Unprotected Texts and Safe Spaces By Dipika Mukherjee

The festival banner and book display, with heritage buildings reflected in glass.

The event is supposed to start at 10.30pm. At night. The blurb advertises:

Readings: Unprotected Text 

Join us for an intimate session of pegging the patriarchy, wild ‘super’ liberalisms and other kinks. Where words are used to express our deepest wants and desires. For mature audiences only.

Readers: Amir Muhammad, Ivan Coyote, Kyoko Yoshida, Regina Ibrahim, Shih-li Kow, Stephanie Dogfoot, William Yang
Hosted by: Pang Khee Teik

I am attending the Georgetown Literary Festival from November 22-25, 2018. This is Penang, where open-air food stalls feed hungry hordes well into the night; this is truly a food paradise. I expect most of the festival-goers to be gorging on char kway teow and penang laksa if they are up at all, and I walk into Gerakbudaya Penang's spacious bookshop at 10.25, not expecting a crowd.
The lovely interior of the bookshop

But there are people lined up on the stairs to Hikayat Blue, the event space. There are people congregated in the bookstore, still browsing, instead of getting into line. When I finally make it up the stairs and into the room, it is so packed with people that all tables are being removed and people are squished into the blue couches. There is a line of people seated on the ground, then the line creeps into the corners and crevices of the room to make room for the last stragglers. When a group comes in with a sign-language interpreter and the audience is cajoled to moving a little more, it all seems impossible, but this is Malaysia, boleh lah, everyone adjusts. 
Host Pang and Hikayat co-director Bettina welcoming the audience

Our host, Pang Khee Teik, takes the mike to begin the show. The first performer is Regina Ibrahim, a transgender writer, and begins with a strong rendition of  "Spanish Guitar", weaving music into the tale of  lost love. Ivan Coyote tells the story of two girls at the brink of sexual discovery and experimentation; the story is both hilarious and poignant. Shih-Li Kow spins a tale of love in the age of artificial intelligence, and Stephanie Dogfoot's poetry takes us into the world of pixellated sex when partners are continents away from each other. William Yang describes the eroticism of a deaf partner introducing himself by tracing the letters of his name on an upturned palm.

Amir Muhammad steals the show with his bilingual story tracing a doomed homosexual love affair; he plays with Malay/Indonesian phrases and puns in English, then ends by leaving an image so graphic that no one in the audience will ever see a favourite Malaysian drink in quite the same way again.

The performers for the evening are sometimes funny, sometimes rueful, but always real. Whether gay or straight or bisexual or undecided...all these stories speak of people trying to connect through love, and they touch us all.

Pang Khee Teik, the host, is a prominent LGBTI rights advocate. Despite a historic change of government on May 9 that brought a new party to power on the promise of a new more liberal Malaysia --Malaysia Baru-- the LGBTI community has faced greater challenges in the last six months than ever before. Two women were caned for attempting lesbian sex, the oldest gay club in the country was raided, and prominent politicians have spoken out strongly against the gay community. 

In August, Pang's photograph, along with that of another LGBTI activist, was taken down from an exhibition of portraits of prominent Malaysians at the behest of a Minister in the Prime Minister's department as they "promote the LGBT lifestyle which was against the policy of the Pakatan Harapan-led government."

The George Town Literary Festival won the Literary Festival Award at The London Book Fair in 2018, as it “stands out as a vibrant, diverse and brave festival that engages with a wide community of voices, speaking to the world from a complex region”. It is heartening to see festival director Bernice Chauly and her team continuing the tradition of creating a safe space for a diversity of voices despite Malaysia having some of the toughest censorship laws in the world. 

Tonight, in the room packed with people, writers prove once again that you don't have to shout to be heard. And that there is, indeed, space for us all.

Co-director Gareth in Hikayat Blue
 Gerakbudaya is a lovely bookshop is Penang, clearly committed to Asian writers as well as a diversity of views and voices.  Co-director Gareth Richards is planning to offer residencies for visiting writers, scheduling a series of podcasts, and opening up more event space. Penang already feels like an oasis of creativity and questioning in volatile Malaysia, and the continuing success of the Georgetown Literary Festival and the Gerakbudaya bookshop looks very promising indeed. 

Dipika Mukherjee is an internationally touring writer, sociolinguist, and global nomad. She has been a permanent resident of Malaysia for over two decades and has been mentoring Southeast Asian writing; in 2015, she founded the D.K Dutt Award for Literary Excellence in Malaysia. She has edited five anthologies of Southeast Asian fiction. 


Griselda Heppel said…
I had never heard of the Georgetown Literary Festival before and have nothing but admiration for the bravery and cheerfulness of people just trying to live their own lives and loves (as well as write and perform impressively) in an increasingly hostile environment to the LGBTQI community. While there is much more liberalism in some parts of the world than there used to be (hurrah!), in others intolerance has become sharper and more menacing. Great post, Dipika - thank you for sharing this.
Umberto Tosi said…
Thank you for setting us a place at this feast of food and words. You bring it to life. I can almost smell the delicacies, and I'm always up for extra helpings of dangerous ideas. Those are some brave writers. Sounds like your kind of festival.

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