In the Room: Against a Cultural Boycott of the Galle Literary Festival

February 17, 2011 | 2 books mentioned 14 6 min read

It was late January 2009, and I hadn’t read the news in days. It felt like a wound. In the basement of the Lighthouse Hotel in Galle, Sri Lanka, the business centre was dark. I sat back in my chair, staring at a white computer screen, which was nearly the only light in the room.

My inbox has always offered me an American volume and variety of information no matter where I open it. That night it was full of what was going on in other parts of Sri Lanka, a country in which my parents were born, and I was not. About five hundred kilometers north of where I was a guest at the Galle Literary Festival, the Sri Lankan Army was fighting the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

People were dying in this war—among them, unarmed civilians caught between the warring parties. I knew it; I had arrived knowing it. And they were mostly Tamils. I am Tamil. The hollow curve of nothingness inside me sharpened to a point: I missed home with something bordering on pain or hunger. Home was a place where people would have talked about this openly.

And what was this place? Wasn’t this festival also a place where we made space for important subjects? After some consideration—how empty was the room? how empty did I feel?—my eyes swam. I recalled, as though it had been years rather than minutes, the top floor of the hotel, where I had just left a group of readers and writers talking to one another. The night’s insistent, pulsing beauty. Their voices persisting, the conversation moving through the air by the sea.

Prior to this year’s Galle Literary Festival, which was held last month, I saw that Arundhati Roy, Noam Chomsky, and some other writers were calling for an authors’ boycott of the event through an appeal publicized and supported mainly by the French NGO, Reporters Without Borders.

“We believe this is not the right time for prominent international writers like you to give legitimacy to the Sri Lankan government’s suppression of free speech by attending a conference that does not in any way push for greater freedom of expression inside that country,” their statement said. They cited the unsolved murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, a prominent newspaper editor, which had happened mere days before my 2009 arrival in Sri Lanka. They also emphasized the disappearance of a cartoonist, Prageeth Eknaligoda, whose work was critical of the government. They cited the deaths and disappearances of a number of other journalists as a justification for their call to writers to disengage with the literary festival.

It is true—and bears repeating—that threats to media freedom and freedom of expression in Sri Lanka have largely met with impunity. To say this horrifies me would be an understatement.

But it is not true that the Galle Literary Festival is “a conference that does not in any way push for greater freedom of expression inside that country.” Yes, in the room the women come and go, talking of Michaelangelo. But the room itself—the room itself is very important. Talking about writing, art and ideas can be quite a serious business, one that is all the more necessary as freedom of speech is threatened, as writers censor themselves or disappear.

What is it that a literary festival does? Since my book came out in 2008, I have been to a number of them; we talk about books and art and life, and people seem, for the most part, happy.

I was unhappy that night in Galle when I read the news, but I did not begrudge my fellows the happiness of the festival, its victory of joy and art and conversation and ideas in this place that like any other place, deserved and deserves to talk and sing and laugh. Happiness is not an offense against the unhappy, and happiness, too, can be an act of resistance. Happiness is not necessarily a light or unconsidered thing.

To read, to write, to talk: these are small acts of valiance—though certainly not the only ones—in a country where some have died for words, for art. We create and consume art to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves and others. So why would you defend freedom of speech by suggesting that people stop talking?

And yet putting people in a room together is not enough either. These people must choose to walk toward each other and have real conversations. This is hard anywhere, but especially in an environment where freedom has been threatened. “Only connect,” E.M. Forster wrote. Writers tend to think of this in terms of craft, but hold it up for a moment, and let the light shine through: it’s a political statement. If you have that room, what will you do with it?

Don’t show up for the literary festival and this will never happen to you:

I wander through a crowd at the festival, and a man pauses before me. He is older than me, and has glasses. An uncle, albeit the kind who is not related.

You’re the author of Love Marriage.

I nod.

I’m Tamil, from Jaffna, he said. It’s good to see you here.

If you do not go, you will not meet the reader who has been waiting for this conversation with you. Who has questions for you. And you will never realize that you were waiting for him too, with your own questions, with the ever-unfurling scroll of the things you don’t know.

If a country stops people from speaking and no one is there to witness it, does it make no sound?

Meet my students in Galle, where I taught a workshop. The oldest student might have been in his fifties, and the youngest, a girl with skin as smooth as milk, was perhaps as young as ten. I had given them something to read—the short story “The Things They Carried,” by Tim O’Brien. They looked and looked and looked at the things people carry with them as they move through conflict. We talked about war and metaphor and burdens and gifts and choice and memory and love.

At the end of the class, the girl pressed her lips to my cheek. Thank you, she said shyly. She spoke English with a Sinhalese accent and was from the Colombo neighborhood of Cinnamon Gardens. Her older brother smiled at me.

If I met them on a street in Colombo I think I would know them, the almost indescribable sweetness of their faces, their good intentions, their unpretentious love of words, and their deep-hearted openness to the places words could bring them, although they were children, and what the story had shown them was both horrible and beautiful.

“What they carried,” they read, “varied by mission.”

I carried the book I had written, which is about a Sri Lankan family that lives inside and outside of Sri Lanka, and its daughter, who must learn her forebears’ political pasts and decide her own future.

I carried the character of Kumaran, a Tamil Tiger, who belongs to this family, who is dying, and who regrets parts of his life even as he remembers wrongs that have befallen him. I carried his siblings, his daughter, his friends, his enemies, and the lives I had imagined for them. The thousand empathies I had tried to invent. I carried what people had said about the book being wrong, or untrue, or tilting too far or unfairly one way or another. I carried letters from people who believed in it, who told me they loved it. I carried my fear. But I went. And people asked me about the story I had written.

“We ask that by your actions you send a clear message that, unless and until the disappearance of Prageeth is investigated and there is a real improvement in the climate for free expression in Sri Lanka, you cannot celebrate writing and the arts in Galle,” says the Reporters Without Borders statement.

coverLet me tell you about one of the first books I loved. It is called Funny Boy, and its author, Shyam Selvadurai, curated this year’s Galle Literary Festival. Funny Boy is about a young gay Tamil boy coming of age in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Sri Lanka; it ends with a brutal depiction of the 1983 anti-Tamil riots, a staggering spate of violence in which the government was complicit and in which thousands died.

In one chapter of the book, a journalist goes missing. I won’t tell you what happens to him. You should read it for yourself. You should celebrate this book, which I respect and admire, and think you would too.

Dear Reporters Without Borders: You can’t possibly be saying that talking about art isn’t a political act! But say whatever you want to say. I promise to show up, and to defend your freedom of speech by being one of those who wants to speak to you.

“We ask you in the great tradition of solidarity that binds writers together everywhere, to stand with your brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka who are not allowed to speak out,” Reporters Without Borders says.

To those who would have writers from abroad stop going to Sri Lanka: I refuse to disappear. If my brother vanishes, is it an act of solidarity for me to leave the place where he was lost? When I have the ability to be there?

The great traditions of solidarity are built on conversation, long and careful study and thought, and yes, informed travel of the mind and body—not the petition of a moment. This is a long engagement, and must emphasize serious exchange—something that has no chance of happening if the door is closed.

Invite me to Galle again. I’ll go. Let my eyes swim. Let the talk waft around me; it may not be perfect or entire, but it will be ours, and I want to listen to it go as far as it can, to be one of the people who walks toward other people rather than away. I will meet you, my friend, by the ocean; this is solidarity because you will tell me about your place, and I will tell you about mine.

Image used with permission of Galle Literary Festival Sri Lanka

's first novel, Love Marriage, was long-listed for the Orange Prize and named one of Washington Post Book World's Best of 2008. She is the Zell Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Michigan.


  1. The only thing I see wrong with this article is the authors innocence in assuming that the whole boycott was a genuine effort to make Sri lanka a better place. While I respect the bright of everybody to attend or not to attend I find it hard to think that pr machinery that was in place during the bad times are totally dismantled now. There is too much money available for that to happen.

    However I applaud the author and all those other who came. I think all Sri lankans whatever their race is would want to get on with life and get back some of the lost years. Yes there are some bad things happening but all this kind of boycotts do is to give credence to the conspiracy theories and give a reason for suppression.

  2. I was at the Jaipur Festival in January, and talk of boycotting Galle was in the air. It troubled me for reasons I didn’t stop to make sense of at the time. So glad that you did, in this beautiful essay.

  3. I thing this woman is a serious threat to peace in sri lanka than Rajapakse or the late Prabakaran of Ceylon. She understands clearly the west where she is domiciled is on the offensive towards Sri Lanka (a majority of the people of Sri Lanka are anti West , anti Indian and foremost anti minority). And V.V now tries to somehow justify herself for previously attending the Rajapakse/Bell Pottinger funded festivals of Sri lanka against internationally recognized organizations and humane personalities. Cheers, good luck. I wouldnt be surprised if you came up with an article praising the armed forces of Sri Lanka or against accountability measures taken by the UN.

  4. I respect your commitment to Human Right’s in Sri Lanka as well as your thoughtful approach to issues, and I know little about this particular festival. However,I do know something about cultural boycotts, and disagree with what I see as your argument that generally speaking engagement is far preferable to disengagement.

    In particular you asked “If my brother vanishes, is it an act of solidarity for me to leave the place where he was lost? When I have the ability to be there?”

    This was the question at the heart of the debate around the sports boycott of South Africa. For a long time people outside ZA maintained that just because black players couldn’t play on the South African team didn’t mean that integrated teams shouldn’t play against South Africa. Instead they expected quite the opposite, that since South Africa’s sports segregation was founded on erroneous beliefs about racial performance in sports that engagement would be far more profitable than boycotting.

    What makes the South African case interesting is that there was both an extended period of engagement and disengagement, so we get to see how well both policies worked as forms of communication.

    Looking back, it was in fact a far greater act of solidarity to “leave the place where he was lost when they had the ability to be there.” This was true despite the long history of conversation between nations via sports, the tradition of sporting events as building mutual understanding, and the very clear logical arguments in favor of engagement. History showed our theories wrong.

    In the end, people within ZA got the message far more clearly as a result of disengagement than they did engagement. This was true in sport, in culture, and even in business.

    Now, of course, this is not Apartheid South Africa. You might very well be right about this particular case, although your discussion of it makes more of a general argument than a specific one. Nor am I in favor of favor of knee-jerk shunning.

    *** However if you look back at most of the major cultural boycotts, I think you give the value of disengagement as a form of conversation too little shrift, and give artistic conversation too much credit.***

    Reporters without borders are well aware of that the “great traditions of solidarity are built on conversation” but they believe that part of that conversation has to be at a distance sometimes, and with good reason. Whether this boycott is a good idea or not is an area where I defer to your good judgment, I have none in this matter.

  5. The Galle Literary Festival

    Existed during the height of the armed conflict in which a conservatively estimated 30,000 Tamil civilians (gordon weiss former UN spokesman) were killed by the Singhalese army.

    It existed while >300,000 Tamils were forced into internment camps and held under wretched conditions while Tamil woman were systematically raped by Singhalese soldiers (former US ambassador Robert Blake, Secretary of State Hiliary Clinton) in a prostitution scheme run by Karuna, a Member of Parliament of President Rajapaksa’s party.

    It continues to exist while the “government” runs a terror campaign in Jaffna and acts quickly to colonize the North and East provinces with Singhalese from the south in order breakup the contiguous Tamil areas (anonymous HR activists) while tens of thousands of Tamil civilians are still in internments camps today?

    The reason I mention these things is because ATTENDING the GLF will have NO IMPACT in bringing about the meaningful change Sri Lanka so desperately needs. The country is too far gone.

    But publicly boycotting will.

    And here is why

    Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa (who according to the US ambassador to SL, allegedly committed war crimes) desperately want a picture for the international community that everything is fine (and the GLF unwittingly plays a part in this charade).

    but it is not the case.

    Not in the North and East provinces where what is taking place can only really only be described as a military occupation; and not in the South where opponents of the government and media who speak about the use of chemical weapons against civilians, illegal arms deals, and speak in support of the opposition are disappeared (Sri Lanka is 2nd only to Iraq), jailed, or beaten up.

    A public boycott of the Galle Literary Festival will do more to help the Tamil “uncle” from Jaffna, the journalists who have been disappeared or killed, and the young Singhalese girl “with skin as smooth as milk, perhaps as young as ten”, than your attendance EVER will.

    It will send a clear message to a war criminal and his supporters that we know what you did and we will hold the military – civilian complex accountable.

    Rajapaksa and the Galle Literary Festival organizers (GLF) may have found there poster girl for next year’s event. Tamil AND a girl, the foreign embassies will flip over this! But that doesn’t mean you have to drink the kool-aid too.

  6. Ennis, black sportsmen and -women were being kept out of sports in South Africa, so it made sense to punish the sporting bodies via boycotts. In SL, no group is being kept out of literature, so picking on the GLF is as silly as picking on the annual Gay & Lesbian Kite-Flying Competition. Neither group has any real influence over the GoSL, nor is a party to any repressive actions carried out by the GoSL.

    The only connection any of the advocates of the boycott can make, is the rather tenuous one of the SL Ministry of Tourism being a sponsor of the GLF. The MoT routinely co-sponsors most events that draw in tourism, from surfing competitions to golf tournaments to cultural festivals. Other sponsors of the GLF include the British and Norwegian Embassies, the British Council, various international hotel chains and airlines, amongst others. How come RSF and JDS didn’t picket these organisations if they were serious about the boycott?

    What is ironic is that the organisers, attendees, and participants of the GLF are almost exclusively English-speaking urban elite Sri Lankans and expats who are largely sympathetic to the cause of media freedom and democracy, and mostly dislike the current SL administration. By targeting this group, RSF and JDS have alienated a group sympathetic to their cause for absolutely no effect. 90% of SL has never heard of the GLF, much less a boycott of it, and the GoSL couldn’t care less whether it existed or not. What is more ironic is that SL tourism is booming and any cancellation of the festival wouldn’t have scratched the number of tourists coming in. Hotels are at capacity. Whereas in the war years when tourism was heavily hit, the GLF played a role in bringing in much needed foreign custom to hotels in southern SL, and a boycott back then might actually have hurt the GoSL. Today, this boycott is a laughable farce that has done nothing but damage the reputations of the RSF and the JDS.

    I can’t really blame RSF for being clueless about the realities of SL, but JDS definitely knew this boycott would be ineffectual and probably counter-productive. So why did they do it? I’m sure some digging will bring out the fact that the JDS was up for some much-needed funding and needed to show that they were actually doing something; so they looked around, noticed that the only thing happening in SL at that point was the GLF, and went to the RSF with this hair-brained scheme.

    Raj, I won’t even dignify your silly comment with a response, beyond saying that none of it is true, and challenge you to post proof of your claims.

  7. I am a huge fan of the Galle Literary Festival. The ambiance, the authors, the tourism generated for our country.

    But, i do have to add that this boycott is not all bad. Yes, i would have loved to hear Arundhati Roy as she authored one of my favourite books, but by boycotting this festival she actually made me sit up and think about the freedom of speech in this country. or lack, thereof. A boycott like this generates publicity. in this case bad publicity for our government which may not be a bad thing for the country in the long run.

    We, as Sri lankans, should be more outraged about the crimes committed against the freedom of speech in this country. We may be angry, but we do nothing. and it has resulted in international authors having to take the stand for us. create the publicity that we could not create (maybe not our own fault due to the government). and while we may miss an opportunity to see a few favourite authors, they do have us discussing the actual matter at hand – the lack of freedom of speech in Sri Lanka, which may have otherwise gone undiscussed.

  8. A good reading. Would the author also extend the same analysis for let us say the Commonwealth meeting of the Heads of State, Commonwealth Games etc

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