Commentary: Literature Confirms Central Place in Region’s Culture

By : Mary Farrow | on 6:05 PM April 01, 2015
Category : Opinion, Commentary

Still euphoric about the Association of Southeast Asian Nation Literary Festival, it’s been a week and I can still feel the impact of stepping through the looking glass and meeting some of the rich, authentic literary foundations and bright sparks of the Indonesian community and neighboring countries.

Being invited as a speaker at the festival that lasted from March 15 to 22 was surely an opportunity not to be missed.

While there were a few times when language was only a barrier for me, discovering the depth, diversity and sometimes agitating nature of Indonesian literary talent has made me hunger for more.

The abundance of youth who volunteered and attended workshops, readings and presentations left me feeling much hope for the future of the written word in our Asian neighborhood.

The final day of the Asean Literary Festival was certainly a cracker. One of Sunday mornings’ sessions played to a full house focused on the sometimes oxymoronic relationship between literary works and the government.

The consensus revealed the importance of financial underpinning for writers recognized as essential contributors to a confident, robust and mature democratic society while maintaining a strong commitment to independence of their literary works.

One comment from the audience was made about Indonesian arts practitioners being “drowned in foreign funding” that typically has strings attached as to content and perspective. The expectations of a funding body to control the output of a writer was categorically dismissed outright as unacceptable by the panel.

That expectation has caused many important literary talents to push away from the funding table, away from those attempted influence in the interest of keeping creative control of the writer’s own work and integrity.

New developing talents have experienced difficulty gaining a foothold anywhere if their content isn’t a fit for funding bodies’ fickle targets or if they challenge those in power or authority.

The expense of travel was also identified as a tyrannical barrier for writers to participate in regional or global literary events. The positive energy of the one-to-one exchange in this session between speakers and audience reinforced direct engagement as a key element to developing literary opportunities, the progression of ideas and the building of strong global community relationships with the arts as a powerful vehicle.

It was summed up that a health society should be awash with the arts and freedom of expression as a primary communication of its people, fostered by a confident government and any other resources that might be employed, with no strings attached.

This position recognizes that literary works are the cornerstone of history and human expression and that authentic writers should serve no master.

Then a session on literature and the fight for justice and equality was a thundering and powerful declaration by women speakers from Indonesia, Egypt, India and the United States, throwing down the gauntlet to the causes of inequality and injustice.

This collective sisterhood was “not taking any prisoners” when it comes to respect for human life, liberty and the wholesale rejection of sexual abuse as a political control tactic.

With the fiery enthusiasm of the speakers for their subject matter, it was hard not to feel that a human rights revolution, driven by women is summoning the whirlwind on behalf of all people and there is no turning back.

Sexual abuse, the rights to life, access to education and the arts, restorative justice and the control of women through violence puts all writers and literary activists on notice.

Writers have the moral obligation to speak up and write to expose injustice and inequality wherever it lurks and to provide a pathway forward to inspire leaders to take the high road, where no one gets left behind in a world in which we want to live.

This bodes well for this emerging literary powerhouse of a festival with all the influence of an Asean “renaissance of culture” that can’t be ignored in the global celebration of the arts as the voice of a healthy and free society.

Asean Literary Festival 2015 and its gem of an organizing committee are shaping the future of a free and expressive Southeast Asian neighborhood from the ground up. May we have more please?

Mary Farrow is American writer and human rights activist. She lives in Melbourne.

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