Culture & Conversation

Drinking the Literary Cocktail

Yesterday I turned into the crow who graces the Blue Met Festival logo and flitted from one event to another – Face to Face with Alaa Al Aswany, Gore Vidal, Amitav Ghosh, and a reading and discussion with Indian poets – Koyamparambath Saatchidanandan, Aziz Hajini and Meena Kandaswamy. My cup ran over with a late night interview with Kandaswamy, a fiery, talented, young, dalit, woman poet.

Even as I was flitting about, I had an acute sense of all the simultaneous events I was missing. It was a fitting frame of mind for encountering Gore Vidal, in flesh. Described as a supernova by interviewer Michael Enright (CBC), he remains witty, articulate and iconoclastic, reminding us that all things must pass (he is 85).

Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany spoke eloquently of a different kind of change – the extraordinary revolution in his country, which he has been part of as a long-standing pro-democracy activist. Aswany emerged above all as a humanist.

He said that the revolution is foremost a human phenomenon because it means that you are in the streets willing to die for freedom, and when you reach this point, all that is good in you becomes manifest. It was during the 18 days he spent among the protestors at Cairo’s Tahir square, he told us, that he knew the true meaning of commonplace words like people and death.

Aswany, interviewed by Eleanor Watchel of Writers and Company (CBC), got a few ovations from the crowd. It would be very worthwhile to listen to the reruns of this interview on Tuesday and Thursday this coming week.

A related theme discussed on the Indian poets panel was whether a writer should identify with and write about particular moments in history, or whether they should aim for a timeless quality in their work. The issue arose when Saatchidanandan, an eminent poet and critic, and Kandaswamy read poems inspired by the 2002 Godhra riots in India. Here, the government of the Indian state of Gujarat was implicated in condoning and commissioning terrible violence against Muslims, though the perpetrators were not brought to justice.

Saatchidanandan argued eloquently for a writer’s right to speak about atrocities around him. “Without being in the moment, you cannot directly land in eternity… you are reacting to a moment and the writers of epics are also reacting to moments,” he said.

I first read Amitav Ghosh’s wonderful early work (The Shadow Lines, In an Antique Land) as a journalist in Bombay in the 1980s. Ghosh also reclaims history and the language of the 19th century in his most recent bestseller, Sea of Poppies. This, the first in a trilogy, was the focus of Noah Richler’s interview in the Face to Face with the author.

Ghosh recreates the lives of Scotsmen who ran a massive operation of opium production and trade in South and East Asia, the local people who worked in the factories, and the lascars, the crewmen from various countries in that region who manned the sailing ships transporting the lucrative cargo from India to China.

Ghosh, a literary archaeologist, reclaims, through painstaking research, the rolling sentences and the sound rich language of that period, an English before it was strait jacked by the standardization imposed by the Oxford English Dictionary. Check out some of his fascinating findings at Chrestomathy.

All the authors encountered refused to be identified with one culture alone, and demonstrated through their words and personalities the incredible richness of the interconnected and interwoven world that we have come to inhabit.

Long live literature and literary festivals!

Veena Gokhale is a Montreal-based communications consultant. She has published a variety of non fiction and fiction.

The 13th annual Blue Met Festival Metropolis Bleu continues through May 1, 2011, at the Holiday Inn Select centre-ville (in Chinatown). For more information visit

PHOTO: from “Gore Vidal: A Biography” by Fred Kaplan, 1999. Caption reads: “Gore Vidal (right) and Harold Lang, probably in Burmuda, 1947.

  • 2 Responses to “Drinking the Literary Cocktail”

    1. Guest

      The CBC show is called Writers & Company. This author is obviously so in love with her writing that she forgets to fact check!


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