When we started the festival we had ambitious dreams. Despite having a rich tradition of literature stretching back well over a thousand years, Bangladeshi writing remained largely unknown throughout the world. Contemporary writers, apart from a few, were also cut off from the global literary landscape. We wanted the festival to feature the best of our literature and culture, past and present, and be a platform to take our stories way beyond our borders. We envisaged bringing the world’s greatest minds to Bangladesh -- to inspire a new generation to think broadly and diversely, beyond the confines of an insular nationalism; to be inspired to put in the dedication to produce work that could stand among the best.
While our mission to connect across borders and engage with other literatures and cultures was the original impetus for the festival, our growth throughout recent years has been achieved in the backdrop of a new reality, that none of us imagined when we embarked on this journey. The early years of the festival were encouraging -- it felt like a renaissance of sorts. New English imprints and literary journals emerged, modern translations were commissioned, our authors were starting to get international book deals and took part in international literary festivals, and we had begun connecting to fellow writers, poets, agents and publishers across the world, alongside celebrating the pluralism and syncretism of Bangladesh.
Even though we have faced numerous challenges, we felt that it was more important than ever that we continue to encourage discourse and dialogue, to have the difficult conversations that we need to have, to explore alternate narratives, and to actually talk to each other rather than being smug in our own echo chambers
The ramifications of the war crime trials, the murder of writers and publishers in Bangladesh, and further killings and threats against creative personalities, progressives and foreigners, and importantly, the changing global scene with the rise of extremisms and intolerance, has meant that over time the festival has taken on a new urgency. This space matters. Nearly every year since 2012 we have been asked if we will cancel the festival. Even though we have faced numerous challenges, we felt that it was more important than ever that we continue to encourage discourse and dialogue, to have the difficult conversations that we need to have, to explore alternate narratives, and to actually talk to each other rather than being smug in our own echo chambers. As Bangladeshis we have always been passionate about language, and the freedom to express ourselves. Yet suddenly that which we had always taken for granted was under threat. In 2015 we decided to re-brand the festival to bring Dhaka to the forefront. In that year we were faced with unprecedented obstacles, with 19 authors dropping out; and yet we were still determined to keep the festival going, In the end, over 15,000 attended despite a shutdown of Facebook right before the festival, a strike on the first day of the festival, and the execution of war criminals on the final evening.
What had started out as a great idea to take Bangladeshi literature to the world, and to bring a part of the world to us, has turned into somewhat of a mission to stand up for what we believe in. To continue to protect a space for free discourse at a time when such spaces are under pressure around the world. While connecting with the world, we are also rediscovering ourselves – and our roots of tolerance and respect for different cultural influences, by bringing, for example, rural theatrical and oral forms to urban Dhakaites, as well as the rest of the world. We feature a range of diverse topics, from fiction to literary non-fiction, poetry to history, science to graphic novels, to make it truly a festival of thoughts and ideas. Every year we have strong women’s panels, bringing out stories that need to be heard – from women’s monologues, to strides made by young women in different professions, to discussing why what a woman wears needs to be discussed. This year there will be sessions on sexual violence, and a celebration of stories of super-girls. We are also having those difficult conversations surrounding religion and sexuality, to counteract growing fundamentalist forces. In 2012 we came under criticism for holding an international festival on the grounds of Bangla Academy, the soul of Bangla literature. However, the festival has emerged as an important forum where Bangla is presented side by side with English, with audiences engaging with both English and Bangla writers, and attending sessions in both languages, rather than being in separate worlds. We have also have had simultaneous translations in selected sessions from last year into both languages. Translations have always been a mainstay of our festival year upon year, as have celebrating almost-forgotten languages of this region.
As we move into our 7th year, it seems pressing to question the way we look and talk about literature. We feel Dhaka Lit Fest can be a place to try and change perspectives from an anglophile, or west vs east divide, to bring out important but often marginalised voices from the periphery, and to encourage a range of narratives that may not be represented in popular discourse. It also seems urgent to have conversations of global relevance, some of which do not seem as possible in the places that we had previously turned towards, to challenge and interrogate the status quo.
Sadaf Saaz, a director and producer of Dhaka Lit Fest, is a poet.
Sari Reams, her first collection of poems, was published by University Press Limited in 2013