Literature Festivals in the Age of Contagion-Books of Guest Writers

Proximity has always meant something. When the famous Konkan writer Damodar Bhai Mauso and I founded the idea of our group Goa Writers, a lively festival of art and literature, just over ten years ago, our motivation was to bring together writers and artists who had been largely ignored by the commercial mainstream.

We were inspired by Eunice de Souza’s beautiful and poetic vision of the different ways of belonging together. That’s why we focused on what others reject as areas – regional (Northeastern states, Kashmir, our own Konkan) and in terms of genres (translations, poetry, graphic novels). Although we are volunteers and work hard on a non-profit basis, with an almost ridiculously small budget, we have tried to build strong relationships with Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh; an ambitious and unusual mix that proved extraordinarily meaningful when it came together at the International Centre near Panjima.

As an award-winning author and translator, Jerry Pinto remained an important supporter throughout his life. In hindsight, he wrote me: From the first issue of GALF you will feel at home and abroad. It was pure magic, and I remember wondering if it was lucky for beginners, but over the years the festival has become what I expected from the proximity and intensity of the encounters. For me, the merger between local and international was so important. It was a festival that clearly belonged to the Goa, so everyone once seemed to have a connection with the Goa, at least to suppress it, but it also looked at the world and took in the world.

Like other elevators, which have mushrooms everywhere, our elevator had many motives. Above all, there was a belief that Goa’s brilliant artists and writers – indeed all aspects of the fusion culture of India’s smallest state – were heartlessly ignored by the mainstream guardians.

Schoolchildren at the festival.
courtesy of GALF

As poet, curator and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote (another GALF moderator) said in 2007, geographical integrity does not mean that Goa and mainland India share the same world of meaning: The special historical development of Goa, with its Lusitan road to the Enlightenment and printed modernity, the Iberian emphasis on the light public, the pride of ancient internationalism before the letter, is a tangent to the image of India formed by the experience of British colonialism. The relationship between the artists of Goa and mainland India was, not surprisingly, ambiguous and chaotic, even unstable.

Bhai and my most consistent approach has been to stop waiting for others to acknowledge Goa’uld talent, and to reach out as far as possible to those who are just as unjustly ignored and excluded. We’ve always ignored bestseller lists, petty PR and social media awareness. Our composition rather reflects our beliefs. The keynote speaker of the 10th anniversary edition, Priya Ramani said: The GALF is the only place where conservatives read all books.

When we started, the general consensus was one Goa. Even authors who lived here published their books elsewhere because there was no sign of a confident audience. And it’s true, we were fighting to get even a half-full room for every 100 people, no matter how big the draw. But all those who have come will inevitably return. We have expanded our audience, from young students to adult readers, and we are growing with them. Last year, four halls were flooded at the same time and all the book pavilions were overcrowded.

Every element of this hard-won success comes from a physical dimension: Conviviality, solidarity, lots of hugs and dances. The famous artist and translator Daisy Rockwell, who has been to the festival several times from Vermont, told me about it: The festival always seemed saturated with comparisons and creative couples. The conversation was fascinating, both during and outside the sessions – in fact, it was easy to go from one session to the next. There are no formalities that promote camaraderie, no attitudes and no ties. People are here to communicate, not to climb. But will any of them survive a period of infection?

As we go through this moment of global distress, it is clear that the masses of people will not be able to come together in the foreseeable future. GALF 2020 was planned for the first week of December, with participants from all over the world. But as long as we keep our fingers crossed, those plans are likely to be thwarted. But what could future expenses look like?

Bhai told me: The appeal of listening to the sessions and meeting the authors has never been greater in Goa. We’re adjusting, but it remains to be seen how it goes. I think of the music we love so much and the live performance is different from the recording. For example, I can imagine the masked delegates you encounter down to the last centimetre, but also remote and physical encounters with virtual elements. In Konkani there is a saying – kala praman matyak kurpone (one wears a headgear adapted to the circumstances). We can use it!

Author Jerry Pinto will perform at the festival.
courtesy of GALF

These are plausible prospects, but they’re far from blowing up the stomach. For me, the perfect storage moments in the meat were created. So my feelings are the same as those of Daisy Rockwell, who says that we have to ask ourselves what the lights are for and why it’s important to bring people into the same physical space. Only a few months after the end of the Internet, we are already beginning to understand the limits of electronic forms of communication in human interactions. She’s restless and unpredictable. We’re losing heat, nonverbal signals and crosstalk. The long personal experience that makes festivals such as the GALF possible are creative gardens where the seeds of new projects are planted for the first time. We’ve got to get back to these gardens when we’re safe!

I can’t stop thinking about that famous line from Shakespeare’s Storm: Oh, a brave new world with people like that! If and when we change the paradigms of future literature and art festivals, it is likely that many of us – even if we manage to survive the virus – will not participate. At this point, with my hand on my heart, I’ll probably be one of those numbers.

And maybe Jerry Pinto, too. This beloved veteran of various literary festivals in all sorts of places, chosen by the crowd, wrote to me: I think there’s a generation, Vivek, who might feel more comfortable without intimacy. It is quite possible that you prefer to record the communication. It’s not for me. I feel like so much has been lost in these virtual meetings. Even when you talk, people shoot at you with questions that have nothing to do with what you say. Moderators probably don’t know this world. I don’t know what it’s like to be at a literature festival, but I don’t know if I would feel comfortable there. I went to festivals to meet people, to meet my fellow writers. I tried not to sponsor the helicopter and tried to attend and contribute to other meetings. I don’t think I’d be comfortable with that right now. No reason at all. Don’t think.

Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder of the Goa Arts and Literature Festival.