Tag Archives: festival

Poetry Parnassus at Southbank Centre, London

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Because artists live outside and among blurred borders, because artists make the world smaller, because artists are cultural cross-pollinators, I am delighted and honoured (first I was baffled, then I was honoured, and now I am delighted) to represent Malaysia, where I mostly grew up, at Southbank Centre’s Poetry Parnassus Festival, which is bringing together poets from all over the world.

Here is more about the festival. And here is an interview with me on my participation in the festival.

I am currently scheduled to read on June 29th between 4pm and 6.45pm at a free event called “This Is What The World Sounds Like” at Southbank Centre’s Clore Ballroom. The festival schedule is subject to change, but you can see what else is taking place here. If you’re able to catch it (maybe literally!), the Rain of Poems should be very cool to watch.

My book of poems, Witchcraft, is not available at the festival bookstore, so you can only purchase it from me directly. If you’re in London, I would love to see you at Poetry Parnassus. Please come, and tell your friends.

The Venus Flytrap: Earthbound

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This is how it happens. I’m on transit in Singapore for a day. It’s too early in the morning for the part of Chinatown I’m in, but by luck, Kenny Leck appears just as I arrive at his bookshop, which supports my work. We talk business while the resident kitten pounces on me and gnaws at my handbag, and then I ask Kenny what I can do in the area. I have two hours to spare. That’s when he tells me about the firewalking.

The Ubud Writers’ Festival 2008 is over, and I am returning from a blissful week in Bali. Still, it hadn’t happened yet. I had sat beside a delightful and drunk Vikram Seth at dinner, made friends with the charmingly debonair Alberto Ruy Sánchez (who never failed to greet me with two firm kisses at every opportunity), and traded glamorous gossip with one of Asia’s foremost arts journalists in an airport lounge. I had left my lipstick prints and autographs on dozens of books and brochures, was confronted by the happy emergency of the festival’s bookshop selling out my book even before my first panel appearance, and had a session discussing sexuality in India land me an improbable but sincere invitation to perform at a Tam-brahm wedding. Readings, panels, a shoot for a documentary, a handful of print and radio interviews, and the more fulfilling private conversations with individual fans. All that. But not that.

It just hadn’t happened. I hadn’t been stopped in my tracks by the egomaniacal euphoria that is supposed to overcome an author upon the publication of her first book. My ambivalence was disappointing.

I seek out the temple Kenny has pointed me toward. It’s unabashedly touristy, with a mini-arena set up around the pit and coupons on sale for photographers. I am waved through in spite of my conspicuous DSLR. The actual firewalking has just ended, and a priest turns a hose on full force across the coals, rousing billows of steam.

Sometime during the processions – figures of Draupadi, Arjuna and Aravan’s head among them – it starts to rain, and I discover that I am tearing up. Something I have been holding within me for weeks is coming loose. I’m sure nobody cares – in a corner, four people try to hold down the wild, vibrating body of a woman in possession. There are chants and drumming. What happens in this temple, commercial as it is, is electrifying.

When I have had enough, I will lay my head on the ground outside the pit and weep into the earth. I have spent my week in paradise in muted fear: someone I love is seriously ill. Somewhere in the genes we share are the traditions of firewalking and Draupadi worship, traditions I have never witnessed till now. My book is beside me, and I know now it is mine. This is what I have been waiting for: a moment when there is no disconnect between the life I have known and the one I am consolidating. Affirmation that no matter how far I dare to test the tethers to my roots, all things move in circles.

Accomplishment doesn’t taste like the otherworldly thing I expected. Perhaps the most enduring success is not that which catapults a person into an unfamiliar stratosphere, but one that brings her back to herself, that gathers up all the rudiments of her life and binds them to her like a talisman for the length of the journey that is yet to come. I understand why I cried into the hot ground beside the coal pit: what was meant for me was not elevation, but that which, necessarily, must keep me earthbound.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

The Venus Flytrap: Ways of Worship

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It’s 8pm on a full moon night in October and the spray of the huge waves shoots above the barricades and drizzles us from time to time. This is a village on the Balinese coast, a day before the writers’ festival begins. When the sun is out, the sea is postcard-stunning. It looks just like what someone who has never seen the sea might imagine it to be like. At night, it is this: vivid, histrionic.

We’re a table of a dozen, half of whom are too far away to politely shout at over the sound of the waves. We have come from all over the world – one of the coordinators mentions that a writer called in tears from an airport somewhere between here and Mozambique. This is the calm before the storm: by the time the festival starts, 110 writers would have arrived here.

I’m fascinated by the kind-faced educator from New Zealand and the playwright who lived with AIDS orphans in Burundi for a year during the early 90’s. The American who sits down across from me turns out to be John Berendt, the author of the acclaimed Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I give him my book. To my surprise, he asks me to sign it for him.

It is the day after the anniversary of the 2002 terrorist attacks on this island, the ones that confounded the world, because who in their right mind would bomb paradise?

We talk about temples. Bali is over 90% Hindu, practicing a highly ritualistic and animistic variant of the religion with a profoundly philosophical bent. The agricultural system, for instance, is based on the notion of “Tri Hita Karana”: the three causes of happiness are good relations with God, other people and the environment. Incidentally, “Tri Hita Karana” is the theme of this year’s festival.

I am menstruating and will not visit the temples: there is nothing taboo about doing so based on what I believe, but I will not violate those of a place I visit. Besides, I know from experience that even the ruins – no, especially the ruins – possess immense power. Last year, at another festival elsewhere in Indonesia, we were reading at the 11th century Borobudur stupa. The vibrant local dance closing the evening came to an abrupt halt – one of the dancers was possessed. She could be heard screaming and crying as she came out of her trance.

Jean Bennett, the educator, speaks of the psychogeography of elevation: you can read the spirituality of any place based on what stands at its highest point. Around the world, there are the pilgrimage points of cathedrals, and then there are those of capitalist gods. We manifest what we worship upon our landscapes.

Driving into Ubud town the next day, where the festival will be, we pass two striking statues. One is of a Durga unlike any I have seen. She looks like a Kwan Yin riding snakes. The other is a dramatic Arjuna standing atop an elephant’s back. Bali is unapologetic about its spirituality. It’s neither a place that trumpets its ways of life militantly, nor does it suppress it under the guise of progress. This is not a place that ever deserved a terrorist attack, let alone two.

The festival is about to start. The literati will descend on Ubud and turn it, for a few days, into an artistic nucleus. I have a new book, a brand new batch of business cards, the validation of being a guest of this prestigious event. I’m a poet in paradise. I cannot wait to see what I will come bearing back to the world.

An edited version appeared on Saturday in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.

Why I Dropped Out of Kitab 2008

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When I was 17, I was a much more ambitious person than I am now. I wanted not just to write and create, to love and to live, as I do now – I was firmly committed to being the change I wanted to see in the world. It was, perhaps oxymoronically, altruistic ambition that drove me. I wanted to save people. Women, to be exact. I categorically read nothing but feminist literature. I wore sloganned T-shirts. I volunteered. I picked fights with people at every single sniff of sexism.

I was serious. And one of the things I did at this time was to start producing alone what I envisioned to be a series of events that would combine my two passions: live performance and activism.

This series was called “CRESCENDO: Raise Your Voice”, and its first installment was in aid of a Petaling Jaya-based women’s rights organization. It grew out, in part, of the opposition I encountered trying to produce and perform The Vagina Monologues at my college at the time (a compromise was reached: I could do one monologue and one piece with another actor, under the title The Valenki Monologues. Valenki is Russian for felt boots. Right up to when I left KL, I continued to be surprised by someone or the other who remembered me from the performance, years later — the little lace and leather skirt really must have been something, but I’m digressing). CRESCENDO was zero-budget and featured poetry and music by artists performing pro bono, with all funds raised going toward the charity.

A few days prior to the event, a mass email by someone who had directed, by coincidence, a production of TVM for said organization and who had had a massive falling out with them sent out a mass email calling for the boycott of the event I was organizing. To cut this long story short (and there is also much I could say about the similar propaganda-type hostility I encountered a year or two later trying to organize a CRESCENDO event in Chennai, but I won’t), the mass mail was timed so as to have a direct impact on the scheduled event. Interestingly, the fallout gained me a certain notoriety that dogs me to this day – and roped in even more performers who had heard about it only because of the controversy. But here’s the thing — whether the organization had been at fault in their dealing with the director was not, to me, the issue by this point. That a long delay in addressing the issue was made, and somebody else’s hard work was capitalized upon in order to finally do so, rendered things unethical.

Something similar happened to this year’s Kitab festival. While I won’t go into details, allegations were thrown. Allegations timed to coincide with the few days before this festival, professional and personal battles that really should have been handled months ago. The timing reeked of deliberate sabotage. Because of my prior experience, I could not empathise with those who chose to bring up their allegations now. They may be right. But their methods leave me out in the cold.

Counter-allegations came. By this point, the damage was done. Sponsors fled. Bad press (and this is why I can blog about the matter: it’s already out there). The whole picture is still emerging, and there may be more than just two sides to this coin. Having been responsible for my own flights and accommodation, the difficult decision of whether to take a risk on what had suddenly become a very unsolid investment had to be made.

I chose not to go. I can reroute my tickets. But I won’t be able to recoup the losses of paying to be at an event with bad turnout or bad publicity (and please — if you’re thinking about giving me the line about no publicity being bad publicity, hold it — I would know. As Jeet said, controversy is my poodle: she follows me everywhere).

I am deeply disappointed – I was looking forward to Kitab since the middle of last year. But logic prevails. Being self-sponsored, in simple terms, means that if an investment will likely not produce returns, one doesn’t make it. The terms of my invitation – zilch sponsorship and no honorarium – were accepted in the interest of what seemed to be a good, strategic investment. But they no longer make sense.

I wish Pablo Ganguli and Kitab 2008 the very best. I regret not being able to be involved, but due to the current circumstances, my participation does not seem viable. While I do not wish to take sides in the current situation, and can clearly see that neither party is guilt-free in the matter, I certainly do resent the fact that the commitments, time and even expenses of participants like myself who only have to lose should the festival fall through were not taken into account by those who waited a year to publicly make their complaints.

Also see: Peter Griffin’s all-sides round-up.

Kitab 2008 in Mumbai This Weekend

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I have been wanting desperately to announce that I will be doing the opening event of this year’s Kitab Festival ever since I was asked to!

The schedule on the website is subject to update. All events are free and open to the public except for the nightly parties.

Me, me, me time: I am on at 11am, Friday February 22nd, at the Asiatic Library. Will be reading poems and fielding questions from the audience.

Ugo Untoro + How To Eat A Wolf

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I never did blog about the Utan Kayu International Literary Biennale 2007, and neither did I blog about the Singapore Writers’ Festival 2007 — both festivals which invited me and took care of me and fed my stomach, literary appetite and ego very well in all. Blogging about the first was sidetracked by preparing to move back to India, and as for the second, well — if you don’t know what kept me distracted at the same time, leave be! Am just thinking about this now as I’m heading off to Mumbai this week for another major festival, Kitab, for which I have the privilege of doing the first event open to the public this year.

The Biennale, I think, will remain in my memory as a pivotal career and life experience. It was my first real festival, my first taste of the literary high life (as opposed to the boho cult stuff, and utter mediocrity). It brought me closer to three friends, one of whom I in fact feel like I owe a great professional and personal amount to, and made me several more. It was a spiritual, thrilling, insightful ten days. I really must blog about the whole experience.

Reading at Borobudur was one thing, visiting Candi Prambanan was another, but this — this was the moment when I realised that I really and truly was what I always wanted to be. A writer.

Ugo Untoro's painting inspired by my poem

This was a very, very special moment. I am in front of the painting “Selamat Datang” by the Indonesian painter Ugo Untoro, which was inspired by my poem “How To Eat A Wolf”. Selamat Datang means Welcome in Bahasa, and this artwork was at the entrance of the exhibit, which featured various Indonesian artists’ interpretations of the prose and poetry of the writers participating in the Biennale. This was easily one of the proudest moments in my life, and completely unexpected — it had never crossed my mind until then that so large and beautiful a painting by a famous painter could somehow be attached to any poem of mine.