Article: Literary town

By Kate Mayberry for the Mekong Review

Issue 12, August 2018

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On the eve of Malaysia’s May election, Bernice Chauly finally sat down to watch Mahathir Mohamad deliver a campaign speech.

Over the previous fortnight, the former strongman turned leader of the sometimes fractious opposition coalition had been criss-crossing the country — from the northern state of Kedah one moment, to Johor in the south the next — regaling enthusiastic crowds with tales of a ruling party so corrupted by power that it had brought the country to its knees.

Yet Mahathir was also the man many held responsible for Malaysia’s predicament, the man who as prime minister from 1981 to 2003 had brought rapid economic development, but also undermined the country’s democratic institutions and jailed opponents, most famously of all his former deputy and protégé, Anwar Ibrahim.

Anwar had apparently made peace with the man who twenty years earlier had sacked him, accused him of sodomy, and sent him to jail, but many of those who had rallied to the cause were struggling to understand it all.

Chauly dreamed of an opposition victory. But Mahathir? That was difficult to comprehend. “People suffered because of Mahathir,” she says, sipping coffee on an overcast Saturday at home in Kuala Lumpur, her dog, Lucca, named after her favourite city, snoozing at her feet. “I couldn’t believe that I would have to vote for this man.”

On the night before election day, as the ninety-two-year-old took to Facebook to deliver a last impassioned appeal to voters, Chauly forced herself to watch.

She settled down in her first-floor apartment, a bottle of wine to hand, watching her phone, with the television flickering and the radio on.

She focussed her attention on the old man’s face. She listened to the quiver in his voice, as he pleaded with voters to back the opposition coalition. “Saya merayu. Saya merayu. I beg you. I beg you.” Then, Chauly watched it again.

“I watched it three times,” she recalls. “That’s when I was convinced that this man was sorry for what he had done and that he had to save the country.”

Chauly’s mother was a human rights activist, and as a member of the editorial team at the influential Men’s Review magazine in the 1990s, she had a front-row seat to the political upheaval that convulsed the country when Anwar was sacked in the wake of the 1998 financial crisis.

She joined the thousands who took to the streets of Kuala Lumpur calling for political reform, or reformasi in Malay. Every evening she joined the crush of reporters at Anwar’s house in the well-to-do suburb of Damansara Heights, eager for comment, wondering how long it would be before the charismatic politician was arrested. Mahathir was the bogeyman, anathema to reform.

Those heady times are the setting for Chauly’s first novel, Once We Were There, a story about reformasi, but also Kuala Lumpur — the Malaysian capital’s dark underbelly, the marginalised, the drugs, parties and booze that made the city a never-ending party.

“Kuala Lumpur is a fascinating place,” the author explains her decision to write a novel inspired by the city. “There are so many layers to it. And I wanted to write about that time when KL was such a crazy place. People were stoned. Everyone was high. There were DJs flying in and out. All fuelled by this anger and this rage at the regime and this man called Mahathir Mohamad.”

The protagonist, the fantastically-named Delonix Regia, is a journalist who covers Anwar’s sacking, and reformasi. Like Chauly, she is tear-gassed, and marries a Muslim requiring her to convert. At one point, she rails against Mahathir. “I hate him. Hate him. Hate him!”

Sitting at her teak dining table Chauly ponders the unlikely return of a man who was at one time so utterly reviled: “It’s not a script that anyone in Hollywood or Nollywood or Bollywood would have thought of. It’s just a crazy scenario.”

Chauly was born in Penang to Chinese-Punjabi parents and first made a name for herself with poetry and photography. Some of her black-and-white prints now hang on the walls of her apartment, but she rarely picks up the camera these days. Family photos crowd the top of the piano.

A memoir, Growing up with Ghosts, brought critical acclaim, but it is as the director of the George Town Literary Festival that the forty-nine-year-old has become best known.

The GTLF is a celebration of world literature, rather than writing that’s only in English, and is rooted firmly in George Town: a UNESCO World Heritage listed site for the past decade.

“I wanted a festival that was international, but intimate and in George Town you can do that. It’s the space that you inhabit. You are walking along very old streets filled with history. You’re in buildings that house history and have stories themselves, It’s a great combination.”

It was also conceived as a space to champion freedom of speech, provoke debate and have what Chauly calls “prickly conversations”.

In a country where censorship is rife and free expression inhibited by a raft of legislation — from the colonial-era Sedition Act to the more recent Fake News Law, that hasn’t always been easy.

In 2016, the festival’s ideals and Malaysia’s culture of control clashed. As reports emerged that billions of dollars had disappeared from state investment fund 1MDB, then prime minister Najib Razak cracked down on his critics, blocked access to certain media, fired those he’d tasked to look into the case and closed down the investigation.

Zunar, a political cartoonist who’d courted controversy with his unflinching depictions of both Najib and his wife Rosmah Mansor, was supposed to launch a new collection of drawings at the festival. But then protesters attacked his exhibition, and Zunar himself was arrested.

Chauly admits she was terrified by the incident. Special Branch were waiting outside, and she had to decide whether to go ahead with the launch. “I was in tears.” Worried about what might happen if the event continued, she decided to call it off. Instead, Chauly read a statement condemning Zunar’s arrest, and everyone stood for a minute’s silence.

“The amazing thing was that we had all these writers and moderators who were there and who witnessed this,” she says. “And they were completely horrified. They went back home to wherever they’d come from and wrote about it. And it put the festival on the map.”

People outside the country began to ask what was going on and what the festival was all about.

The next year, the GTLF was shortlisted for the prestigious Literary Festival Award at the London Book Fair. This year it won. In the judges’ words, the festival “stands out as a vibrant, diverse and brave festival”.

This year’s theme is The State of Freedom, a description which could easily describe the mood in Malaysia since the May 9 election, but was actually chosen as a way to mark seventy years of the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

There will be a special focus on marginalised voices including queer writing, and the whole event will take place over four days, rather than the customary three, with fifty-five writers and a budget of RM250,000. When it started in 2011, there were just five writers, a single venue and a meagre budget of RM50,000.

Plans for the festival start months before. Chauly talks about a seed that begins to form in her head. She gets up from her chair. “I don’t work with Excel, I have to write it down,” she laughs as she pulls out an A5-sized piece of art paper from a pile on the piano stool. The days are marked out in columns with each writer’s name written in a flowing hand below. Some names are highlighted, others have been crossed out.

“I think about them. I dream about them. It’s the conversations, the things I want people to say, and the things I want the audience to hear.”

When she was first asked to be the festival director Chauly was reluctant — having already committed herself to another festival — but now says it’s become part of who she is. Since 2016, she has worked with a curatorial team, including academic, editor and owner of Penang’s Gerakbudaya Bookshop, Gareth Richards. Working with curators also ensures a smooth succession should Chauly, who has her next novel bubbling in her mind, leave.

The team has spirited discussions about the writers, the panels and the kind of debates they want to have in relation to the theme, which acts as the guiding light for the program.

“It’s an intellectual workout and it’s an emotional workout,” she says of what the team is trying to achieve with the audience, many of whom return every year. “You go to Penang. You go to George Town. You walk around and get hot and sweaty and then you go into the air-conditioning and listen to a bunch of people speaking and reading and engaging with each other and the audience. And when you leave you feel inspired. It’s really celebrating the fact that we are alive.”

Malaysia now feels very much alive, and both the recent elections and the country’s future direction are likely to be discussed at length come November.

Chauly has despatched an invitation to Anwar, the country’s prime minister in waiting, to join a one-to-one conversation.

She wants clarity on Anwar’s commitment to democracy, and his views on Islam. Reformasi hero or not, his political pedigree won’t afford him any favours.

“I’ve read the Bible, I’ve read the Qur’an, but I am not the kind of Muslim you think I should be. ‘Will there be a place in the new Malaysia for someone like me?’ I’m going to ask him that question and we will see what he says.”

Malaysia may finally have a new government, but with Chauly at the helm, the George Town Literary Festival will not shirk from asking the difficult questions.