George Town Literary Festival: Of ‘Monsters & Immortals’


Over the years, the themes of the George Town Literary Festival (GTLF) have tended to “resonate with the state of the world”, as festival director Bernice Chauly puts it.

This year’s theme for the Nov 24 to 26 event is “Monsters & (Im)Mortals” that Chauly links to “a world ruled by demagogues” – Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte come easily to mind, making the theme resonate indeed.

Chauly says, rather poetically, in a press statement launching the festival: “In a world ruled by demagogues, we are reminded of a time when the immortals – the gods – ruled, where myth and legends pervaded our understanding of the world and the cosmos, where human beings were human and the gods immortal.

“Monsters lived in their midst and it was one of the reasons the gods went to war, to wage battle against fearsome beasts who threatened all manner of destruction.

George Town Literary Festival 2017 Zen Cho

Internationally bestselling fantasy author Zen Cho will be speaking at GTLF 2017. Photo: Filepic

“But there were also men who became monsters, who turned against all that was good and all that was human. ‘Monsters & (Im)Mortals’ looks at light and dark; at genius and madness, reality and fantasy, the element of the shadow in literature and of divine tragedy.”

Words, in all forms, prose, poetry, and in multiple languages, on multiple platforms will, as ever, be celebrated through the theme, with a Translators’ Roundtable as well as a Fringe programme making their debuts this year.

The Roundtable aims to lend visibility to the role of translators in local literature and highlight the issues they face today. It will feature several local and international writers and translators, including Jerome Bouchaud, Lee Yew Leong, and Muhammad Haji Salleh. Gareth Richards and Pauline Fan, both, according to Chauly, “excellent moderators, editors, writers and translators” curated the roundtable (and assisted Chauly with other programming).

The inaugural GTLF Fringe, dubbed “the people’s festival” and created to immortalise George Town and her heritage through the literary arts, will provide a platform for local writers, poets, and storytellers to weave their tales and lore.

George Town Literary Festival 2017 Latiff Mohidin

Latif Mohidin, the veteran artist who also writes poetry, is one of the Malaysian participants at the GTLF 2017. Photo: ST/Asia News Netowrk

Touted as Malaysia’s largest international literary festival and shortlisted for the Best Literary Festival Award at the London Book Fair this year, this is the seventh edition of the GTLF. Man Asian Prize winner Tan Twan Eng has declared it “one of the best literary festivals in the world”, and it is fast becoming one of the most anticipated festivals in the region.

Chauly – supported in her role as festival director by the Penang Convention & Exhibition Bureau as producer – has put together an acclaimed line-up of international luminaries for the panel discussions, readings, conversations, oratory performances, dancing, and film screenings.

The international luminaries in attendance include Belgian cultural historian David van Reybrouck, Malaysian-Chinese-American journalist Mei Fong, Indonesian poet and food writer Laksmi Pamuntjak, Icelandic poet and children’s book writer Gerdur Kristny, Northern Irish playwright and novelist Paul McVeigh, Cambodian-American spoken word artist Kosal Khiev, Singaporean graphic novelist Sonny Liew, Dutch author and journalist Caroline de Gruyter, and Myanmarese poet and artist Maung Day.

George Town Literary Festival 2017 A Samad Said

National poet laureate A. Samad Said returns to Penang for the GTLF this year. Photo: MALCOLM FOO

The Malaysian line-up includes fantasy author Zen Cho, novelist Fahmi Mustaffa, poet and activist Rahmat Haron, and veteran visual artist and poet Latiff Mohidin.

“For the GTLF Fringe, we are collaborating with the producer of The Cooler Lumpur Festival,” says

Ashwin Gunasekeran, CEO of the Penang Convention & Exhibition Bureau. The event is curated by radio personality Umapagan Ampikaipakan.

The Fringe will consist of fun events such as a midnight heritage walk complete with site-specific performances in English, Malay, and Penang Hokkien, as well as a series of digital graphic stories leading up to the festival.

There will also be a free public screening of the film You Mean The World To Me, set in 1970s Penang – it is the first Malaysian film to be shot entirely in Penang Hokkien.

This year, the festival is partnering with the inaugural Fay Khoo Award for Food and Drink Writing, which was set up as a tribute to the memory of author, publisher and radio host Fay Khoo who died earlier this year from cancer.

The festival’s popular Pop-Up Market returns with more Penang artisanal goods and local flavours. – Edmund Evanson

The George Town Literary Festival 2017 is on from Nov 24 to 26; for more details on the festival and the GTLF Fringe, visit The festival is supported and funded by the State Government of Penang. Admission is free for everyone.


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