Getting set for the big literary buzz

Smriti Daniel meets the team behind Galle Literary Festival 2010

Under the araliya tree in the courtyard, the tables and chairs, at which patrons of the Mahout Café once sat, gather dust. Inside the building, amidst antique furniture, a wooden rocking horse and long white rooms with high ceilings are four little oases of order and industry. Here, laptop screens glow and paper chatters out of printers as the 2010 Galle Literary Festival gathers momentum. This is the domain of Sunila Galappatti, Nisreen Jafferjee, Puja Srivastava and Subha Wijesiriwardena, the four women, who along with founder Geoffrey Dobbs, make up the team that organizes the festival.

Who does what is difficult to pin down and the lines only get blurrier as the festival gets closer. Sunila is Festival Director and seems to be everywhere at once. Nisreen is Festival Manager and handles marketing and sponsorship, (“I tell everyone that the buck stops here”.) Puja is Assistant Festival Manager (and manages among many, many other things, the website and the box office) and Subha is Festival Co-ordinator. She helps Sunila create the programme and runs the festival’s outreach events. But they’ll tell you they are more than the sum of their parts – “we all work together, we brainstorm everything that we do, discuss things and go for meetings together. It’s a team effort,” says Nisreen.

It couldn’t be otherwise, really, when you consider the scale of the upcoming event. 2010 will see the Festival expand exponentially – year-long outreach programmes will culminate in a day’s worth of sessions for Galle schoolchildren, events focused on local communities will include families that have called the Fort “home” for generations and the evening festivities will showcase some of Sri Lanka’s most renowned artists. But, of course, the main draws remain the literary sessions, and there you will be spoilt for choice. There will be more of them - sometimes as many as three - running simultaneously. “Our programme is absolutely full,” says Sunila. Genres like crime fiction and graphic novels will be represented for the first time at the festival by Ian Rankin and Sarnath Bannerjee respectively, while beloved local authors like Sybil Wettasinghe and Jean Arasanayagam will discuss their memoirs.
The dynamic four (clockwise):
Sunila, Subha, Puja and Nisreen

Michelle de Kretser, Mohammed Hanif, Ameena Hussein, Claire Tomalin, Gillian Slovo, David Blacker, Michael Frayn, Wendy Cope, Lal Medawattegedara, Antony Beevor and Shehan Karunatillake are also among those who have signed up and you can expect to listen to conversations that range far and wide – from the art of retelling fables to testimonies given by prisoners in Guantanamo Bay; from the fictional inner life of a degenerate sports writer to the retirement of the iconic Inspector Rebus. You’ll be taken to Stalingrad as it stands against Hitler, and to Pakistan where a General’s death catapults a country into turmoil. Along the way, you will pause to appreciate lighthouses, explore the houses architects build for themselves, and see Sri Lanka through the letters of famous visitors.

The festival will start on Thursday, January 28 and extend to Monday, February 1. For the team these four days represent the fruition of nearly a year’s work. Preparations for the next festival begin a bare month after the current one is laid to rest, with recruiting new writers being a priority. It’s also never too early to line up sponsors. The festival only makes roughly15% of its running costs, and the team must raise the rest. “It really does take every minute that we’ve spent on it since March,” says Subha.

Now with near daily ‘fruit meetings’, Sunila, Nisreen, Puja and Subha have to thrash out problems over oranges and bananas. Though he is not always present at these, Geoffrey Dobbs is involved in the day-to-day running of the festival, says Sunila, dubbing him their “titles man”. A fixture on the international literary circuit, Geoffrey is always recruiting interesting new people for the festival.

Bringing them together in new and interesting combinations is Sunila’s forte. She and Subha might go through as many as four rounds of drafts before they settle on a programme. In a concerted effort to avoid session topics that look like the result of a quick google search, the two spent months reading and discussing possible themes with the writers themselves.

Puja has been with the festival through the four years of its existence and Nisreen through the last three. For Sunila and Subha this will be their second. “I felt like I inherited a festival that ran beautifully and that had already been put on the international map. The template was set and so we had the luxury of seeing how we could deepen it,” says Sunila, adding “another thing that has been important to me has been making sure that that the festival has a life beyond four days a year...” As a result, an outreach programme in Galle took groups of writers, dramatists, writers, journalists down to both rural and urban schools, where they read stories from around the world to students. These, in turn, fed into a series of writing workshops.

“This is also about the idea that an international literary festival that lands in Galle ought to be of benefit to schoolchildren in Galle,” says Sunila. detailing sessions with visiting writers and a historical scavenger hunt in the fort.

But while festivals are for readers, young and old alike, they are also for writers. This team would like to offer their participating guests something different-- might just be in giving them a chance to talk about someone else’s work or as simple as introducing them to each other. Everyone, for instance, seems excited about meeting Ian Rankin...

The kids, meanwhile, will have their own programme at the Martin Wickremesinghe Museum. “We wanted it to take inspiration from his book Madol Duwa, so a lot of it is going to be around this theme of what would you do on your own island...,” says Sunila, adding that there will be a session on child detectives with author Mac Barnett.

Find out more when the programme is posted on the website ( later this week.

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