‘Reaching the World’ is the name of the first literary festival in Bangkok, which gets underway today with a focus on the shortage of serious prizes for Asian writers.
Matthew Condon – Australian author and campaigner
for literary prizes.
More than 100 authors, translators and publishers are in town for an event which unites Asia’s two pre-eminent literary groups for the first time. Amongst them are Australian author Matthew Condon, author of A Night at the Pink Poodle and The Trout Opera and Hong Kong author and satirist Nuri Vittachi, both prominent campaigners for literary prizes for writers, and Daniel Hahn, program director for the British Centre for Literary Translation.
‘Reaching the World’ sees the Asia Pacific Writers & Translators (AP Writers) group – which counts Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee, distinguished authors Amitav Ghosh and Pico Iyer and Booker Prize-shortlisted author Jeet Thayill as Honorary Fellows – join forces with one of Asia’s longest-running and most prestigious literary events, the South East Asian Writers’ Awards (SEA-Write Awards).
It begins as Bangkok gears up for its year in the literary spotlight, having been designated World Book Capital in 2013 by UNESCO, and amidst a literary furore over the Man Group’s decision to axe funding for the Man Asian Literary Prize, sister prize to the prestigious UK Man Booker Prize since 2006.
A two-day summit comprising authors, literary translators, and literary scholars hosted by the Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University, kicks things off today.
Declaring ‘Reaching the World’ open today, S.E.A. Write Award Organising Committee chairman and Bangkok Governor, MR Sukhumbhand Paribatra emphasized the importance of literary prizes in discovering and supporting talented writers. "I believe one reason that UNESCO chose Bangkok is because the city is the birthplace of the SEA-Write Award,” he said.
Jane Camens, the well-regarded journalist and author is currently acting as General Manager for AP Writers.
The 2012 SEA-Write winners – Wipas Srithong (Thailand), Suchen Christine Lim (Singapore), Oka Rushmini (Indonesia), Duangxay Luangphasy (Laos), Ismail Kassan ( Malaysia), Trung Trung Dinh – (Vietnam), Charlson Ong (Philippines), and Pengiran Haji Mahmud bin Pengiran Damit – pen name Mahmudamit (Brunei) – will be present as guests of the festival.
Acting general manager of AP Writers, journalist and author Jane Camens, said she was delighted the two groups could come together for what promised to be an action-packed week of author readings, think-tanks, round-tables and entertainment with a literary bent.
"AP Writers has been delighted and honoured to work with the S.E.A. Write Organising Committee to bring together so many authors who see this as an opportunity to meet other writers and thinkers and find a larger international ‘platform’ for their work,” she said.
"As the world’s gaze turns ever-more interestedly towards Asia, we hope to help raise the profile internationally of ASEAN’s top writers and to enhance the diversity of quality literatures from the region.”
In a keynote address to open the summit today, Matthew Condon said the axing of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards in his native Brisbane in April infuriated him and spurred him to action.
"That night, April 3, I entered some fulsome dialogue on Facebook with like minded friends, many of them writers, and we concluded that the awards weren’t the premier’s to take away. We decided to keep them alive.
Hong Kong author and columnist Nuri Vittachi – a co-founder of AP Writers along with Ms Camens and Malaysian author and poet Shirley Geok-lin Lim.
"Within 24 hours of the government’s decision we had launched the new and improved Queensland Literary Awards. WE had axed the word Premier.
"Within 48 hours we were deluged with practical offers of support from professional arts administrators, publishers, printers, magazine editors, booksellers, literary award judges, academics, students, website designers and volunteers from the general reading public. Five months later, on the eve of the awards ceremony itself, we had accumulated through social network fundraising and private donations more than $50,000 dollars and the skilled volunteer administrators of the awards had performed for nothing a task that would cost government in the vicinity of $300,000.”
He said the message from the community to the government was simple: that it valued its literary awards, that it valued its writers, and that such awards were, in the end, not about the money, but the celebration of culture and stories and especially about continuing and strengthening a dialogue centered on writing and reading.
Mr Condon, who is the author of 10 novels and short story collections, will also conduct a half-day workshop in writing creative non-fiction for emerging writers and give a reading at one of the festival’s Author Showcases. He is a two-time winner of the Steele Rudd Award for Short Fiction and writes for leading newspapers, magazines and journals.
Nuri Vittachi, another champion of literary prizes for Asian writers and the driving force behind getting the Man Asian Literary Prize established, described Asia as "lacking much of the normal literary infrastructure, such as editors, agents and big publishers — that means literary prizes are vital lifelines for new writers.
"Winning a writing prize, whether it’s small or large, can be a life-changing catalyst for writers, both personality and in career terms. Most of the entertainment we see, from books to movies to computer games, starts with writers creating characters and scenes in their imaginations. Stars get recognition, while writers are left needing a bit of love for themselves."
Mr Vittachi hosts ‘The Storytellers’ Soiree’ at Q Bar, 34 Sukumvit Soi 11, from 6pm on Wednesday. This ‘open mic’ night where writers can spin a yarn, read some work or showcase other talents that is expected to be one of the more colourful events of the festival.
"This is a relaxed evening in which all participants can gather together to let down their hair, and perhaps a few inhibitions too," he said.