Wednesday 7 May 2014

The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival

The Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival has just opened in London, and runs until May 21.  This is the only festival in the UK dedicated to writing about Asia and Asians. The theme this year is changing values across Asia.  

For the past 8 years Adrienne Loftus Parkins has been the Director of the Festival.

After a successful career in marketing, Adrienne left her native Canada and started living, working, and reading in Bombay, Bangalore, Singapore, and Shanghai.  She then moved to London, where, in 2002 she established a literature programme at Asia House. In 2006 she founded the Asia House Festival of Asian Literature, now sponsored by the Bagri Foundation. Adrienne also co-founded Anamika, a women’s educational group in India, and works closely with the Pan Asian Women’s Association to promote Asian women writers.  

After 8 years in the role, Adrienne has decided to step down as Director of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival, although she will stay involved as an advisor and looks forward to seeing the Festival grow.

Adrienne gave me an interview via e-mail, from London.

How and why did you come up with the theme changing values across Asia? How do you think the theme is reflected in the programme?

I moved to India in 1992, when the economy of that country was just starting to open up to foreign investment.  While there we often heard colleagues and associates tell us that globalisation wouldn't work in Asia because their lives and businesses were conducted according to Asian values. These, they said, were never going to be compatible with the Western values that made multinational companies work.  Asians in general built their societies around working for the benefit of the family, holding true to tradition, and repressing the desires of the individual. 

Now, 22 years later, those companies that we saw open throughout Asia in the ‘90’s are still there and they have been joined by many more.  The globalisation of business, manufacturing, retail and communications has reached unprecedented levels.  Financial growth gave birth to the term Asian Tigers and many of those Asian friends who were so sceptical have thrived amidst the new realities that these businesses have brought with them.

With this growth has come a sea change in societal values.  To the outside observer there appears to be more emphasis on making money, on owning Western status symbols like cars, designer clothes, glamorous vacations and the latest electronics. Across the world, political upheavals have overthrown despotic regimes, giving a new confidence to citizens that want to overthrow governments and dictators that are holding them back.

Over the years that Asia House has been producing the Literature Festival, the number of books addressing the conflict between traditional values and modern ideas has grown. We decided to explore what has happened to values through focusing on writing that looks at these changes and how Asian values have reconciled with Western ones, and vice versa. 

Some events such as the Yiyun Li / Tash Aw conversation, Changing Sexual Mores, Burma: a work in progress, and Brave New Worlds: digital freedom in East Asia address changing values as expressed in writing in a straightforward way, while others like North Korea: threat or bluster, Cracking Up: the evolution of British Asian humour, The Shroud and New Pan-Asian Fiction, touch on the theme more indirectly. Changing Sexual Mores is one I'm particularly looking forward to as it will directly address a topic that until now has not generally been discussed in literature.

Do you try and present writing from all of Asia, or do you focus on specific countries, or regions, within the continent?

The Festival has always focused on a broad expanse of Asia. The 2013 Festival had events highlighting writing from Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, China, South Korea, Nepal, Burma, Malaysia, Palestine and the Middle East as well as South Asian and British Asian writing. In 2104 we've added to that list:  Vietnam, Thailand, Kazakhstan and North Korea. Each year we endeavour to discover writing about a broad spectrum of Asian countries. We are still the only festival in the UK dedicated to writing about Asia in the broadest context, from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Pacific.

Asia House participated in the British Council Korean Cultural Focus. (Click here for the relevant blog post.) Could you comment?

The event featuring Man Asian Prize winner Kyung-sook Shin and Krys Lee from Korea, along with Qaisra Shahraz from Pakistan, was very well received - we had a sell-out audience and audience and speakers alike seemed deeply interested in the topic.  The discussion took a more personal than political direction with each of the writers either experiencing a personal separation from their home culture because they have moved to a different culture or, in Kyung-sook's case, a separation from the other speakers because she has not left her home country.  Kyung-sook, who was speaking with the help of a translator, felt that language and the translation of spoken and written words creates its own kind of separation.  (The Asia House website has an article about the event, including some audio and video, click here to watch and listen.)

The Korean influence continues when John Everard, former British Ambassador in North Korea and author of Only Beautiful, Please:  A British Diplomat in North Korea,  joins Paul French, author of North Korea: State of Paranoia,  to analyse the threat posed by that country. What are you hoping for from that session? 

This should be a highly topical discussion of the threat that North Korea may pose to its neighbours and the rest of the world.  The speakers have both spent extensive time in North Korea and have studied and analysed the political situation there.  They will be looking at the current state of affairs in the country and, based on their knowledge of the situation, expressing their thoughts on the motives behind what Kim Jong-un has done and said in recent months.

Several authors are launching books at the Festival. Could you give details of new titles beyond what's on the website?  

We're delighted to be able to host 3 authors who will be debuting their novels in the UK. They will provide mini-interviews, in sessions called Extra Words, as a bonus to longer events scheduled with more high profile authors.  

The first Extra Words, on 8 May, will be with Omar Shahid Hamid, whose debut novel The Prisoner was a runaway hit at the recent Karachi Literature Festival.  As a former Karachi policeman, Omar has a unique view of what happens behind the scenes when the force is called upon to solve crimes.  The Prisoner is a gripping read, one that left me wanting to know if he was planning a sequel.  

Nepalese Indian author, Prajwal Parajuly, was part of the 2013 Festival when he spoke about his first book of short stories, The Ghurkha’s Daughter.  This year he comes back with his debut novel, Land Where I Flee, about a family gathering in Gangtok, Sikkum from across the globe to celebrate their grandmother's landmark birthday.  Prajwal was hailed at the Jaipur Literature Festival as one of the brightest young talents coming from South Asia.  His book is thoughtful and entertaining, and he himself has great insight into the clash between traditional family values and the modern world.

Finally, we are happy to have Tew Bunnag as our last Extra Words author. Tew has published several previous books, but Curtain of Rain is the first to be published in the UK, so he is new to our audiences.  His books deal with the contradictions between traditional values and consumerism in modern Thailand.

Censorship is a bigger issue in Asia than in the UK.  What do you think will be the main talking points at the digital freedom event? How do you think events held in the UK, but highlighting free speech in Asia, can help authors in Asia?  

One of the Festival's objectives is to promote understanding of Asia cultures and societies both here in UK communities and in Asia. This discussion of censorship of the Internet in some Asian countries raises awareness and helps Western audiences to understand some of the challenges to free expression that may be present in other societies. I expect the discussion to address how the Internet has opened up communication in some ways, but made it more difficult in other ways, and how writers are working within the parameters set for them, to express their opinions in as free a way as possible without fear of recourse.

To Participate From Asia

If you wish to participate in the Festival from Asia, click around on the following links: