Man Booker Prize winner to headline literary festival


OMANI author Jokha Alharti, who won the 2019 Man Booker International Prize, will be among the many illustrious names coming to Penang for the 9th George Town Literary Festival (GTLF) 2019 from Nov 21 to 24.

She is the first author from the Arabian Gulf to win the £50,000 (RM260,000) award which she shares equally with her translator, American Marilyn Booth. Her book, Celestial Bodies, written in Arabic is the first piece of Omani literature translated into English. It is set in the Omani village of al-Awafi and revolves around the lives and loves of three sisters.

Festival co-directors Pauline Fan and Sharaad Kuttan revealed that other big names coming are 2019 EBRD (European Bank for Reconstruction and Development) Literature Prize winner Hamid Ismailov, prominent Japanese poet Hiromi Ito, acclaimed essayist and intellectual Eliot Weinberger, Indonesian literary icon Goenawan Mohamad, Djiboutian-French author Abdourahman Waberi, contemporary Chinese poet Xi Chuan and historian on modern China Rebecca E. Karl.

Fan said on the local front, the festival would feature 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize winner of the Asian region Saras Manickam, Taiwan-based Malaysian author and educator Ng Kim Chew, eminent filmmaker and writer Nam Ron, rising star of young adult fiction Hanna Alkaf, bestselling Penang-based novelist Fahmi Mustaffa, and celebrated Malaysian author and former GTLF director of seven years Bernice Chauly.

According to Fan, Hanna, whose book ‘The Weight of Our Sky’ also touches on the May 13 racial riots, should draw quite a crowd.

Fan said indigenous poet Kulleh Grasi from Sarawak would be in Penang to launch his book and read at the festival.

“He writes primarily in Malay, but he also uses indigenous languages. He has Iban, Kelabit and Kayan in his poetry. We want to emphasise the other languages as well,” Fan told a press conference called by state Tourism Development, Arts, Culture & Heritage Committee chairman Yeoh Soon Hin in Komtar on July 11.

“He will be publishing a book and it will be translated into English by a New York publisher. I think this is the first Iban poet to have a book published in English. It’s a quite historic thing.”

Fan said some of the conversations would reflect on pivotal moments like China’s May 4 Movement in 1919, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, the end of World War I, the fall of Berlin Wall 30 years ago and the May 13 riots in Malaysia 50 years ago.

She added that the festival would also touch a little about the ecological crisis that none of us can ignore.

For Sharaad, he said that this year’s festival would include their first-ever schools’ programme in October, bringing writers and storytellers to public libraries in the four corners of Penang to share their skills with local students.

Yeoh said this year, they expected about 70 to 80 writers from 20 countries taking part in the festival.

“Having attracted over 6,000 attendees to its 64 events in 2018, GTLF2019 will run across four days in George Town and can attract 8,000 visitors this year,” Yeoh said.

“I always want new elements introduced into any festival. For this GTLF, it’s not just about English literature but also Mandarin, Tamil, Bahasa and orang asli.

“We don’t people to have the impression that GTLF is only for English literature. We anticipate more crowd to this year’s GTLF. This will be one of our key events,” Yeoh said.

Penang Convention and Exhibition Bureau (PCEB) chief executive officer Ashwin Gunasekeran said the theme of this year’s festival, ‘forewords/afterwords’, would not only just look forward but also reflect on the past. PCEB is the festival producer.

“The festival this year will explore on how the past and the present affect the opportunities and the challenges to come.

“The interest we received from these celebrated international authors only affirms the relevance of this festival,” said Ashwin, adding that in 2018, GTLF was bestowed the Literary Festival Award at the London Book Fair, becoming the only literary festival in Southeast Asia to date to receive this honour.

He added that there would be programmes aboard ferries for ferry-goers to share in the excitement during their trip from Butterworth to Penang island.


Story by K.H. Ong

Pix by Tan Kean Ming