Fairway Galle Literarily Festival Needs A Reboot

This article was last updated on May 28, 2022

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Last week’s feeble attempt to revive the Galle Literary Festival was a disappointing failure.   Notwithstanding the efforts of billionaire businessman Hemaka de Alwis to take the festival to new heights by making Fairway Holdings the title sponsor, the renamed Fairway Galle Literarily Festival was extremely disappointing both from an organizational as well as a cultural and literature point of view.

Celebrity international authors who used to eagerly attend the former Galle Literary Festival have clearly chosen to spend the limited time they have to engage with readers at the better financed, better organized and much larger Jaipur Literature Festival which runs from January 21 to 26, 2016.

The failure to have Sri Lankan-American author whose book Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist which has received critical acclaim alone underscores the depth to which the Fairway Galle Literary festival has snuck

Therefore, very unfortunately, few Sri Lankans will not have the opportunity to interact with world renowned writers and essayists such as Margaret Attwood, Margret MacMillan, Alasdair McCall-Smith and 2015 Man Booker winner Marlon James.

Since 2010 the fifty thousand dollar DSC prize for best South Asian Fiction had been awarded at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Therefore, the decision of the Narula family of New Delhi and London to award the prize at the Galle Festival cold have given the Galle Festival a much needed fillip.  That, unfortunately was not to be. 

Just three of the six authors short-listed for the DSC price actually came to the Galle Festival though they will all be attending the Jaipur Festival. 

The DSC prize handed out on the penultimate day of the festival in the cavernous Hall de Galle just outside the old entrance to the Dutch Fort.  The venue was less than half full and it took the Galle Festival organizers three long and embarrassing efforts to screen a video on the history of the DSC prize. 

No doubt it was quite unintentional, but it was Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe the chief guest at the DSC Prize award ceremony who in his long and rambling speech underscored the depths to which the Galle festival had sunk by revealing his own colonial mindset about the superiority of the white man and by taking pot-shots at the prime minister’s former political opponents. 

When pressed, some Galle Festival attendees who had paid between US$10 and $40 for various events said they felt duped and disappointed. 

Business owners in Galle Fort insisted that the festival did not generate additional revenue as the festival is held during the peak of the tourist season and occupancy in any event, is virtually one hundred percent.   In fact owners of some small hotels and guest houses claimed that Galle Festival was a hindrance to their business as organizers had demanded a fifty percent reduction in the rate for rooms to house festival volunteers. 

Some of the volunteers complained of sixteen hour work days. 

Catering for several of the prestigious events was not by companies in Galle and its environs but rather by Colombo based companies who of course brought their Colombo based staff thereby once again depriving Galle residents of business and employment opportunities.

In all fairness, festival attendees did have an opportunity to interact with a few gifted authors.  Making a rare appearance on the book festival circuit, Sonali Deraniyagala, author of the book “Wave” in which she writes candidly about losing her two young children, husband, parents and several friends in the 2004 Tsunami, spoke about autobiographical fiction without a trace of self pity.

The best book of fiction about Cricket is undoubtedly “Chinaman” which in 2013 was awarded the $50,000 DSC prize for best South Asian writing at the Jaipur Literature Festival. The always smiling Shehan Karunathilka who is working on a sequel to Chinaman, was much in demand at the Fairway Galle festival both as a speaker and as a workshop leader in creating writing. 

Anuradha Roy who was one of three of the six nominees for the DSC prize who did actually attend the Fairway Galle Festival too was a crowd favourite. Her book Sleeping on Jupiter won the 2016 DSC prize along with $50,000 in cash.  In her acceptance speech Anuradha Roy graciously and magnanimously stated that as all of the six short listed novels are of such remarkable quality, the prize ought to be shared among by all of the nominees to the short list.

If the founder of the festival and businessman Geoffrey Dobbs and the main corporate sponsors intend to hold another English literature festival in Sri Lanka they would be well advised to completely revamp both the logistical and literature aspects of the festival. At a minimum to succeed in the future the Fairway Galle Festival would require professional event managers to organize and execute the event along with one of more literature curators with wide cultural experience and  capable of drawing celebrity writers.

Viresh Fernando is a Toronto based lawyer and freelance writer

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