“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

Georgetown Literary Festival Opens in Penang (Nov 25-27)



# 1.   

Just now back in Sarawak from Penang's Georgetown Literary Festival. It was a very international affair, but it had its "China moments" if you like.

The Chief Minister of Penang opened the festival with a fiery speech lauding Penang as a bastion of free speech, and he pointed out that in Penang, freedom of expression is guaranteed even after you express yourself. Neat distinction, and refreshing to hear it coming from a man who is himself of Chinese ancestry.

Along with three literary translators dealing in German, French and Malay, I participated in a panel entitled Speaking in Tongues, thanks to sponsorship by Penang's fine English bookstore, Gerakbudaya. I spoke on the challenge of achieving a sense of authenticity in translating 《额尔古纳河右岸》(Last Quarter of the Moon) by Chi Zijian. In fact, this "Chinese" novel isn't so Chinese; the Evenki are a Siberian people who speak a Tungusic tongue, and Chi Zijian is a monolingual Han who wrote the novel, imagining herself inside the head of an illiterate 90-year-old Evenki woman with scant knowledge of the Han.

Our session was followed by one on cultural appropriation; perhaps there were those in the audience who felt I should have been on that panel too, so they could grill me on translating a novel in which a member of the dominant ethnic group (Han) purported to speak in the first-person for a disadvantaged minority ethnicity (30,000 Evenki) whose livelihood and culture they basically destroyed in order to gain access to timber in the Greater Khingan Mountains of Heilongjiang and Inner Mongolia.

In an incident that reminded me of the way the Chinese authorities have suddenly closed down independent film festivals over the last two years, on Nov 25th the Penang police raided a Georgetown exhibition featuring the work of Malaysia's satirical cartoonist Zunar (Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque), and arrested him as well under the draconian Sedition Act (inherited from British colonial rule).

There were even rumors that the festival itself might be shuttered. For the closing event of the our literary festival, he had been scheduled to launch a controversial book of cartoons lampooning Prime Minister Najib's alleged involvement in a US$700m scandal (1MDB affair).

In the end the festival opened and closed as scheduled on the 27th without further incident. Zunar, however, did not make it to the "launch," although he had been released from custody late that afternoon. Perhaps 100 or so festival-goers attended a brief meeting to show solidarity, after which we were reminded that there were police outside, so it would be wisest to proceed without further ado for an evening of music and drink at a nearby pub, rather than attending any other gathering in support of the artist.

Bruce Humes, November 28, 2016, 7:31p.m.

# 2.   

With an authoritarian jerk now in charge of US, dictators around the world are having their own festival. His election is truly a turning point of history, at which the democracy-human rights theme of the 20th Century pivoted unequivocally to the totalitarian theme of the 21st, even as we face real doom from corporate-created climate change. Write fast, folks.

Bud, November 28, 2016, 10:44p.m.


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