Do you think Malaysia needs more rebel rousing free spirits to take lead of the nation’s thoughts?

Whether you say yay or nay, we recommend you plan a visit to the historical city of George Town in Penang for the George Town Literary Festival (GTLF) 2019.

The four-day fest held between 21 -24 November, 2019, is themed “forewords/afterwords” and set to feature some of Asia’s most provocative literary champions, ranging from fearless poets to crusaders of journalistic integrity and bastions of cultural preservation.

Apart from the regular selfies with people who have their own Wikipedia-listing, you just might score a moment of intimate clarity from a mind-opening session with these award-winning authors.

Don’t believe us? Check out some of them in the list we have here.

Pssst! Click on each writer’s name to follow some of them on social media. 

Hamid Ismailov | Uzbekistan

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Image credit the BBC.

Although Hamid Ismailov is sought after in Malaysia for his vast literary experience with the BBC, the Uzbek journalist and writer has been a wanted man in his home country since 1992. The reason? He practised “unacceptable democratic tendencies“.

In reality, Ismailov was working on a film for the BBC about Uzbekistan which led the ruling government to consider him a criminal. Not only is he barred from returning to his home country, his record of existence has been removed from the country and his literary works also banned. Thanks to the internet, Ismailov is still able to connect with his fellow countrymen.

His 2019 EBRD Literature Prize winning novel, The Devil’s Dance has received impressive reviews, with The Guardian coining it the “Ivan Denisovich meets Scheherazade meets the Lannisters at a postmodern party”.

Fun Fact: In the late 1980’s Hamid Ismailov created a fictional literary group called, the ‘Conference of Refined‘ just for the heck of it. The members were famous published poets, philosophers, literary critics, writers and translators with heteronym names.

Hiromi Ito | Japan

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Image credit Louisiana Channel.

Before Spoken Word poetry gained the notoriety it has today, there was Hiromi Ito.  She started reciting her personal yet uninhibited Japanese poems in the 1980s, drawing on her experiences and observations about what it is to be female in the world.

The themes she explores, such as menstruation, role of mothers and female sexuality, would not be misplaced in today’s era but Hiromi did so before these narratives became popular. Despite non-adherence to the structured forms of Japanese haiku or tanka, this “bad feminist” has accumulated numerous literary prizes, including the Takami Jun Prize, Hagiwara Sakutaro Prize and Izumi Shikibu Prize.

Fun Fact: Among her famed works is Killing Kanoko, a revealatory piece on post-partum depression derived from her own life, after giving birth to her first-born daughter, Kanoko.

Perumal Murugan | India

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Image credit Wikipedia Commons.

“Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. As he is no God, he is not going to resurrect himself. He also has no faith in rebirth. An ordinary teacher, he will live as P. Murugan. Leave him alone.”

The above is part of Perumal’s Facebook post in 2015 after the professor in Tamil literature was forced to issue an “unconditional apology” and withdraw all copies of his novel, Madhorubhagan, by India’s caste-based and religious Hindu groups.

Published in 2010, this was Perumal’s fifth novel and it dealt with the social stigma that surrounds couples who have trouble having children in India. Translated into English as One Part Woman, the novel began courting controversy in 2014 after Hindu hardliners began criticising the depictions of local traditions in the novel.

Thankfully, there is a happy ending. In 2016, the Madras High Court ruled in Perumal’s favor and the writer returned to writing.

Fun Fact: Perumal Murugan started out writing at a young age. Some of his lyrics for children songs were in programmes broadcast by All India Radio.

Kamini Ramachandran | Singapore

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Image credit National Museum of Singapore.

Kamini Ramachandran grew up listening to great Indian epics and folktales which were often told by her grandfather. A pioneer in the storytelling scene in Asia, Kamini now performs, teaches, directs and produces anything that is related to her field.

Through MoonShadow Stories, Kamini has also been sharing stories with children as well as adults. She has produced and organised numerous storytelling events and festivals including StoryFest: International Storytelling Festival Singapore.

Kamini also teaches a storytelling course at the LASALLE College of the Arts and mentors numerous young storytellers through The Storytelling Centre Ltd’s Young Storytellers Mentorship Programme. Impressive stuff!

Fun Fact: Kamini Ramachandran has traveled the world to observe how various cultures tell their stories. From the jungles of Malaysia where she lived with the indigenous tribes to the rural villages of Thanjavur to tribal communities in Shillong, India, Kamini has lots of stories to share.

Kulleh Grasi | Malaysia

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Image credit Nading Rhapsody.

Nading Rhapsody, the band started by Kulleh, was named after legendary Iban hero, Nading Grasi. Kulleh, also known as Royston Kulleh, has since also adopted the name of the mythical fighter, famously expelled from the paradise realm known as Panggau Libau, for having a rebellious nature.

Since 2012, Kulleh has sought to convey the spirituality of Sarawak’s folklore and oral traditions through his poetry and songwriting. The Kapit-born is able to deliver in Malay as well as indigenous languages such as Iban, Kelabit and Kayan.

Fun Fact: Kulleh is the first Iban poet with a book of poems translated into English. His work Tell Me, Kenyalang: Selected Poems (2019) was a collaboration with Malaysian writer,  Pauline Fan and published by international publisher, Circumference Books.

Goenawan Mohamad | Indonesia

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Image credit Whiteboard Journal.

Indonesians know him simply by his initials, GM, but the casual manner of reference does little to obscure the reverence he commands as an acclaimed journalist and crusader of press freedom, in his home country and the international sphere.

The founder of Tempo magazine, had famously come under steep political pressure and banned from publication for running its perceived to be counter-policy publications from the 1970s through 1990s. GM received the Louis Lyons Award in the category of Conscience in Journalism from Nieman Foundation in 1997 and was honored with the CPJ International Press Freedom Award in 1998 as well as the International Editor of the Year Award from World Press Review in 1999.

For more than 30 years, GM has written a compilation of essays for Catatan Pinggir, a column in TEMPO Magazine.

Fun Fact: The 74-year-old has also produced scripts for theatre and puppet shadow plays such as Karna and Wisanggeni.

Saras Manickam | Malaysia

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Image credit Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

Saras Manickam became the talk of the town in May 2019 when her short story My Mother Pattu bagged the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. The Teluk Intan native started out as a teacher before turning to freelance copywriting and teaching language and creative writing.

My Mother Pattu was Saras Manickam’s second attempt at the Commonwealth Short Story Prize after tweaking and retweaking the story for “years“. You can read her entire short here.

Fun Fact: Not many Malaysians know this but Saras Manickam also authored several school workbooks. Heck, she co-authored three English language textbooks too!

Jason Erik Lundberg | Singapore & U.S.

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Image credit Jason Erik Lundberg.

Born in New York and raised in North Carolina, Jason Erik Lundberg now considers Singapore his home.

Having moved to the Lion City in 2007, the American writer and anthologist has authored more than twenty books while serving as the fiction editor at Epigram Books. Many of the books he has edited has gone on to win numerous awards and were part of many best lists since 2012.

That’s not all. Jason is also the founding editor of LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction (2012–2018). Many of his works have also been shortlisted for various awards including The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror.

His latest work is a novella, Diary of One Who Disappeared and a short story collection Most Excellent and Lamentable: Selected Stories.

Fun Fact: In 2008, Jason Erik Lundberg took to Buddhism and was given the name Thubten Jangchub by the Venerable Thubten Chodron. The name means “Enlightened Mind of the Buddha-Way”.

Faisal Tehrani | Malaysia

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Image credit ArtsEquator.

Known as Kuala Lumpur’s very own contrarian writer and playwright after he ruffled sentiments of local religious leaders through a chapter in his novel series, Ketupat Cinta.

Faisal Tehrani was accused of promoting Shia elements or “falsehood”, in Malaysia’s majority Sunni muslim population. The writer has denied the allegations albeit stating openness to discuss different schools of thought and defending his works as academic exploration of a complex theme.

In January 2018, Malaysia’s Court of Appeal quashed the Home Ministry’s ban against four books by the author: Sebongkah Batu di Kuala Berang, Karbala, Tiga Kali Seminggu and Ingin Jadi Nasrallah.

Fun Fact: Despite his works not sitting well with religious authorities, Faisal was rumored to be among the five candidates in the running for the coveted National Laurette title in Malaysia.

Jokha al-Harthi | Oman

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Image credit Esquire Middle East.

Oman’s Jokha al-Harthi recently bagged the prestigious Man Booker International Prize 2019 for her English translated novel, Celestial Bodies. The original title, Sayyidat el-Qamar, was shortlisted for the Zayed Award in 2011 prior to it being translated by Marilyn Booth.

Meeting the 40-year-old writer and academician up close and personal will be extra special for many of you because al-Harthi’s critically acclaimed book is the first time an Arabic novel bagged the Man Booker International Prize. Our suggestion: Bring a copy of the book along to get it signed!

Fun Fact: Jokha al-Harthi has published three collections of short stories and three novels together with several academic works which have been translated into English, Serbian, Korean, Italian, and German. In 2016, she was awarded the Sultan Qaboos Award for Culture, Arts and Literature.

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These are but some of the numerous talented writers who will be gracing the award-winning George Town Literary Festival 2019 from 21 – 24 November. In case you’re curious, here is an entire line-up of folks who will be at the festival!

GTLF 2019 is co-directed by Pusaka creative director, Pauline Fan and former radio deejay, Sharaad Kuttan, and produced by the Penang Convention and Exhibition Bureau (PCEB).

*** Header image credit The National and Institute for Societal Leadership.

If you have any queries feel free to email us at Here’s another post you might enjoy. 

Mekong Review, the accidental Southeast Asian literary journal

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