Why I Boycotted the Galle Literary Festival
Two weeks ago, Reporters sans frontières (RSF), on the instigation of Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS), called for a boycott of the fifth Galle Literary Festival. They sent a petition around, and Noam Chomsky and Arundhati Roy signed up. So did a bunch of other idiots. In it, they called on international authors who had agreed to travel to Sri Lanka to abort their journeys, claiming that it was wrong for literature to be celebrated in a country that killed its journalists. Three authors did; South African Commonwealth Writers Prize winner Damon Galgut, Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, and Indian Man Booker winner Kiran Desai. The rest came.
It’s wrong to do many things in a country that kills its journalists. It’s wrong to laugh, it’s wrong to be happy, it’s wrong to have celebrations of any sort. Christmas, Avurudhu, and Valentine’s should be boycotted. But what is right is to celebrate literature. How could the RSF and JDS get this so wrong?
Supporters of the boycott variously claim that the Galle Literary Festival has failed to speak out against the Big Bad Wolf from Madamulana who likes to eat journalists for lunch. Him and his wolfpack of brothers. They say that participants at the festival haven’t done their bit to call attention to the disappearance of cartoonist and columnist Pradeep Eknaligoda, or the murder of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickramatunge, or even the killing of that Tiger, Dharmaratnam Sivaram. Last June, Sri Lanka hosted the International Surfing Association’s Pro 2010 event at Arugam Bay on the island’s east coast, in an area once dominated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Well, to paraphrase Colonel Kilgore, Tiger don’t surf, and he’s history now. Over a hundred and twenty international competitors from New Zealand to Germany and from the USA to South Africa participated. No one boycotted that. Next month sees the start of the Cricket World Cup, with Sri Lanka hosting several matches which will be watched by at least a billion fans worldwide. No one has boycotted that either. Perhaps the RSF and JDS think that surfers and cricket fans are too dumb to care about media rights.
But they think book worms are fair game. They think we’re thoughtful, sensitive, bleeding hearted motherfuckers. They think that we live and breathe media rights. That we go to Galle to have a little cry about the poor journos; to sit in little focus groups and figure out how to topple the Bastard at the Trees. Just not enough to suit the JDS and its RSF backers though. So they thought they’d force us; they’d piss in our pool, rain on our parade, crap on our moonstone. Little did they know that just like surfers and cricket fans, most of us are going Down South to meet our idols, drink ourselves silly, and get laid on the beach. Boycott? Fuck that.
JDS and the RSF claim that having an international literature festival would give people the idea that things are all OK in SL now, and we can’t have that can we? Except that this is the fifth year of the Galle Lit, and international authors and their fans have been coming over since 2007 when things were a lot worse than it is now. How does boycotting the festival now say anything? In response, defenders of the Galle Lit claim that the festival was indeed doing its bit to highlight the lack of press freedoms and overall dangers of journalism in Sri Lanka. Er… what? Books, booze, and beaches, machang — the Three B’s — that’s what the GLF is about. No need to apologise for that.
The irony of it all is that many of the people who attend the Galle Literary Festival — both authors and readers — are in fact liberal bleeding hearts who don’t really like the UPFA or the Rajapakse bros. People who have such radical ideas as a secular government, freedom of the press, and — whisper it — D-E-M-O-C-R-A-C-Y. Crazy, westernised, capitalistic, bourgeois running dogs! The JDS sure showed them, eh? You’ll be laughing on the other side of your Galle Fort now.
Well, anyway. As I said at the beginning, three authors bailed. Dalmon Galgut even got to Colombo before doing a U-turn. Orhan Pamuk made excuses about a visa, transparent excuses that are pretty clear if you read the Shyam Selvadurai interview in last Sunday’s papers. Pamuk’s girlfriend, Kiran Desai, didn’t even have an excuse at all other than, I guess, being the girlfriend, and stood by her man. Everyone else showed up and the festival took off like a Jaffna library on fire. Or so I’m told. Because, you see, I wasn’t there. Not because I wanted to boycott the Galle Lit, but because there were so many bookworms, boozers and er… party-goers down in Galle that I couldn’t get a bloody room anywhere between Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna. Apparently more tickets were sold than ever before. Maybe they can organise a boycott every year. Just tell me ahead so that I can book a room and not be
fucked I mean boycotted like this time.
For the record, I have participated several times in the Galle Literature Festival as a panelist, and also as a keen fan. I have also been a member of the team that created the festival’s advertising campaign two years running.