Thursday 24 January 2013


Aita Aghodaro, a featured writer
One of the biggest literary festivals in the Asia-Pacific region began today in Jaipur, the majestic capital of Rajasthan in India. Entering its sixth year, the Jaipur Literature Festival features writers from around the world, but it takes place amidst much debate on the extent of authors’ freedom of expression.

Last year, Salman Rushdie had to withdraw from the festival following alleged death threats, and he was also prevented from addressing participants by video link-up because activists said they would demonstrate at the venue, in the continuing protests against his book The Satanic Verses.

This year, authors who read excerpts from the book in 2012 are being blocked from attending, and other campaigners also wish to exclude writers of certain nationalities. As The Times of India newspaper put it: “Not to be bested in this game of competitive fundamentalism, saffron activists are now demanding that Pakistani authors be kept away from Jaipur.”

Still, the five-day festival is expected to attract thousands of participants in celebration of “national and international literature,” according to the organizers. The event comprises readings, discussions, performances and children’s workshops, among numerous offerings.

The Tibetan religious leader, the Dalai Lama, is scheduled to speak about faith during today's opening, and other internationally known personalities are also on the Jan. 24-28 programme.

Tahar ben Jelloun
They include French-based Moroccan writer Tahar ben Jelloun, who has recently been writing about the Arab Spring; model-turned-writer Aita Ighodaro, whose novels All That Glitters and Sin Tropez explore “the relationships between wealth, greed, lust, ambition and power”; Zoe Heller, the author of Notes on a Scandal, which was made into a critically acclaimed movie; Namita Gokhale, writer, publisher and festival director, who has authored more than 11 books; and William Dalrymple, co-organizer of the festival and author of the prize-winning City of Djinns as well as other books about India and the Islamic world.

Besides fostering debate, the Jaipur festival also represents the growing promotion of literature in Asia over the past decade. One can now attend literary festivals in Singapore, Indonesia, Nepal and other countries.

In Bali, the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival will be celebrating its tenth anniversary in October of this year with a special focus on women's stories, women's rights and education, and heroes and visionaries, according to the organizers. It will “embrace writers across all genres including travel writers, songwriters, playwrights, poets, comedians and graphic novelists,” they state.

This focus, too, will probably engender debate, but argument comes with the writing territory.  As The Times of India noted in its opinion piece: “It is the nature of literature to give offence to one set of readers or another. And it is the nature of literature festivals to create space for competing affronts and voices.”

We at SWAN say “long live the literary festival”.