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HindustanTimes Tue,30 Sep 2014

World

Myanmar's first open lit fest flourishes under Suu Kyi
Kate Hodal, GNS
Yangon, February 04, 2013
First Published: 23:21 IST(4/2/2013)
Last Updated: 23:24 IST(4/2/2013)

It was a literary festival with a difference. For a start, even some of the star names on the bill were a mystery to many in the audience. Secondly, some of the authors were clearly still worried about their worked being censored. Thirdly, it was in Myanmar which has never really witnessed such a festival before.

Sessions at the Irrawaddy literary festival, which ended Sunday, were held in Burmese and English and varied from workshops on photojournalism and discussions on censorship and violence to poetry readings and film screenings.

Audience members stood up to share their tales of being political prisoners under the country's five-decade long military regime, or to ask questions on how Myanmar country could gain greater literary clout. Tents selling secondhand books spilled onto the lawns of the Inya Lake hotel, which was hosting the festival, while poets and writers crowded around picnic tables discussing art and literature.

The three-day festival's most popular talks invariably involved the opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi - who acted as patron of the festival - during which she told sell-out audiences that books helped stave off loneliness while living for nearly 20 years under house arrest, and joked that however courageous she might seem to others, she would never be brave enough do what Harry Potter had done.

"(Reading) gives you a chance to understand how other people think, and what kind of experiences other people have been through," she said. "And it also helps you to cope with your own life."

For many Burmese, the festival was a surreal awakening to a way of life that has evaded the nation for decades.

"Now we are meeting international writers, and saying what we really feel and sharing what we know," said Shwegu May Hnin, 74, a feisty political writer who spent the early 1990s behind bars.

But not all of the international guests invited are household names.

"Burma has an obvious love of literature, but Burma has, or used to have, an obvious lack of access to literature," said Jane Heyn, the festival's director and wife of the British ambassador to Myanmar, using the original name of the country and a name still preferred by democracy activists like Suu Kyi. "In planning this festival, when I said names like Jung Chang and William Dalrymple, I was met with blank stares. But the thirst (for knowledge) is there."

The event was also the first time that many foreigners had ever had the opportunity to read or hear Burmese literature or poetry.

First prize at the festival was won by 17-year-old high school student Aung Zin Phyo Thein, who wrote about prostitution, alcoholism and mining in his short story, Changing Lives, on Myanmar's longstanding ethnic war in Kachin.

"I've seen the atrocities that are occurring (there). It's daily news," said Aung Zin when asked why he chose to write about Kachin, a state where ethnic rebels have been fighting a war for greater autonomy for the past 50 years. "Usually when we hear about war, we think about Iraq and Afghanistan. But now it's so close to home. It's our reality now. And I chose to focus on that because in a war, two parties will fight but there's always a third person that will die."

As Myanmar slowly but surely opens up, so too does the outside world's knowledge of the country. A Burmese anthology of contemporary poetry, Bones Will Crow, was recently published in Britain, while Myanmar itself closed its censorship office last year and has relaxed some if not all of the draconian regulations that forced some of its most beloved writers to wither away behind bars.


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