12.02.13 | Marysia Juszczakiewicz
The first-ever literary festival in Burma took place last weekend, with Aung San Suu Kyi, the current opposition leader and Nobel laureate, acting as patron.
For three days at a lakeside hotel in Yangon, poets and former political prisoners collected at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival, named after the largest river in Burma. Feargal Keane, the award-winning journalist, commented that the last time he was at the hotel was in 2007, when Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest, and he posed as a water-filter salesman.
Among those speaking were Jung Chang, William Dalrymple and Vikram Seth, who sat on a panel with Aung San Suu Kyi to discuss Desert Island Literature. Aung San Suu Kyi commented that one of her favourite books while under house arrest was Seth's A Suitable Boy,as it gave her "endless light entertainment". She also quoted George Eliot and Victor Hugo as her favourite writers for their ability to explore "the social and political mind".
The selection of panel discussions were eclectic, ranging from talks on Writing Under Censorship and Future of Free Speech, to Photo Journalism to A Story of Publishing, with Tom Maschler, icon of British publishing. Maschler found the atmosphere of the festival "very gentle, like the Burmese people". He also had a one-to-one meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi to discuss initiating his idea of a mobile library, like the Book Bus currently touring Africa.
David Parrish, Random House UK sales and marketing director, said: "The festival has been a joy, to see Burmese authors sitting alongside some of the best names in international publishing, all in the presence of mixed, international and Burmese audiences has been a pleasure and a privilege to witness. Truly history in the making and only a matter of months after censorship was lifted."
Others attending included Jane Seaton, director of the Orwell Prize who hosted a brilliant lecture with Timothy Garton Ash and commented: "The festival was extraordinary; handmade for Yangon.
"It was also a precious moment: censorship is slipping away, poets, novelists and journalists can start to breathe and speak more freely; the great adventure of mobilising a country to read and imagine again is on its way, but soon commerce and money will bring new problems."
It was a unique event to attend, and hopefully the first of many.
Marysia Juszczakiewicz is the founder of Peony Literary Agency www.peonyliteraryagency.com