At the AK Lit Fest, 2017
Sri Lanka has two major literary festivals that people hear about.
One’s the Galle Lit Fest, which is a high powered forum that has a lot of money going in and out and puts the Galle holiday scene in overdrive just after New Year’s. GLF is a 1%-er event: tickets are expensive, the stay at Galle doubly so, and over the years it’s turned into as much a marker of social prestige as much as a gathering of literary people.
The other festival is Annasi and Kadalagotu, the brainchild of aviation pioneer and author Captain Elmo Jayawardena, a man who’s spent many years nurturing the writing local communities here. Captain Elmo is wonderfully refined and well-read; you’d see why I say that if you met him. It’s like seeing a local Saruman around, pre-Sauron. The man stands out without even trying to.
AK’s pitch is local diversity. The representation of all three major languages – English, Sinhala and Tamil – as well as media that usually gets ignored in other fora, like the Sinhala comic artists’ scene or the blogosphere. I feel giving this pitch is important, because in all honesty Sri Lanka doesn’t have a lot of fora at all.
I’ve spoken at AK once before alongside Daya Dissanayake and Subha Wijesiriwardena (if I recall correctly, we got into a fantastically heated argument on political correctness in language, and the audience doubled in size).
This year, I was on a panel with Kasun Pussewela, who notably pushed long and hard for justice at the Welikada Prison Riots; Ranjan Mellawa, banker-turned-cricket fanatic who crossed 11 countries to document Cricket World Cups for his book Winds Behind the Willow; A.L. Haseen, whose work I was completely unfamiliar with by dint of not knowing Tamil; and Amanda Jay, fellow sci-fi author and quite possibly the only Sri Lankan alive writing steampunk fiction.
And as a guy who generally spends his time sitting and thinking about the future, I got to engage with a lot of very interesting people and ask a few questions that are near and dear to me and my work.
It was fantastic. Small: sometimes we felt dwarfed by the largesse of the Mount Lavinia Hotel, and I can’t say the tea at the hotel was anything even remotely resembling tea. But it was a marvelous space for catching up with fellow friends, writers and artists pushing the bounds in ways I hadn’t even dreamed of.
I was especially happy to see the Sinhala comic art panel and what they were doing, and to contribute a few thoughts with Nalaka Gunawardene and Tilak Dissanayake as to what they can do to break out of the traditional Sinhala newspaper space and go digital like The Oatmeal, Slack Wyrm Comics and Awantha Artigala. Ameena Hussein, author and publisher, deconstructed how she creates her characters, and in our conversations gave me a great deal of insight and stuff to think about. Nalaka Gunawardene moderated a superb panel on the blogosphere that, for once, was not a bunch of Colombo people whining about politics (like myself).
I believe Tinaz Amit is owed something for moderating the most diverse panel I’ve been on – one Sinhala non-fiction writer who chronicles something worth getting white-vanned for; one ex-banker who wrote his story of cricket: one Tamil writer, published first in Sri Lanka, then in India, and his translator; and lastly Mandy and myself, two scifi writers who jumped head-first into digital.
And of course, once the whole thing was done, we ignored the bar and the kotthu and instead made a beeline for the Big Bad Wolf book fair (in my case, for the second time).
Here’s a photo of the first haul. The second haul yielded the Art of Titanfall, the Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children series, Douglas Adams’ biography, and some Wild Cards work by GRRM.
I am now, officially, a starving but very happy writer. Now to sell some kidneys (preferably other peoples’) so I can eat this month.