Have you tried the local flavour?

The A&K Lit Fest revieweda

By Dimitri Wijesinghe and Bernadine Rodrigo

The brainchild of Capt. Elmo Jayawardena and put into action with the help of a small group of like-minded individuals, in 2015, Annasi & Kadalagotu (A&K) was launched as an authentic Sri Lankan literary festival and thereon, every year, is highly anticipated by literary enthusiasts all over the country.

The event has one goal: To pay tribute to those local authors and publishers whose work sustains Sri Lanka’s literary identity.

It provides a collaborative platform for those who are passionate about literature to explore writing, reading, and the diverse expressions, cultures, and perspectives of the Sri Lankan people.

It has been happening consecutively for five years now and in 2019, it opened with the theme: “Have you tried the local flavour?” With the agenda of showing a vast amount of various discussions and happenings, it had the toes of the lit heads tingling and wiggling until the day came.

The programme – the good and the bad

The festival had attracted various people, some of whom had already been to the festival before and also those who heard about it for the first time. While all those present were extremely excited to be part of the event, unfortunately, the turnout was not as would be expected from such a vast event. It is disappointing that people weren’t willing to come, especially as the tickets were very reasonably priced at Rs. 100.

The festival was supposed to have been a day buzzing with hoards of people from all over the country simply due to its affordability; perhaps it was not properly advertised or did not appeal to some of the people of Sri Lanka who may not see literature and reading as something that can be pursued at anything other than a book sale.

How was it that despite the tickets being so reasonably priced, the turnout was not too great? One could ponder the same thing in the context of an art gallery and exhibitions – why is it that while art exhibitions are free, someone who might walk into the University of Visual of Performing Arts Gallery may not necessarily walk into a gallery down Horton Place? In this example, neither location charges entry fees; it seems that what exits is an invisible barrier.
It was a sad sight to behold; the audience at the panel discussions were small.

These discussions, however, were not as expected. While some discussions captivated attendees’ interest, others simply did not. However, this is not demonstrative of how the event went; it was a wondrous occasion where not a single person left without a wholesome heart.

However, we felt they could have improved.

In terms of volume and the variety of writers, poets, and literary enthusiasts they had, the A&K was far from lacking, but it seemed that this great variety and large numbers was the primary issue in the smooth execution of the discussions.

Some panels consisted of a simply too diverse group of individuals who were required to blend and mix ideas; it turned out to be different people giving out different speeches about their own beliefs rather than a group of experts discussing a topic on a forum to reach a conclusion.

Some of the panellists, such as those speaking on reconciliation and such topics, simply did not address the literary side of things at all. While the moderator tried with great difficulty to relate the questions to their literary work, most of the panellists simply spoke about their personal beliefs on social division and their personal experiences of it – simply not what the panel was for.

There were also panels that were truly insightful. We noted that the discussions that focused mostly on women were executed the best. The panel especially, moderated by Smriti Daniel, which had influential female authors such as the famous Vetrichelvi, Prashani Rambukwella, and Dr. Bodhini Samaratunga, all representing the cause of female writers and also living and growing up in a country which has been through so much, as Sri Lanka has, was one excellent panel that truly left the attendee with something to take back – be it the pride of being a woman or pride of being a Sri Lankan. Out of all the panels that were conducted, this one – “A woman’s gaze” – was indeed the one which did the greatest justice to the A&K lit fest.

Sybil Wettasinghe’s forum too was something the people loved seeing as it brought her readers – children and adults – closer to her as she spoke about her life and experiences which made her the world-famous woman she is now.

Is A&K still serving its purpose?

There were some individuals who were just only aware of it but had heard of it and what it stood for. They expressed concern about the nature of the programmes, particularly about the festival, that despite it being advertised as a trilingual one, there was a marked absence of Tamil literature.

Some guests expressed how, at the very beginning of the A&K journey, there was serious effort put into making the programme a trilingual one, whereas they’ve noticed that even though there was a panel on trilingualism, it could’ve been better to exemplify that by having panels in the three languages.

There also appeared to be some confusion on what language each session would be conducted in as the programme details did not contain that information and so most people had to take a chance.

However, language barriers at the panels were low with the introduction of the auto translate facility which allowed for just about anyone to take part in any of the panels without hassle. Nevertheless, it must be considered that accessibility is not just having the means – you must clearly communicate it.

Vasika Udurawane – panellist

I was here for one of the panels a long time ago as a fan, but never before as a panellist – this is my first. I am promoting Nadishka Aloysius’s book Raavana’s Daughter and I am the illustrator of the book.

I’ve always wanted to be a part of a major artistic event where I get to showcase my work in a preferred form. It’s kind of a big deal for me, so it’s been totally awesome.

Shakthika Sathkumara – panellist

I’ve not participated here before, but I think it’s fantastic. What I feel is so special about this is that a great number of young people have made an appearance, which is very important. Also, I have to say the topics chosen for discussion appear to go beyond the traditional. I hope that it continues to grow as an event and hopefully gains more popularity as time goes on.

My short story has been subjected to some criticism and then with the case filed against me in the court of law too.

Pamoda Dananji Perera, Milani Kaushalya, and Nipuni – volunteers

We got involved in volunteering and also helped organise the event because we believe that this event is very important. Literature is very important and this is happening in all three languages, and so is of great value because it is a great example of how we have to respect the languages that all the citizens in the island use.

I am really interested in English literature; it is my passion and I love poetry and one day I would like to write a poem of my own. So, because of this, while helping in the running of the event, we are also attending the sessions.

It’s been a really great experience, especially because it is so well organised, especially with headsets with the translation feature being given to people so that language is not a barrier.

Rajitha Fernando – organiser

English literature festivals cater to a certain class usually, so Captain Elmo, who is always about giving something back to society, started this event five years ago. Originally, we held it at the (Western Province) Aesthetic Centre near Thurstan Grounds, and then Mount Lavinia Hotel offered up this place.

There are pros and cons to this. As the entrance fee is Rs. 100, you can at least come here and enjoy the air conditioning and take a look around the beautiful architecture of the building; it is therefore accessible to anyone.

The programmes are in all three languages and we’ve brought in this auto translation facility, although people were a little reluctant to take the aid.

We are also running multiple programmes and because we are using three halls, we can conduct several at the same time and give attendees more variety.

If you want to launch a book, it’s very costly and today (21), we launched two books absolutely free; you can have your launch party at the Mount Lavinia Hotel with a ready audience and good venue – it’s the perfect platform.

Today, a girl brought a manuscript and Elmo is trying to fix her up with a publisher, and maybe next year, we’ll have her launch party here.”

Imaad Majeed – former organiser

I remember in 2012 back when I interviewed Captain Elmo and he told me about a dream he had of one day walking to Galle Face Green and seeing the annasi vendor doing his thing, handing over kadalagotu while listening to someone reciting poetry and he said that he wanted to call that his dream for the future. Some years after that, when he wanted to do the festival, he got in touch with me and we put together a team and tried to make it a reality.

The first one was held at the Western Province Aesthetic Centre which, I felt in comparison to the subsequent venue, was far more accessible and much more in line with the ethos – at least as I understood it back then.

I have not been involved since then and I haven’t attended the festival since as I found it rather odd when it was announced that Mount Lavinia Hotel was coming on board.

As for today, my immediate impression was that it was really strange to see the A&K branding in the context of the Mount Lavinia Hotel which is a colonial vestige where you’re pretty inescapable from the elite and this idea of sort of glorifying our colonial past. These sessions within these ballrooms where you have pictures of our former colonisers and oddly, inappropriately-coloured Lavinia all feels strange and jarring. I was also told a story of how a girl had come in with a manuscript to hopefully connect with a publisher. In the first one, they had a publisher’s clinic where they had three publishers with separate time slots where you could just walk in with manuscript ideas and consult them; this too would’ve been a great addition to a festival such as this.

Nirojini – poet and singer

I heard from my friends that there was an event where Sri Lankan poetry was being recited and that they would like me to recite some Tamil poetry. It’s very rare that we find places like this for Sri Lankan talent, so I am grateful that something like this is happening in Sri Lanka. I am inspired to write about the struggles I go through as a female in this country and I am glad that I can showcase my work.

Linda – immigrant from New Mexico

I like books and I am a big reader and it was accidental that this morning I saw the event being set up. I talked to Elmo and he told me a little bit about his passion for books and then I looked at the panels and thought it was very interesting.

I think the Sri Lankan people love books and reading and I feel lucky to have stumbled upon this event.

Dean the Bookman – vendor at the event

I have been having a stall at this event since the first time it started five years ago at the Colombo 7 Aesthetic Centre.

Captain Elmo invited me for it because he had known me since about 40 years ago, when we were both much younger. He was a frequent customer of mine.