'Literature festivals foster a democratic culture and start discussions’The founder and director of Nepal Literature Festival, Ajit Baral talks about his love for literature and how literature festivals are more than social events for authors.
Ajit Baral sounds hopeful as he sits down for a phone interview. Besides running a publishing house, FinePrint, he is the founder and director of IME Nepal Literature Festival, one of the few literature festivals in the country. And he and his team are ready to host the festival’s ninth iteration from Tuesday, in Pokhara, where Baral is currently.
With the pandemic still rife, Baral and his team decided to go virtual with their literary event about two months ago to give continuity to their work of bringing introspective discussions to people from the literary and non-literary scenes. In this interview with the Post’s Srizu Bajracharya, Baral talks about his love for literature and how literary events shape and influence communities.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did your interest in literature begin?
It started quite late. I was already in college. And to this day, I regret not discovering books in my early days. I started my reading journey with the classics of literature from authors like Ernest Hemingway and Charles Dickens. Instead of gradually progressing to serious literature, I started right off with pure literature.
And I was getting more and more interested in writing and understanding storytelling. Later, I started writing book reviews for the Post as well. And I also worked briefly at LeftWord Books based in India in an internship position.
So, when did the idea of a publishing house start to take shape?
When I thought of starting a publication house, it was more an impulse, a childish decision. I didn’t really know what it took to start one. I had not thought about feasibility, investments or the number of titles I would publish.
When I came back from India, I wanted to bring out a collection of my father’s cartoons, and I just went ahead with the idea. At the time, I wanted to start something of my own, and starting a publication house was for me like an existential quest. I just wanted to do something significant.
So, we started FinePrint in 2006, and then in the process of working on books, we started the book shop, Bookworm. It's now closed. Then in 2011, we started the Nepal Literature Festival through the Bookworm Foundation. It’s an entirely separate entity, different from the book shop, and works through a committee of publishers, journalists and writers. The idea of the festival started on a whim just like the publication house. We wanted to start a Nepali literary festival, as such events had not happened here in the country before. But around the world, such programmes were already creating important dialogues and discussions.
This is the 9th literature festival. What changes have you seen in the Nepali literary scene in these years?
It’s been an incredible journey and we have steadily worked our way up. But right from the start, the festival was really appreciated for it brought diverse people together in a platform to discuss relevant issues of the time. After we started the festival, many literary festivals started in the country. The changes aren’t quite tangible but we can see that the festival has brought about some positive changes, and qualitatively speaking, the event has progressively strengthened the community and developed conversations around books and publications.
But what do events like the literature festival achieve?
Literature festivals around the world are known for the intellectual and critical discourse they bring out in the public sphere. They are significant in bringing awareness to people and building their critical understanding and revealing their limitation of knowledge.
These events also help to promote and celebrate the works of writers and their books. They give a platform to writers to talk and discuss their work with their readers and diverse groups of people. They also help in the marketing of books. These events make a substantial impact on the business of books.
Besides promoting works of authors and connecting people’s interest with intellectuals, these platforms also serve as a place to disseminate knowledge and understand our limitations as readers. They also foster a democratic culture and start discussions and dialogues of different issues. And I believe our festival each year, in some ways, has been able to achieve these functions.
Why has it been important to continue with the festival at this time?
For quite some time we thought we wouldn’t be able to organise the festival this year with the virus still overshadowing our lives. But in early November, we decided we could organise the festival virtually, we thought it would be feasible as so many programmes have been happening here and around the world virtually.
But in terms of organising the festival, it has actually been easier as the virtual medium has reduced our cost on resources. When you prepare for a physical event, there’s much more that you need to take into consideration like the venue, bringing the audience to the event, managing tents and the site, you also need to exercise a lot of manpower.
We wish we could have organised the festival physically but given the situation, we decided to celebrate the festival virtually this time. Definitely, this is going to affect the charm of the festival, as a physical event is more engaging, but we still wanted to go ahead with the festival to give continuity to what we have been doing. Also, we didn’t want to be complacent with the event. This also allows us to enliven our spirit. And although this time our festival has scaled down, I believe it will be meaningful for many people.
What topics is the festival bringing to the forefront this time?
This time, our event has scaled down to two days and we are covering about 16 topics. We have around 45 speakers from diverse backgrounds to discuss contemporary issues, including Covid-health care, how the current time has affected the film industry and how cinema will change post Covid. We will also be discussing climate change and the effects of human activities on our environment. We also have conversations around how Covid has affected the entrepreneurial ecosystem and the challenges of virtual learning among other topics.
This literary festival brings people from different sectors—from directors, writers to entrepreneurs, politicians, doctors—together. What is the reason behind bringing people from different sectors to discuss both literary and non-literary issues?
This is a question many have asked: why we bring people from the non-literary sector to a literature festival. But we have always wanted the festival to be a place of learning and exchanging knowledge. And authors write on various issues and topics from politics, culture, art to economy. Literature is connected to all fields and as a literary platform we want to help writers find and explore ideas; we also hope to shed light on necessary issues. Our event focuses on inspiring multidisciplinary interest in people and in narrowing down the gaps of the society.
How do we ensure a diverse literary scene especially when events like these are criticised by many as privileged?
From the very beginning, our festival has always worked to bring diverse and new people to the platform to discuss literary and non-literary issues, one of our goals has always been to promote diversity. And events like these have to address inclusiveness and diversity as these events create ripples for communities to follow.
I also believe it is possible to work on a diverse panel if we put a little more effort. Yes, it’s challenging to look for people who can speak articulately in public, but it’s not impossible.
Over the years, we have also addressed issues about indigienous languages and brought to the front discussions about writing in native languages and challenges of indigenous literature. And literature festivals have a greater role to play in pushing forward conversations about promoting indigineous works.
Yes, from the outside to a certain extent our events might look privileged but we have always worked to expand our reach and make our event more accessible to people. And making such efforts is important as our idea of a literature festival is to foster public discussions and a progressive society.
In terms of readership, has the literary scene grown? Do we have enough platforms in the country to discuss literature?
The readership I think is steadily growing but what we are missing is consistency with our initiatives. While there have been many initiatives to grow readership, we have also witnessed these efforts die down after a certain time. For example, reading groups, they come and go.
There was also a time when there used to be a lot of ‘meet the author events’ but even that trend has slowly waned. Moreover, we still don’t have a good number of literary supplements or magazines, or newspapers that focus on discussing literature. Even book reviews are hard to come by in newspapers. We still don’t have a dedicated section or space for literature. And these things matter in terms of growing readership.
Our literature scene is still bereft of awards for books. But how do these acknowledgements help in promoting a literary scene?
When a book is awarded, it always builds an interest in people and so, such recognitions always help in the marketing of books and in ensuring some kind of readership. However, we don’t have that many titular awards for books. And many times, we don’t get to know the understanding behind the judgement. Even the Madan Puraskar does not reveal the shortlist or longlist of literary works before announcing who the award goes to.
But on a yearly basis, our publishing industry has not really been able to bring out significant works, and therefore, this affects how we discuss books because in terms of quality and quantity our publications are not that vibrant, which makes even shortlisting the best Nepali books reading list for 2020, difficult.You can watch the virtual festival here.