Literature Festivals in the Age of Contagion
As we navigate this moment of global emergency, it is evident that crowds of people can’t gather for the foreseeable future, writes Vivek Menezes, co-founder of the Goa Arts and Literature FestivalUpdated: May 07, 2020 17:46 IST
Proximity was always the point. Just over a decade ago, when the eminent Konkani writer Damodar “Bhai” Mauzo and I originated the idea of our vibrant Goa Writers group hosting an arts and literature festival, our motivation was to bring together writers and artists who were substantially overlooked by the commercial mainstream.
Our inspiration was Eunice de Souza’s lovely, poetic insight about “different ways of belonging.” So we focused on what others dismiss as “the margins” - regionally (the North East states, Kashmir, our own Konkan) and in terms of genres (translations, poetry, graphic novels). Although volunteer-driven and stubbornly non-commercial with an almost laughably minuscule budget we strived to build lasting relationships across the borders with Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh; an ambitious, unusual mix, which proved exceptionally meaningful when it came together at the International Centre near Panjim.
The award-winning author and translator, Jerry Pinto has remained an important mainstay throughout. Looking back, he wrote to me, “From its very first edition, GALF felt like home and like abroad. It was pure magic and I remember wondering whether this was just beginner’s luck, but over the years, the festival has become something I look forward to for the intimacy and the intensity of the encounters. For me, it was the juxtaposition of the local and the international that was so important. It was a festival that belonged to Goa, clearly, so that everyone seemed to have a Goa connection at one remove at least, but it also looked out at the world and took in the world.”
Like the other litfests that have mushroomed everywhere, ours came into being with multiple motivations. Above all was certitude that the brilliant artists and writers of Goa – indeed all aspects of the confluent culture of India’s smallest state – were being callously ignored by the gatekeepers of the mainstream.
As the poet, curator and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote (another GALF anchor) put it with terrific insight in 2007, “geographical contiguity does not mean that Goa and mainland India share the same universe of meaning: Goa’s special historic evolution, with its Lusitanian route to the Enlightenment and print modernity, its Iberian emphasis on a vibrant public sphere, its pride in its ancient internationalism avant la lettre, sets it at a tangent to the self-image of an India that has been formed with the experience of British colonialism as its basis. The relationship between Goa’s artists and mainland India has, not surprisingly, been ambiguous and erratic, even unstable.”
Bhai and my most consequential move was to stop waiting for others to acknowledge Goa’s dazzling talent, but also to reach out as broadly as possible to others who are similarly unfairly overlooked, and excluded. We have always ignored best seller lists, public relations blandishments, and social media notoriety. Instead, our lineups reflect our convictions. The keynote speaker at the 10th anniversary edition, Priya Ramani said it perfectly, “GALF is the only litfest where the curators read all the books.”
When we first started, common consensus depicted Goa a cultural backwater. Even authors who lived here launched their books elsewhere because there was no evidence of an assured audience. And it is true; we used to struggle to half fill even one room with 100 people, no matter how big the draw. But everyone who came, inevitably returned. We grew our audience from teenaged students into reading adults, while expanding alongside. Last year, four halls spilled over simultaneously, with all the bookstalls thronged as well.
Every element of this hard-won success has derived from the physical dimension: conviviality, solidarity, lots of hugs and dancing. The acclaimed artist and translator Daisy Rockwell, who repeatedly journeyed from Vermont to attend, told me, “the festival always seemed about juxtapositions and creative pairings. Conversation is fascinating both in and out of sessions -- in fact, the conversation flowed easily between the two. There is a lack of formality that encourages camaraderie, and a lack of posturing or networking. People are there to communicate, not to climb.” But will any of that endure in the age of contagion?
As we navigate this moment of global emergency, it is evident that crowds of people can’t gather for the foreseeable future. GALF 2020 was scheduled for the first week of December, with participants signed up from all over the world. Those plans will most likely be scrapped, although we will keep our fingers crossed for the moment. But what might future editions look and feel like?
Bhai told me, “The charm of listening to sessions and meeting authors hardly happened in Goa before. We will adapt, but how that happens is yet to be seen. I think about music, which we love so much, and the live performance is different from recordings. So I can visualize masked delegates greeted with santitizers, and distancing, and physical meetings alongside virtual elements. There’s a saying in Konkani -- kala praman mathyak kurpone (you wear the head gear to suit the circumstance). We may put it to use!”
Those are plausible prospects, but very far from lighting fire in the belly. For me, the perfect curatorial moments were made in the flesh. Thus, my sentiments align with Daisy Rockwell, who says, “We need to ask ourselves what litfests are for, and why it is important to bring people into the same physical space. Just a few months into the shut-downs, it is obvious what limitations electronic forms of communication bring to human interaction. It’s choppy and erratic. We lose warmth, non-verbal cues and cross talk. The prolonged in-person experience made possible by festivals like GALF are creative gardens where the seeds of new projects are first planted. We must return to these gardens when we are safe again!”
I keep thinking about Shakespeare’s famous line from The Tempest, “O brave new world, that has such people in it!” If and when we do shift paradigms for the literature and arts festivals of the future, it’s likely that many of us - even if we manage to survive the virus - will not be part of it. At this point, hand on heart, one of that number is likely to be me.
And maybe Jerry Pinto too. This beloved, crowd-electrifying veteran of a number of litfests, in every possible location, wrote to me: “There is a generation out there, I think, Vivek, that feels perhaps more comfortable without proximity. Their preferred mode of communication may well be to log on. It is not for me. I feel that in these virtual encounters, so much is lost. Even as one speaks, people are already shooting questions at you, questions that have nothing to do with what you are saying. Moderators don’t know their way around this world, I believe. I don’t know what that kind of literary festival feels like, or what it would be like, but I am not sure how comfortable I would be in one. I went to festivals to meet people, to meet fellow authors. I tried not to be a helicopter author, and tried to attend other sessions and to contribute to them. I don’t think I’d be comfortable doing that now. No reason why. Just don’t think so.”
Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder of the Goa Arts and Literature Festival.