8 events to look forward to at virtual George Town Literary Festival 2020

The theme this year, 'Through the Looking Glass', contemplates the role of literature and art in a time of crisis.

The line-up for this year's festival includes (from left): playwright Ann Lee, webcomic artist Erica Eng, artist Victor Chin and independent Malaysian curator Sharmin Parameswaran. 

Although Malaysia’s largest literary festival will not take place across various locations in the UNESCO World Heritage site of George Town, Penang like previous years due to the pandemic, the highly anticipated event will still go on online from November 26 to 29.  

The shift to all-things digital has not diluted the role of literature and art in a time of crisis. In fact, the imposed distance that has redefined our lives offers a collective pause to rethink the nature of our being. Here are just some of the events we’ve shortlisted, which will, no doubt, still prompt our imaginations to transform anxiety and trauma into hope and resilience.


The Malay in Me: Covid-19 and Identity
Nov 26

Identity politics is perhaps the only thing no community can ever escape from, be it for good or bad. In this podcast between Singaporean writer, poet and playwright Alfian Sa’at and prolific Malaysian writer and journalist Dina Zaman (pictured), the two tackle the nuances of being a Malay in countries where one belongs to the minority and vice versa. It’s a heavy subject for some, but if you’ve ever read Malay Sketches by Alfian, and either Dina’s I Am Muslim or Holy Men, Holy Women: A journey into the faiths of Malaysians and other essays, you would be surprised that both authors approach the subject in a lighthearted and sometimes humorous manner. They still grapple with the hard hitting topics which seem to plague the Malay community in both countries, sans the seriousness that would render the text dry. Tune in if you’re keen to learn what makes (or breaks) a community. 

Link will be available on Nov 26.


Writing Peril in the Personal and Political
Nov 26

Although Southeast Asian writers are known for creating spellbinding characters in their works, literature from this part of the world does not seem to enjoy as much attention as it does in Europe and America. This special podcast will focus on two novels by eminent writers in the region, now published by Penguin Random House SEA: Indonesian author and journalist, Leila S.Chudori’s (pictured) award-winning The Sea Speaks His Name (translated by John H McGlynn from Laut Bercerita) and Riverrun by pioneering writer and educator, Danton Remoto, from the Philippines. 

Both novels highlight characters who face the harsh reality of state violence during the reign of Soeharto and Marcos. The dialogue will also be joined by Ann Lee, Malaysian playwright and researcher, who will discuss further about the driving forces behind their storytelling.

Link available on Nov 26.


Malay(si)a is not a Cultural Desert: Visual Art. Then and Now.
Nov 27

The debate continues about where art is today, as it has predominantly been seen as an interest of the elitist. However, artist Victor Chin (pictured) and curator Eric Goh of A+ Works of Art seek to break down the barriers of the art world, as well as the rigid definitions of what art could be. Can or should art be done for its own sake, or does it have a pedagogical or social role? If yes, then how should art engage with the wider world in terms of class, community and of course literature? Find all the answers here. 

Zoom Meetings, 7-9pm. RM10.


The Long 20th Century: Wang Gungwu in Conversation
Nov 27

Renowned historian Wang Gungwu (also University Professor at NUS Arts and Social Sciences) speaks to the festival’s co-director Sharaad Kuttan, in what is expected to be a deeply personal insight into his journey of the 20th century. An exploration into identity, notions of home and belonging, Wang’s follow-up memoir after Home is Not Here, is a continuation of shifting perceptions. As much as cultural identity is not set in stone, so too is national identity and other demarcations that people often identify with. Unlike his first memoir, Home is Where We Are is written with his wife Margaret Wang, lending the autobiography an emotional depth and appreciation for love and family as the couple navigate a perpetual state of finding meaning in the word “home”.  

Podcast available from Nov 27.


Writing Race with Melissa De Silva with Sharmilla Ganesan and Lee Chwi Lynn
Nov 28

Government forms have become more than just a sheet to fill out your personal details — it has turned into a confrontation of identity, especially when you need to check the “race box”. Worse, it becomes a quandary for people of mixed parentage. Such practice of putting people within boxes — particularly in Malaysia and Singapore — led author Melissa De Silva to tackle the inescapable formula of categorisation in her award-winning creative nonfiction collection, 'Others' is Not a Race.

Sharmilla Ganesan and Lee Chwi Lynn, famous for their segment Popcorn Culture on BFM, will be speaking to Melissa about her writing journey, upbringing as well as how her work resonates with people on both sides of the border. Melissa has worked as a journalist and book editor and is Singapore’s Education Ambassador for online global creative writing platform for teens, Write the World. 

Zoom Meetings, 8-9.30pm. RM10. 


The Malaysian Women’s Manifesto
Nov 28

Carol Koh, the founder of Books on the Move Malaysia and Ann Lee, a playwright of the controversial The Vagina Monologues will join forces with Sreedhevi Iyer, Siti Rahayu Baharin and Julya Oui to discuss the definition of being a Malaysian woman in contemporary setting through a live stream event. Moderated by Melizarani T. Selva, The Malaysian Women’s Manifesto will walk us through their journey and stories in literary arts as they brave the challenges as outspoken, bold and unconventional women. Through this event organised by PEN Malaysia, these five powerful Malaysian women are reclaiming the essence of PEN International Women’s Manifesto, which is to make literature inclusive of women. The virtual event, which will be conducted in English and Bahasa Malaysia, invites the audience to participate in the dialogue for a more dynamic and purposeful upshot.

Watch the live streaming on GTLF Facebook Page. 8.30-10pm.


Indigenous Art, Loudly Speaking to Contemporary Times — Wanda Nanibush in Conversation
Nov 29

Wanda Nanibush (pictured right), author, educator and the current curator of indigenous art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada, will be guest starring in this podcast with independent Malaysian curator Sharmin Parameswaran.

They will be speaking about the continued importance of indigenous art and its role in bringing forth collective experience and knowledge of people to our contemporary lives. Nanibush will also be sharing how indigenous Canadian artists are expressing themselves against authoritarian states. Supported by the High Commission of Canada in Malaysia, this podcast will delve deep into ways in which often-side-lined indigenous groups are making their voices heard through art and how indigenous experiences and discourse can be preserved.

Link available on Nov 29.


Storylines – Making Life Visible
Nov 29

The world of comics, graphic novels and illustrations in Southeast Asia has been gaining its fair share of global attention. Earlier this year, 21-year-old Johorean Erica Eng (pictured left) won the coveted Eisner Award — the youngest Malaysian to do so — for her slice-of-life webcomic Fried Rice. And Penang-based illustrator and editor Charis Loke, whose work have graced the pages of best-selling novels, partnered with Neflix to create a mural for their adaption of Yangsze Choo’s book The Ghost Bride.

Visual mediums can provide markers of national identity and the artists behind them possess the ability to inform readers and build bridges that connect cultures. Eng and Loke will be sharing their personal approaches to the visual form, its value in storytelling and how it informs our collective and individual ways of seeing and thinking.

Link available on Nov 29.


In addition to the GTLF's main events, it is also collaborating with PEN Malaysia, Gerakbudaya, the Swadaya Collective and the Healing Art Project on various events. Some of the events listed in this article are drawn from the programmes organised by the festival's partners​. See more here

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