Malaysiakini Letter

I was not even invited as a sit-guest for literary festival

Cecil Rajendra  |  Published:

Is it any surprise that George Town Literary Festival (GTLF) director Bernice Chauly has no explanation for not inviting me either as a guest or participant to this year’s GTLF, ostensibly themed 'State of Freedom & Human Rights'?

Her remarks about invitations in 2013 and 2016 are, at best, misleading.

In 2013, I received a casual phone call inviting me to read a couple of poems at a poetry slam event with a host of other poets.

Before I could even respond I was told that there was no budget for the event!

I informed the director that I do not do cameo appearances at festivals and regarded the invite more of an insult than an invitation.

In 2016, I was invited to perform at the GTLF not by the festival director or the organisers but by the Penang Institute! As a matter of fact, I was informed, the festival director had grave misgivings about my participation.

As such, GTLF did zero promotion or publicity for the event and had such low expectations that they located it in a courtyard in the pouring rain!

The only reason it was a resounding success was thanks to the efforts of my publishers, Penang poetry buffs, well-wishers and the Penang Heritage Trust.

In the eight years of GTLF’s existence, I have never received a formal invitation!

However, be that as it may, the reason why several Penangites are incensed and hopping mad is that this year’s festival is themed ‘The State of Freedom’.

The festival director even alludes to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Among the invitees are poet Lemn Sissay, Chancellor of the University of Manchester; and Mohan Ambikaipaker of Tulane University, US.

In a book-reading tour of the UK in 1989, I was a guest of Lemn Sissay on his talk show on Radio Manchester where we discussed black consciousness in Britain.

Sissay’s second collection Tender Fingers in a Clenched Fist was brought out in 1988 by my London Publishers, Bogle L’ouverture Publications – the pioneering Black Publishing House that was recently honoured and archived by the City of London In April 2016.

Mohan presented a paper – 'From British Black Power to Malaysian Human Rights: The Transnational Formation of Cecil Rajendra' in Oxford.

In July 2016, Mohan was invited by the Penang Institute to present his paper at a Nusantara forum.

He presented a modified version entitled 'Remembering Cecil Rajendra’s Black Power Poetry in Anti-Black & Neo Colonial Malaysia”.

Both Sissay and Mohan are honoured speakers in a slot titled 'Conversations: Black Britain moderated by Gareth Richards.

Sissay was invited from the UK and Mohan from the US.

Despite my historic connections with these two distinguished writers/academics, I wonder why I was not invited even as a sit-in guest to the event. And I live but a stone’s throw away from the venue!

CECIL RAJENDRA is a human rights lawyer and poet.

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