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Dhaka LitFest: A Light in Dark Times

Marcia Lynx Qualey By Marcia Lynx Qualey Published on November 21, 2016
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The darkest form of censorship is the shadowy, systematic murder of writers. Forty-six Bangladeshi writers have been targeted and killed since 2013, a frightening wave that has particularly targeted outspoken secular and political bloggers, in a wave of violence that many tie to after-echoes of Bangladesh’s 1971 liberation war, in which they sought independence from Pakistan.

“The problem is there is violence [against writers], and the violence is anonymous,” Bangladeshi academic Shapan Adnan said at a panel called “Words Under Siege.”

from the soil of this dangerous climate, one of the brightest and most vibrant young literary festivals bloomed this month. 

And yet, from the soil of this dangerous climate, one of the brightest and most vibrant young literary festivals bloomed this month. The three-day Dhaka LitFest closed on November 19. 

Last year’s festival was somewhat subdued, according to fair volunteer Nikita Rubaiyat, as it was held in the shadow of violence. The LitFest itself has not been attacked. But in 2014, at Bangladesh’s Ekushey Book Fair, a writer was killed just outside the fairgrounds. On Oct. 31, 2015, not long before that year’s Dhaka LitFest, one writer was killed and three others were wounded in attacks on publishing houses.

This year, there was tight security surrounding the Bangla Academy, where the festival was held. Yet despite obvious concerns, tens of thousands thronged in to attend events, meet authors, and buy books. This year’s festival was headlined by Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul. Some 60 other visiting writers and translators flew in from India, Nepal, Hong Kong, Egypt, South Africa, the UK, and the US. There were around a hundred more Bangladeshi writers and academics who spoke at events, as well as Bangladeshi musicians, theatre artists, and other performers. 

Several hundred festival-goers crammed into the main stage for the opening session, and most other sessions were packed with attentive readers. Evening events often had standing room only, not just for Naipaul, but for visiting and Bangladeshi poets, sociopolitical discussions,  and for Richard Beard’s live editing session, for which local writers submitted texts to be edited before an audience. 

Dhaka LitFest founder and director Sadaf Saaz estimated that 10,000 had come to the opening day Thursday, and crowds on the two weekend days grew larger.

Money wasn’t a barrier to entry, as all events at Dhaka LitFest were free, with expenses covered by sponsors. Language choice can be exclusionary, and indeed many events were held in English, in which transnational elites tend to be more fluent. Yet several key events were held in Bangla, with additional Bangla music and theatre. For the first time this year, the fair offered simultaneous translation on select events. 

In her opening remarks, LitFest director Sadaf Saaz talked about the bravery of certain writers attending the festival, especially those who were under specific threat. Police presence was strong, but peripheral. Concern over visiting writers’ safety ran high: Each foreign writer had a dedicated volunteer.

Because this was a global forum, there were perhaps inevitable discussions of Trump, Brexit, and “nasty woman.” These happened not only at the English panels; Trump’s policy proposals were also addressed  during the Bangla-language discussion called “War After War.” 

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Ahmed Naji's Using Life

Books launched at the fest were mostly English translations of Bangla literature, including the Bangladeshi edition of the short-story collection Book of Dhaka. The festival also hosted the Bangladeshi launch of Hilary Standing’s The Inheritance Powder, a look at the aid industry that’s set around the accidental mass arsenic poisoning of tens of millions of Bangladeshis, following the digging of deep tube wells by aid agencies. This still stands as the largest mass poisoning in recorded history.

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The "Words Under Siege" panel with an empty chair for Ahmed Naji

But how afraid were writers to speak out? Writing before the fest got under way, journalist David Bergman suggested that there could be no discussion of free speech at this year’s fest, as the festival was working with government officials, and ministers spoke at the opening ceremony. Yet there was anything but a tight-lipped or careful atmosphere. One panel, “Words Under Siege,” addressed censorships across Asia, with writers from Uzbekistan, Hong Kong, Nepal, and Bangladesh. There was also a chair left open at the event for Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji, serving two years in prison for his novel Using Life

Many different sorts of censorship were discussed at various panels:  government censorship, commercial censorship, class-based censorship, self-censorship, and threats of violence. A panel on theatre called “When the Stage is Mine,” Samina Luthfa Nitra talked about the problems faced by troupes trying to stage works at state-owned venues.

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Sadaf Saaz

LitFest Director Saaz said the government wasn’t involved in the guest list or panel creation, and there was no evidence of suppression during discussions that were often contentious. There was a strong argument at the “Nasty Women” panel after Lady Naipaul suggested that burkas should be banned. Discussions also sometimes upended the panel-creators’ intentions, as when a panel titled “Hegemony of Hindi” shifted to a discussion of the hegemony of English. 

There was also folk theatre, music, food stalls, and book sales. Several authors said, with surprise, that their books had sold out entirely. 

The festival is quite young: The idea came after the city’s first world music festival in 2011, attended by Caribbean groups, Afro-fusion bands, as well as top Bangladeshi groups. Fair founder Sadaf Saaz was, at the same time, in a writers group and helped welcome visiting novelists. When the chance came to host a Hay-on-Wye pilot, Sadaf was eager to make it happen.

“We were so cut off,” Saaz said. “We need to engage with the things that are going on in the rest of the world.”

Saaz said she doesn’t expect to see the festival growing much bigger than it is now, but she would like to have it be “as international as possible” and “to have the most diverse perspectives,” noting that she’d like, in the coming years, to bring in writers from Latin America. 

Bangla literature has many strong practitioners, but Saaz felt that it was important to learn from everything else going on with the art and craft of literature. Also, she said, “It’s this idea of not settling for less, not settling for being a big fish in a small pond.”

Although the fest ended without incident, threats against writers continue, and Saaz said she couldn’t feel entirely certain about her own safety. Yet she remains committed to the festival, as do thousands of other Bangladeshis.

“Maybe we’re very resilient,” Saaz said.

    Marcia Lynx Qualey is a court poet, ghost writer, and itinerant scribe with a focus on Arab and Arabic literatures. Writes for The Guardian, The Chicago Tribune, Deutchse Welle, The National, and ... Show More


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