacher, the passionate young lover, the idealistic newly wed – it is my initial vision of him as a loving, devoted father that fixes my attention and makes me want to learn more about him.

Exorcism: Bernice Chauly wrote her family memoir in part as a means of dealing with the many deaths the family has endured.

His death affected Chauly powerfully, but it was just one of many losses her extended family had to endure. Deep in the heart of the book is the family curse that Chauly seeks to understand. Its almost gothic details, including a pilgrimage to India to visit an ancient snake temple, imbue the book with a sense of mystery and deep, devastating horror.

In our interview (conducted via e-mail recently), Chauly, 43, said the real reason for writing the book was to find “the root of the curse”, and understand why all the men in her family died. “I grew up haunted by grief, and my grief became a ghost, I had to confront it and finally let it go,” she says.

She goes on to say that she used “ghosts” as a metaphor “for many things – for untold histories, for the voices who lived through difficult times, who were never heard; for things that scare you, and things that come back to haunt you, for the dead whom I mourned, for the dead that my ancestors mourned, the dead who became ghosts, who were forgotten, who never told their stories and who were never heard, and who never got a chance to exorcise their grief.”

Writing the book, Chauly says, was “cathartic in every way”, an exorcism of sorts that allowed her to make peace with the “ghosts” and with herself. The author uses the voices of her grandparents and her parents to tell a story of struggle and of hardship, of hope and of love. Chauly’s own narrative binds the different voices together and represents the link between the past and the present.

How did you decide on the way the book is presented? What was your aim?

I did not want to write it in a straightforward narrative style – meaning one singular narrative throughout, mine – as I felt that this would be too conventional and did not best serve the stories I wanted to tell. I wanted to redefine memoir writing. History needs to be told from many perspectives and I didn’t want to be the sole voice. I needed to be honest to my ancestors, to use their own words, and to re-tell their stories.

My Punjabi grandmother was illiterate and my Chinese grandmother could read and write basic Mandarin; the men on the other hand, were literate and educated. I wanted to include their voices, their stories. The aim was to have a tapestry of voices, to use existing words that were left behind and to piece together something that was indicative of real people, to celebrate oral history in ways that may challenge the notion of the conventional memoir.

Why did you decide to use original documents – letters from your father to your mother, your mother’s journal, your letters to your mother, etc – in the book?

My parents kept everything – photos, letters, cards, clothes, books. A lot of these things I still have, but their letters, journals and scrapbooks are the most precious. My grandfather’s letter is one of my most treasured possessions. As a writer, I appreciate these documents very much. It just seemed to make sense to use them all. This is a work of non-fiction. If I had chosen to write a work of fiction, it would have been a completely different book.

Why didn’t you write about your marriage or the birth of your children (Chauly has two daughters)?

I saw that as a part of my life that was separate from my personal history, my Self. That those were issues of a different nature, that related to me more as a woman, a mother, a creative person, my personal politics, someone struggling to find her voice, her art, make sense of the world. I think my poems reflect this more and that is what my poetry is for. This (book) was about me coming to terms with my personal history, of being the product of two distinct cultures, of coming to terms with who I am, first and foremost.

What appeal do you feel the book will have for those who are not part of your family or close friends of the family?

I think it’s a universal story, a search for bloodlines. So many of us come from different places, it’s the search to find roots, one’s place in the larger scheme of things, to acknowledge that we share similar histories, to study the Punjabi and Chinese diasporas and how we came to be where we are. It’s acceptance of who we are, and to not forget where we came from.

What are your plans now that this book has been published? What are you working on at the moment?

I had plans of wanting to adapt it to a one-woman play, to have it staged. The Australian writer/photographer/performer William Yang has done something similar with his own family stories, Silence, which was a multi-media performance with slides and film. It was very inspiring when I was grappling with this work. But I think the weight of the book has now been lifted. I want to let it go and move on. I am currently working on curating a writers festival in George Town (see story above) and doing research for a novel. I have also started work on a new collection of short stories and a collection of poems.

Growing Up With Ghosts by Bernice Chauly (ISBN: 978-9834484583) is published by Matahari Books and is available in most Malaysian bookstores and from Amazon online.

Post taken from The Star