Ahsan Akbar, poet and a director of the Dhaka Lit Fest 2016, talks with Rifat Munim about his experience of embarking on a literary journey that aims to bring the literary world together
This is the first time a Nobel Laureate in Literature is going to attend the Dhaka Lit Fest. How do you feel about this as a director?
To have one of the greatest living writers supporting Dhaka Lit Fest, by coming all the way to Dhaka, is a testimony to the festival’s strength and continual success. As a director of the festival, it is of course an absolute honour and privilege to welcome VS Naipaul to Bangladesh, and I speak for not only my two co-directors, but for everyone in our country who has a passion for books.
Also read — Dhaka Lit Fest 2016: Note from the Directors
When we broke away from Hay Festival last year and renamed the festival after our beloved capital city, which hosts it, all overwhelmingly welcomed the decision. Nonetheless, there were concerns from pessimistic corners about the festival’s continuity and reputation going forwards. I’m glad to say that in spite of severe security concerns last year, we had world class speakers and we will continue to do so with this year’s edition and in future.
We’ve heard some of the world’s emerging writers of poetry, fiction and nonfiction are attending this year. Would you shed some light on them?
Aside from Sir Vidia, whose presence makes the event all very special, this year we are also looking forward to welcoming many exciting names in the literary world, including Vijay Seshadri and Deborah Smith, winners of the Pulitzer and Man Booker International Prize respectively.
It is one of our key aims to make Dhaka Lit Fest as international as possible … This year, for example, we have invited Hamid Ismailov, an Uzbek writer, who told me stories of growing up in the erstwhile Soviet Union in the seventies listening to radio news about Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
It is impossible to list all the wonderful names here but I could highlight a few: The celebrated Catalan poet Carles Torner from Barcelona, slam poetry champion Vuyelwa Maluleke from South Africa, Marcia Lynx Qualey who single-handedly brought Arab literature to the forefront through her blog arablit.org, and my friend Alex Preston, English novelist and literary critic, who has been instrumental in encouraging several British writers to attend this year’s festival.
Evidently this year writers have been selected from many different parts of the world across the continents. Why this emphasis on diversity?
Human emotions are the same across languages, cultures, continents – it’s how one expresses them in their writing that makes an impact. We also know from reading foreign fiction that we have more in common than we may think. The feelings of love, joy, loss, despair, etc., are essentially the same no matter which part of the world one inhabits. It is one of our key aims to make Dhaka Lit Fest as international as possible. Last year we had a Cuban writer, Yoss, attend our festival and he is the leading sci-fi writer of his generation in Spanish language. This year, for example, we have invited Hamid Ismailov, an Uzbek writer, who told me stories of growing up in the erstwhile Soviet Union in the seventies listening to radio news about Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Also read — Deborah Smith on translation and DLF 2016
The idea of a festival is to exchange ideas, share stories, buy books, and for us Bangladeshis, Dhaka Lit Fest is a beautiful platform to showcase some of the best aspects of our rich heritage and culture to the wider world, and that includes our unparalleled warm hospitality.
In the previous years, we’ve seen a strong representation of local writers, poets, artists, actors and musicians. How are you going about it this year?
Quite simply, there will be more representation of local writers and artists. As with previous years, this year’s programme will have significant portions dedicated to Bangla literature from the past and present, discussions on theatre, cinema, current affairs, as well as our tradition of Baul music and conversations on the deep philosophy behind the lyrics and poetry of Lalon. We will have a special performance of Neel Dongshon, as a special tribute to our beloved Syed Shamsul Haq who will be dearly missed this year.
What in your view will be the strongest aspect of DLF 2016?
It is unfortunate that Bangladesh has been in the international news media for terror attacks since 2013. The killings of bloggers, writers, and activists did a great deal of harm to the image of our country. The strongest aspect of DLF 2016 – I believe – is the fact that we are able to stage the festival just a few months after the horrific incident of July 1 this year. After the England cricket team’s successful tour of Dhaka and Chittagong, DLF will echo what the world needs to hear: Bangladesh is open for business.
Also read — VS Naipaul: The shock of the new
We can only do this because we are standing up together, and without the excellent support from our government, we wouldn’t have been able to do it.We are delighted with the show of support from our sponsors, our national security agencies, our partner organisations from abroad and our excited audience members who are raving about the festival on social media.
The Dhaka Lit Fest does not belong to the directors, the sponsors or the government. We are the executioners of the festival and we are grateful for having the opportunity to be able to run it. It essentially belongs to every citizen of Bangladesh. It has to be supported by anyone or everyone who loves Dhaka, loves Bangladesh or feels – at some level – some connection to our country. We keep this festival free and open to all, and it is not tucked away in some five-star hotel, because we are determined to keep it accessible for everyone who love books, who enjoy writing, reading or simply listening to world class speakers in inspiring conversations.
This is for you, please come and claim your festival.