Georgetown Literary Festival: Travel Journal


Weather: Hot

We’re at the Majestic Theater in Georgetown, Penang, waiting for the Opening Ceremony to begin. I am excited. I’m also particularly happy because we got some cool free stuff in the goodie bag. I love free stuff. The people in the hall are an interesting mix. People seem to have come from all over the world for this. Some of them are decked to the nines in formal wear, while some look like they just rolled out of bed and decided to come to the festival. I think I fall into a nice in-between.


The ceremony was great! The festival director gave the opening speech, and she is none other than Bernice Chauly (Creative Writing lecturer here at Nottingham, and my lecturer too). I think this year’s theme, ‘Monsters & (Im)Mortals’ is pretty cool and it has a lot to do with the current state of the world. It looks at ‘light and dark; of genius and madness, reality and fantasy, the element of the shadow in literature and of divine tragedy.’ One of the speakers said that we were in an age where ‘monsters ruled the world’ and I couldn’t agree more.

The highlight of the evening was a performance by three women from Scotland- a really cool poetry/music mashup called Lord Fox. It seemed a bit repetitive at first but it picked up and was so amazing. It dealt with real cases rape and tied in with its whole whimsical and fairy tale like feel just gave it so much more power.

 Also, there’s free food.


Weather: Sunny

The free breakfast at the hotel we are staying at was quite terrible, in my opinion.

We have just finished our first panel, Medusa, Yakshini, Banshee, Pontianak: The Deadly Seductress as a Symbol, and wow, it was so good. It was basically about how the archetype of the deadly seductress in mythology and literature all over the world and through the ages. It brought into account the fear society had of female sexuality- so much so that they had to slap the guise of monster over such women.

The speakers were extremely energetic and were very receptive to questions. I asked a question and I had barely finished when the mic was literally snatched out of my hands by this old man. Spoiler alert: He started complaining about the topic or dare I say it, mansplaining. I rolled my eyes. The guy next to me rolled his eyes. In fact there was a collective eye roll from everyone in the audience. Kudos to the speakers in the panel for handling everything so diplomatically.


We have finished attending three more panels and I’m pretty sure my brain is fried. But it was really cool to learn a lot of new things. The panel The Rise of the Right: The State of the World and the End of Democracy brought out an interesting point – that none of us are living with a truly democratic government- we are merely living with the illusion of democracy.

The next one we went to was the Poetry Marathon and it was amazing to see people from all over the world perform! No joke, there were people from Iceland, Germany, Scotland, etc. My favorite performance was by Kosal Khiev, a Cambodian poet. His performance was mind blowing and so raw with emotion. He dealt with themes of mental illness and I was *insert heart eyes emoji* *insert x eyes emoji*. 

The final panel we went to for the day was about writing for the dystopian/speculative genre, Braver Worlds: Visions of the Future/Past. One of our noteworthy panelists was Felicia Yap, author of Yesterday. There was obviously the general bits of advice about publishing. But the most interesting part was when Zen Cho, author of Spirits to the Crown and Felicia had a mini argument about publishing.

Zen said while publishing one had to be mindful of their audience. And that local Malaysian writers faced a bit of a challenge trying to get their work out in the international scene. Meanwhile, Felicia was strong on the point that if you write well enough you can get an international audience no matter where you’re from. I was pretty ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ the whole time because I agreed with some points from each side.


There was also a mini pop market at the venue for the festival. And the books of the respective authors were featured. The market had other interesting booths like a make your own assam laksa and drip coffee. Overall very much like a little hipster market.


Weather: Partially cloudy

Sunday was a bit crowded. It was like everyone who didn’t come for the first two days just hurriedly came over to the festival to ~breathe~ the literary air.

The first panel of the day Madmen and Madder Women: The Genius of Madness and the Madness of Genius was kind of like an expansion of the topic of the seductress yesterday. Except this topic was more about how society could not comprehend that women can be creative geniuses as well. And so they banished them as being “mad” or mentally ill. It brought into perspective of how now the notion of following the creative arts is already considered somewhat strange and risky. And also that one who doesn’t follow a “stable” career path probably isn’t “normal” anyway.


The second panel of the day, When Immortals Walked Among Us stuck with the overall theme of “Monsters and immortals”, it was a build up on the theme and talk presented in the opening ceremony, where existing power structures were likened to monsters. It also discussed the rather sensitive topic of God and how myths play a role in modern society despite being banished as “dated”.

The final event I went to was the reading by Nottingham students. In this event, our own third year Creative Writing students performed and read out a few selected pieces of theirs. Their work was quite emotional and powerful. It was also nice to hear the advice they had to offer, on how to take criticism but still maintain your own voice. It was also interesting to hear their take on what it means to be a university student studying Creative Writing. 


And with that the Georgetown Literary Festival was concluded for us. The Closing Ceremony was still remaining (which I heard was brilliant, featuring poetry and music performances, food and wine, etc). But alas, we had to head back to Nottingham, and had an entire 8 hour bus ride to look forward to. The whole thing was an amazing experience for a number of reasons. One, as an English with Creative Writing Major, I learnt a lot. It was great exposure. It was also illuminating and fun for even those who aren’t English majors but are simply interested in literature. Two, the location (Penang) was perfect. I had not really traveled much in Malaysia before and got to explore a beautiful new place. Three, it made me realize just how much I like my own bed. 


By Fathima Shamra Mohamed Rifai 

Image credits: @georgetownlitfest Instagram account