Books by the Ocean

A ‘crazy’ notion to bring a literary festival to Sri Lanka has proved an astounding success. Patrick Kelly reports

There are many reason to travel to Galle – an overlooked pearl of a port on the Indian Ocean. There’s the Dutch colonial buildings, its rambling little lanes, bristling with quirky cafes and shops, magnificent mansions converted into comfortable hotels, a clutch of intriguing museums and churches and its proximity to some of Sri Lanka’s loveliest beaches.

But thanks to an enterprising expatriate hotelier, Geoffrey Dobbs, Galle has another draw for the adventurous tourist, a stimulating and offbeat little literary festival that is rapidly putting the Sri Lankan destination on the map. Since its foundation in 2007, the likes of Tom Stoppard, Julian Barnes, Richard Dawkins, Michael Morpurgo, Simon Sebag Montefiore and Fiona Shaw have all appeared in Galle.

Dobbs, a colourful character who runs a boutique hotel on his own island off the coast, was told that the idea of holding a literary festival in this remote corner of the world, was ‘crazy’. He has proved his critics wrong. Now sponsored by development company Fairway Holdings, this year’s event attracted 6,000 or so attendees to more than 110 events and although it still qualifies for the description ‘ boutique’ in the hierarchy of literary festivals, it is also unique. Its poetry slams, jazz performances, wine tastings, art showings and photographic exhibitions are housed in historical landmark locations and boutique hotels. The box office can be found in a book shop, while the commercial trade fair that inevitably accompanies major arts events overlooks the glittering Indian Ocean. Galle is small enough for the visitor to bump into the person they sat next to at a reading and to greet each other over canape as you listen to a talk on Coleridge.

The festival curator is Oxford graduate and teacher Jill Macdonald. She modestly describes herself as a school administrator but is clearly one with an unrivalled contacts book, if she is able to persuade the likes of Sebastian Faulks (pictured here), Dame Maggie Smith and Alexander McCall Smith to travel halfway across the world to appear at this year’s event.

Of course, bringing world class writers to Sri Lanka is just one of the aims of the festival but it was also established “to showcase Sri Lankan literature to a world audience and to make Galle the festival capital of South-East Asia, “ she adds.

In addition the festival organises a series of outreach events for children and young people, overseen by talented dramaturgs and producers from all over the world.

Recently, the Festival has expanded to become an arts festival with films, concerts and an art trail in addition to literary presentations and discussions. It has also branched into food, with specialised cookery classes and literary lunches and dinners produced by a troupe of local and international gourmet chefs.
This year’s festival, which ran from January 24 to 29, brought major figures such as Lord David Puttnam, Man Booker-Prize winning writer Richard Flanagan, Pankaj Mishra, Amit Chaudhuri and Shabani Basu to the tiny Galle port. There were discussions on architecture, the environment, conservation, history, biology, medicine and jurisprudence as well as a wide range of fiction. In addition, a number of writers whose mother tongue is not English, also featured in the line-up. Highlights included talks by Australian/Sri Lankan  writer Shankari Chandran and sessions with churchman come poet Rev Malcolm Guite, who deserves to be better known in the UK.  Macdonald promises that next year’s festival will widen to include sessions on song-writing and other artistic pursuits including drama.


“Why is the festival great? It uses one of the most beautiful places on the planet to make a marketplace of thought and an oasis of feeling. I loved being there because the scale is human, and the humans are kind and welcoming, the food wonderful and the balmy evenings allow long conversations on any subject into the night”

Fiona Shaw


Reaching out


Tracy Holsinger is a theatre director and teacher working with the Literary Festival’s programme in local schools. Trained at Goldsmiths College in London she worked as Will Kemp's dresser before returning to Colombo to set up her theatre company Mind Adventures. She specialises in theatre dealing with issues of reconciliation and conflict. Most recntly, she has been working directly with communities in Sri Lanka marked by the country’s long-running civil war, which ended in 2009. She strongly believes that the arts is an important channel for victims of war to tell their stories. “Unless those stories of victims are acknowledged then reconciliation can’t happen.” Storytelling is at the heart of the programme, drawing on different myths and legends as a way of introducing children’s own stories. Arts education is a tool for social cohesion as it can cross language and geographical barriers, says Holsinger.


Another example is the Music Project, part of the festival’s mini-childrens outreach festival, which aims to use music for social cohesion and empower young people. Children who do not ordinarily have access to instruments are given the chance to learn and perform. Six schools take part in the programme using music as a link language, learning orchestral instruments such as the violin, viola, cello, trumpet, clarinet, flute, tuba, oboe, trombone and percussion. They have twice weekly lessons from the teachers and visiting specialists over a period of five years. The orchestra allows children of different communities, Tamil and Hindu, to work together on shared repertoire and perform as a cohesive ‘orchestra of unity’. Senior children, now well versed in their instruments are now taking part in competitions and other public events such as the opening ceremony of Kala Pola, a traditional festival, in February.


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