Ahsan Akbar is a poet and a director of Dhaka Lit Fest. His poetry collection,
The Devil's Thumbprint, was published by Bengal Lights Books in 2013.
As a festival director, how do you feel about Adonis, the greatest living poet in Arabic, joining this year’s DLF?
Like my two co-directors, I feel extremely happy and proud to be able to bring a living legend of world literature all the way to Bangladesh. It must be mentioned that without the strong recommendation from Sir Vidia and Lady Naipaul, this wouldn't have been possible. That is also a great testament to the brilliance of not just our organising capabilities of the festival, but also to the warmth, enthusiasm and love the Naipauls felt from our audiences when they were here last year. Let me take this opportunity to thank everyone, and a special mention to Khademul Islam, who gave Sir Vidia company one afternoon when I couldn’t.
Born in 1930, Adonis is 87 now, and has been living in Paris for the most part of his life. He speaks little English – fluent in French and of course Arabic – and hardly attends literary festivals, preferring his solitude to write and you can see the prolific number of books coming out every year.
My co-director K Anis Ahmed and I went to see him in Paris last year. It was our only way to convince him to come to Dhaka. We were delighted when he asked us to meet him in Les Deux Magots, which as our readers would know, is a famous café in Saint-Germain-des-Prés area, known for its rich literary connections. Adonis charmed us by his calligraphic skills, while signing our copies of his books, and the numerous stories from his remarkable – yet struggling – life. Towards the end of the evening Adonis said two things that I’ll always remember. “You have eyes like a poet”, to me, and to his daughter: “Dhaka, Dhaka… we have to go, Anis and Ahsan came to see me, so I have to go see them.” Adonis is a man of his word, and tremendous honour, to be undertaking this long journey at this age for us.
We have over 100 sessions and each has been carefully selected and curated. Some of the bigger names – who are well known to our audiences – will draw more crowds and there won’t be enough seating space during their sessions: Adonis, Ben Okri, William Dalrymple, Lionel Shriver, Helal Hafiz, Nirmalendu Goon, and of course, our beloved White Witch from Narnia: Tilda Swinton! My tip: come early, come for the whole day
The international lineup boasts some of the biggest luminaries in different areas of art. Would you shed some light on the idea of the mix?
We do this every year, and consciously. It is about celebrating diversity and pluralism. So for example, we have Sir David Hare, one of the worlds leading playwrights joining us along with his wife Lady Nicole Farhi. Theatre is important, as is any form of the arts, and fashion design is another strand of creative expression. But there are other conversations to be had, which may not seem apparent immediately. For example, is traditional theatre going to be obsolete in the age of Netflix, or should it adapt more technology to draw in the crowds? Sir David has a lot to say on this, for example.
After doing it for seven years, we think we know what our audiences enjoy, and it is the diversity of the panels that make our programme particularly strong whilst ensuring that literary themes are very much at the forefront of the festival.
It is evident that the DLF is getting ever stronger in terms of embracing writers and artistes from diverse cultures and fields. Is this aspect going to constitute one of the main themes of the festival this year too?
Yes, indeed. This year we have over 200 speakers, performers and artistes representing 24 countries, and that’s a considerable jump from last year when we had 18 countries represented. Whilst we dream of more inclusivity, one must also keep in mind the increasing costs of putting on the festival every year. We are grateful to two big supporters of our event: the Ministry of Culture and Bangla Academy, and our private sponsors are really wonderful for they "get it."
Many corporate houses in our country, and the profitable ones with huge amounts of revenues coming their way, sadly don't even see the merit of a literary festival. We know because we approach them for sponsorships every year, scoring luck with the few names of corporate houses and institutions you see on our posters. If one doesn’t invest in promoting the arts, it’s not just myopia but also, in some way, irresponsible. If we want to fight extremism in our country, we certainly need more patrons of the arts and culture. Not wanting to sound to pessimistic, if we struggle to raise money every year, we have two options: 1) to reduce the diversity of the festival, i.e. make it a smaller programme and 2) end the idea completely. We certainly don't want to do either of them, and we definitely are not going to start charging tickets, unlike many festivals around the world.
Tell us something about the local Bengali authors, writers and activists whose works and voices will be highlighted this year.
We take a lot of pride in showcasing our talents to the rest of the world. Can you imagine a festival that invites all kinds of luminaries, only to have nothing to show from their own turf? I mean that would be so unfortunate and unworkable too. Fortunately we are blessed with some amazing literary minds and artistic talents in our country. We have two books from the Library of Bangladesh series. I’m particularly looking forward to the launch of two novellas by Imdadul Haq Milon, translated by Saugata Ghosh. But most of all, I’m thrilled to hear Helal Hafiz read from his works; one of my favourite poets, and I believe it would be special for anyone who is familiar with contemporary Bangla poetry.
We have tremendously eloquent speakers who can discuss and debate on a number of contemporary issues: Masuda Bhatti, Mahbub Aziz, Salimullah Khan, Nasreen Jahan, Hossain Zillur Rahman, Firoz Ahmed and Aly Zaker who is a man of many talents. We have wonderful fiction writers like Moinul Ahsan Saber, Selina Hossain, Zakir Talukder, and many others joining us. Celebrated poets like Nirmalendu Goon, Asad Chowdhury and the younger generation poets like Shamim Reza and others.
What are the most anticipated events and panels of DLF 2017?
I’d say if one looks at the programme in full, s/he will be torn between panels – every panel we have put together is actually brilliant and a lot of thought and hard work went into them. We have over 100 sessions and each has been carefully selected and curated. Some of the bigger names – who are well known to our audiences – will draw more crowds and there won’t be enough seating space during their sessions: Adonis, Ben Okri, William Dalrymple, Lionel Shriver, Helal Hafiz, Nirmalendu Goon, and of course, our beloved White Witch from Narnia: Tilda Swinton! My tip: come early, come for the whole day and chalk out a plan amongst your friends to secure seats in the sessions and there will also be the surprises. For example, Granta launch will be special as will be the literary prize giving ceremonies.
Is there any feature that you think distinguishes this year’s arrangement from the previous ones?
We will have three things that will stand out: 1) more security because we have already doubled the number of online registrations from last year, 2) two literary prizes including the announcement of the prestigious DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, which was hosted by Jaipur Literature Festival and a A-list name from Hollywood. That doesn’t happen every year, as it’s not done easily, and you certainly don’t want to miss it, nor you want to sit at home when some of the biggest names are in your city. It's too good to be true: A free ticket to see all these names in one venue over one weekend. If someone told me this when I was growing up in Dhaka in the 1980s/90s, I would have thought two words: “Wishful thinking.”