Are literary festivals still relevant?

To watch the show go on, despite all odds, makes one think that the power of literature and stories has not yet dismantled

By Saba Karim Khan

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Published: Thu 30 Mar 2023, 5:56 PM

For many storytellers and artists, February marked an immersion in the world of literary festivals, bouncing from the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature (ELF) in Dubai to the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) and finally ending up at the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF). The whirlwind leaves you exhausted, enthralled but most of all, inspired to write.

Let me start with the Emirates Literature Festival (ELF), held in the city next-door to where I live. Dubai, faulted regularly for erecting itself on glitz and glamour, for peddling posh consumerism and retail therapy and not doing enough to cater to like-minded literati, hosts ELF — one of the few festivals which continued in-person, even during Covid times. ELF is a regular feature in Dubai’s annual calendar. Now in its 15th year, what it offers — might appear to some — a surprising antidote to the cookie-cutter impressions that Dubai tackles. This year, ELF pulled in 270 authors, over 300 events, across three different venues, successfully turning on its head, the reductive connotations of the Gulf region as a placeholder for glib, synthetic small talk and transactional relationships.

But there was more to ELF than its statistical success; whilst Dubai is a mélange of different ethnic, racial, culinary and linguistic ingredients, this startling stew of influences took on new meaning at the festival. Each ELF venue, bustling with purposeful movement and exchange throughout the six days of events, hosted a staggering slate of opportunities: considered chats on religion and culture; unpacking the threatening lure of stardom; shared expressions of grief and tragic loss; cricket, humour, the planet and even sketching in real time with children.

In one of the sessions titled ‘Girl Bosses and Go-Getters’, which I was asked to moderate at a fairly late stage, I entered fearful of a lack of authenticity and connection that might overshadow the conversation, given how last-minute things had been. But the moment I met Ann Hiatt (author and Silicon Valley veteran who formerly worked with Jeff Bezos and Eric Schmidt at Amazon and Google), and Rissa Mananquil Trillo (author, Filipina entrepreneur, model, journalist, and beauty expert), in the Green Room, just an hour before the talk, the three of us seemed known to each other from a past life. By the time we were about to enter our actual session, there had been selfies, laughter and collective make-up fixtures and we kept saying to each other, I wish we’d recorded the behind-the-scenes version of our talk; it would make for far richer and real dialogue.

That is the precise thrill that ELF enables — chance encounters; the possibility to talk, joke and imbibe from strangers, both in front of and behind the camera. When that magic occurs, you feel snug enough to drop the mask and halt performance, even whilst on stage; to simply let interaction flow. One has then transcended the optics of the occasion and is reaching for something far more fruitious, an exchange likely to resonate with audiences, not least of all because it stems from sincerity and solidarity.

It would be unfair to celebrate ELF without recognising the most indispensable component that goes into its making—the team behind the affair. That a woman of colour, Tamreez Inam, is one of the members spearheading the curation of the festival, speaks to the far greater enrichment possible, when teams are genuinely diverse. It also signals something substantive about ELF’s own yearning to broaden representation — a move we cannot take for granted, simply because it doesn’t happen often.

Hopping from ELF to the Karachi and Lahore literary festivals is quite a leap, less so because of the content or organisation of each festival, and more because of what it symbolises to pull off a literary festival in Pakistan. Of course, we know Pakistan boasts a rich literary tapestry, a history of remarkable storytellers. Yet, it is difficult to deny the environmental hazards at play when hosting public events in this particular context.

As I caught up with an old friend at KLF’s opening dinner, I listened to him fielding phone calls about an unfolding terrorist attack at a police station in the heart of the city, leaving him to predict whether the festival would continue over the next two days or have to be forcibly abandoned. I left the dinner unsure of whether I would be returning for our session the next morning, or heading home. But this was Karachi — the events continued undiminished and what’s more, they took the city by storm.

My experience at KLF and LLF — the first time I was attending both in-person — made me realise that you have to immerse yourself in the chaos and buzz at the Beach Luxury Hotel and the Alhamra complex, to fully absorb the reach, recognition and excitement that these festivals produce in their — often thought of as “unlivable” —cities. The blend of international writers, local storytellers and performers at KLF and LLF, elevated the power of voices, more than any other markers of identity. In Lahore, garden hues of yellow, pink and white, melding with the beat of a distant drum or dhol, all whilst halls brimmed full, allowed you to imagine the treasure trove that the city always has been. In Karachi, matching the cosmopolitan sights of the city, the turnout of audiences was equally overwhelming. These were crowds that didn’t look, speak or perhaps even think identically to each other — indicating that the festival isn’t confined to elite intellectual capture. The showing up of such a diverse audience contributed significantly to deep listening and informed participation at the festival.

In ways distinct and similar, each of these festivals filled me with surprise, longing and hope. To rediscover the power of stories and conversations to forge human connection, not just with fellow speakers but often with listeners too; to find a crew willing to speak paperbacks and lettering with you, in a place regularly disparaged for frivolity and ostentation; to experience, in fact, that the show does go on, in the face of looming life threats, together make me think that the power of literature and stories is not yet dismantled. That the move of people and places — seeped in considerable darkness — to some light, may yet be possible. That a world where coexistence is the currency, and art transcends vitriol, might not be a pipe-dream after all.

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