Byron Writers Festival director, Edwina Johnson, visited India in January of this year as one of the delegates for the Australia Council India Exploratory 2017 Program, where she had the opportunity to immerse herself in India’s vibrant literary scene. She spoke to Emily Brugman about her experience.
The Australia Council for the Arts funded program, which ran over 12 days, took four Australian publishers and two festival directors on a whirlwind trip across India, where they visited three major literary festivals, participated in networking events, and visited a few special publishing houses along the way.
The program, led by the Australia Council’s Wendy Were, is in its third year. In addition to Edwina Johnson, the 2017 delegation included Fiona Henderson (Affirm Press), Cate Blake (Penguin Random House), Margot Lloyd (Wakefield Press), Steph Siriwardene (Scribe) and Laura Kroetsch (Adelaide Writers Week). The aim of the program, as set out by the Australia Council, is to forge strong links between Australian and Indian publishers, develop audiences and build markets for literature in both places.
The delegation’s itinerary included the Hindu Lit for Life Festival in Chennai, the Apeejay Kolkata Literary Festival and Jaipur Literary Festival, with round table meetings with up to 40 publishers taking place at each location, as well as in Delhi.
Edwina likened the festival in Chennai, the group’s first stop, to the Byron Writers Festival in terms of size, feel and layout. “I see Chennai as a sister festival to Byron” she explains, describing the way the festival was set out across one location, with a relaxed atmosphere and a diverse program which was both literary-minded and politically charged.
Next stop, Kolkata.
This festival took place in various locations. “We attended a book launch at the Royal Calcutta Turf Club with views back across the city”, says Edwina, “evening events in beautiful gardens and squares, and daytime sessions in the much-loved Oxford Bookstore.”
The group also had the opportunity to visit Seagull Books, a renowned Indian publishing house and bookstore, “comparable perhaps to visiting the iconic Shakespeare and Co in Paris’ Left Bank” says Edwina. They also run a hands-on publishing program at The Seagull School of Publishing, with aspiring editors and publishers enrolled from around the world.
“The Woodstock of literary festivals… the majority of the crowd was under 30, and many of the young readers and writers who make the trip to Jaipur can’t afford a place to stay, so the metro station is littered with sleeping bodies on each of the five nights of the festival.”
Then came Jaipur Literature Festival, the world’s largest, free literary festival, which takes place in one of the city’s extravagant Rajasthani palaces. There were 80 000 registered attendees this year, with a much greater estimated footfall. “The Woodstock of literary festivals,” suggests Edwina, “the majority of the crowd was under 30, and many of the young readers and writers who make the trip to Jaipur can’t afford a place to stay, so the metro station is littered with sleeping bodies on each of the five nights of the festival.” The Economist describes the Jaipur crowd as young, lively and euphoric, “it wanted to be provoked, was eager to laugh and fought to be heard.” For Edwina, to find herself amidst crushes of young people with such drive to discuss and celebrate literature was truly amazing, if a little overwhelming when trying to make her way through a thoroughfare.
The program had a number of valuable outcomes, some tangible and immediate, others more open-ended and long-term. Overall, the trip enabled Edwina to strike up meaningful and sustainable relationships with her counter-parts in India, which she sees continuing well into the future. As a starting point, she is thrilled to have had the opportunity to meet face-to-face with many extraordinary Indian writers, three of which—who she felt would be particularly well received in Byron—she has programed for the upcoming festival. The trip was also an insight into interesting and imaginative collaborations happening within Indian publishing. Edwina was especially inspired by a collaborative literature project called, ‘The Valley, the City, the Village’, which facilitates a cross-cultural exchange between Indian and Welsh writers. “I would love to establish something similar here in Australia, whether it be nationwide or within the Northern Rivers region.” There were myriad stories and projects like this that made an impression on Edwina during her time in India – an experience she describes as one of the most nourishing of her working life thus far.