DISPATCH: NCell Nepal Literature Festival 2013, Part 2

Asymptote reports on the English sessions at the festival

Though there were more sessions in Nepali than English ones, internationally known writers still made the trip from India (Shobhaa De, Ravinder Singh, Prajwal Parajuly, Prakash Iyer, Abhay K, and Annie Zaidi), Bangladesh (Farah Ghuznavi), and the UK (Ned Beauman) to discuss their work and the work of their peers.

The first English-language session was the launch of the second volume of La.lit, a Kathmandu-based literary journal, begun in 2012. While the first volume included English and Nepali-language fiction, essays, reviews, poetry, interviews and graphic features from Nepal and around the world, the current issue focuses exclusively on writing in English from Nepal. Editor Rabi Thapa (author of the short story collection Nothing to Declare, 2011) stated that when establishing La.lit, one of the rationales for including both English-language and international writing was that he was uncertain that they could gather enough quality Nepali writing. This new volume demonstrates that a platform such as La.lit is necessary for the promotion of a growing body of fiction from Nepal, and fills a niche for local and international readers. Acknowledging Thapa’s efforts as well as the energy of the conference, Prajwal Parajuly said, “This is a very, very exciting time for literature in Nepal.”

Parajuly, author of the collection of short stories The Gurkha’s Daughter, and of a forthcoming novel, Land Where I Flee, was the darling of this festival. Prajwal is half Nepali, half Indian. He grew up in Sikkim, in India, and received his education in the US and UK. The Gurkha’s Daughter was released to critical acclaim in the UK and South Asia in 2012. Its stories focus on Nepali-speaking communities both in Nepal and abroad. In all of Prajwal’s main appearances at the festival, the conversation turned to the form and the marketing of his work. The Gurkha’s Daughter is a collection of stories, but both its UK and Indian versions are notable for omitting this fact, as the publishers felt that readers would be less likely to buy the book if they knew initially that it wasn’t a novel. In a session at the end of the first day, featuring Prajwal and Bangladeshi writer Farah Ghuznavi on “The Art of the Short Story”, Farah said that she felt that publishers’ assumption that readers are only interested in novels is misguided, and that there is an untapped market in the West for short stories.

Conversation turned to the role of the literary editor, and both Farah and Prajwal’s experiences demonstrate what can go wrong when Western-based editors are ignorant of the wider world. Farah recounted how she recently had to pull a story from a US publication because an editor had wanted her to write a “government social worker” character into a story set in rural Bangladesh, to make the story accessible to a US audience. One does not need to be an expert on Bangladesh to understand that government social workers simply do not exist there. Prajwal said that an editor of his had questioned his use of a word universally understood in this part of the world and beyond, namaaz—the Muslim prayer. The editor in question had asked whether he had meant namaste.

Day two opened with the international “drawcard”, Shobhaa De, in conversation with Nepali journalist and editor Kunda Dixit. De has been a columnist for forty years, written eighteen books, and worked as a journalist, editor, screenwriter, and model. A native Mumbaikar, her work generally revolves around the glitz and glamour of Bombay’s film industry, and she is known for her focus on the rampant corruption of Indian politicians. Shobhaa De is a well-packaged brand, and everything she said was geared toward impressing the Nepali audience and boosting her sales and popularity here. Her conversation with Kunda Dixit was witty and full of banter, and was much less painful to listen to than her later conversation with Sophia Tamot, largely thanks to Kunda’s ability to balance courtesy towards De with a refusal to fawn over her celebrity status.

Romance-novelist Ravinder Singh appeared on days two and three. Like De, Singh approaches his literary career as an exercise in marketing, and was unafraid to admit it. Responding to a question from an audience member, Singh asked, “What is wrong with commercial literature? There are many streams that form the river called literature.” Though this is certainly true, Singh’s defence weakened when he admitted that prior to writing his first novel, he had never read a book. Surely if one is to become a writer of any genre one must be familiar with what else is being done in that field? It could be argued that Singh’s lack of literary knowledge makes his success all the more remarkable, but I think it is disrespectful to ask readers to spend time and money on your book when you have not bothered to research your own industry properly.

Singh was not alone at this festival in divulging details that diminished his credibility as an author. Prajwal Parajuly admitted that he hadn’t always wanted to be a writer, but had come to the profession by chance, and simply likes the money and acclaim. Ned Beauman – whose trip to Kathmandu was supported by the British Council on the back of his nomination as one of Granta’s 2013 ‘20 under 40’ – admitted to never having picked up a copy of Granta before making the list. He went on to say that the Internet is a wonderful research tool for an author, because even though one of his novels was set on the Thai-Burma border, he was too lazy to go there himself to do any research. One could commend these authors’ honesty, or else recommend they take PR lessons.

One of the most interesting, but also disappointing, sessions happened on day three, titled “The Empire Writes Back”. Farah Ghuznavi, Ned Beauman and Prajwal Parajuly were all engaging speakers, but the theme was not addressed at all, except that Ned, as an Englishman, was alluded to as a representative of the old imperial power (a rather unfair imposition on a writer of 28). The closest the topic came to being addressed was when Farah and Prajwal were asked about their positions as English-language writers, even though English is their second language. Farah commented that she believes a generation of Bangladeshi authors in English were lost because after the 1971 war, Bangla in education and literature was promoted as a nationalist act, and only now are young Bangladeshi writers gaining more confidence in English. Ned, when asked to comment on the status of translated literature in the UK, said that he felt there was an “eat your vegetables” attitude towards reading translated literature, and that while it was lamentable that only around 3% of books sold in the UK are translated titles, he doesn’t think a moralistic approach to promoting it is productive. Bucking what seemed to be a trend at this festival, Ned admitted to being a voracious reader.

My first impressions that the festival line-up was disappointingly thin on English-language writers of literary fiction persisted at the event’s conclusion. It is understandable that, aside from telecommunications company NCell’s support, the organisers may have struggled to find the financial backing necessary to bring more international authors of repute to the festival, but there are a host of Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi authors who wouldn’t have had to travel far, and who both Nepali and ex-pat/foreign audience members could have enjoyed. Foreigner attendance to the festival was low, despite large numbers of foreigners living in Kathmandu. And this time of year is peak tourist season. One can only assume that, aside from the inadequate advertising, foreigners stayed away because there was little that appealed to them. While the apparent decision to focus on Nepali authors and Nepali sessions is entirely understandable, the organisers missed an opportunity to turn this event into something that could have drawn international notice. The annual Jaipur Literature Festival in India, for instance, is now a major reason for tourists to travel to Jaipur. While Kathmandu should not necessarily aspire to be Jaipur, the organisers could have thought further ahead and utilised more English-language authors of high-quality literature from the neighbourhood.

The festival closed to generally positive reviews in the English- and Nepali-language press in Nepal. It was well attended — close to 22,000 people came over the four days, according to festival director Niraj Bhari, an encouraging figure for the festival organisers, who had expected only 10,000. If the English-language side brought the glamour, the Nepali sections were generally better attended and stacked one and-a-half to a chair in places, in typical South Asian fashion.

(Top: Kunda Dixit in conversation with Shobhaa De)