Breathless

I slipped out of the room, near the end of a discussion on writing inspiration, straining my ears as the voice of Louis de Bernieres faded gradually.   In no time I was on my way to Mandalay airport. I could scarcely breathe. My heart was fluttering and my pulse racing. And for once this was not a medical problem!

On my flight to Bangkok, I found myself in a strange middle space still airborne from the inspirational weekend, yet on the brink of an intense week of work and travel.  I closed my eyes, clasping the memories of the weekend, and those cherished moments, the very ones you keep safely in a little imaginary memory jar, in the mind’s eye.

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I was leaving Mandalay, where the Second Irrawaddy Literary Festival was coming to a close and I was fired with enthusiasm and inspiration strangely edged with disbelief.  Crammed into just over two days, I had gathered many magical conversations to be treasured and precious moments to immortalise, dialogues with like minds and unexpected connections in the organised sessions as well as impromptu exchanges.

Moments such as:

Joe Woods chatting with Polly Devlin

Joe Woods chatting with Polly Devlin

  • Chatting with Jung Chang, her beckoning me over to sit with her when she saw me sitting apart, her kindness and thoughtfulness warming me.
Sitting next to Jung Chang

Sitting next to Jung Chang

Jung Chang author of Wild Swans

Jung Chang author of Wild Swans

  • Discovering that not only am I sitting next to Jung Chang, I am also sitting very close to Louis de Bernieres!
Sitting very close to Louis de Bernieres in the audience

Sitting very close to Louis de Bernieres in the audience

  • Listening to Karen Connelly read her extract from The Lizard’s Cage and compelling me to read it as soon as I can.
  • Polly Devlin gifting me her memoir because I told her how much her session had moved me.
  • Hearing the wisdom of great and revered writers on writing.  “If you are “stuck” as Louis de Bernieres said, “just go shopping”, anything rather than sit there and look at a blank screen, or piece of paper.  Keep thinking, jot down ideas and use your dreams”.
  • Sitting at the table next to Thant Myint U, listening to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in conversation with Joan Bakewell (and avoiding being well baked in the room where it was held)
Audience with the Lady - watching from outside

Audience with the Lady – watching from outside

  • Saying “Good morning” to the Lady as she swept past after her talk.
The Lady sweeps past me in the hotel lobby

The Lady sweeps past me in the hotel lobby

  • Meeting a Yangon friend and learning that he is an acclaimed Irish Poet.
  • Pausing on the staircase to chat with Ko Ko Thett and share a love of poetry.
  • Spending time in the passageway for a conversation with Pascal Khoo Thwe and being able to tell him that his “From the Land of Green Ghosts” is one of the few books I have read twice.
  • Admiring the beautiful handwriting of Lous de Bernieres as he signed my copies of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and we chatted about education in Nepal following the conflict.
  • Being able to talk with Karen Connelly and sharing contact details in the hope that we can meet for coffee and writerly chat in Yangon.

Similarly to my experience of the Literary Festival last year, I found the authors and speakers incredibly approachable and unassuming. I still struggle a little to believe that I was able to talk with and listen to such esteemed figures. This year the Festival had been itself the subject of some discussions and changes but I remained largely oblivious to that as I was swept along by the tide of creativity.

Sitting listening to Polly Devlin in the company of Louis de Bernieres and Jung Chang

Sitting listening to Polly Devlin in the company of Louis de Bernieres and Jung Chang

I am now back in Yangon, my case is unpacked and a number of new books are trying to find a space to squeeze in to the bookcase. Ideas are flowing and a breeze of new energy is breathing fresh life into my writing projects.

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To seek out wonders….

 “Travel writers seek out wonders. That’s our job. It always has been — and always will be.”

From the opening sentence I was on the edge of my seat, listening attentively, taking notes and nodding like the classroom swot.  Rory MacLean’s words were resounding in my head. Indeed we do seek out wonders, in so many ways.  I know I am not exactly a (budding) travel writer, being based in overseas countries rather than journeying as such.  However, much of my experience is very similar, observing, smiling and reflecting on the little and not so little details of what is new and different around me.  The tiny details which you almost miss, as much as the grand, well-known wonders.  Although I have been in Asia for over a decade, I still have that sense of novelty and delight in my surroundings and the innumerable wonders which are there if only you open your eyes and mind.

This was my first session at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival.  The event which had been unthinkable until a few months previously, and the three days which had been fiercely protected in my diary, only to be sabotaged by a nasty stomach bug. I was still feeling somewhat delicate on the second day of the Festival, having missed the full first day due to the wicked bug.  Gingerly, I joined the audience late in the morning to listen to three writers  Rory Maclean, Caroline Courtauld and Monisha Rajesh talk about Travel Writing.  And I was hooked from those opening words, listening to these authors talk about their work and their differing approaches to seeking out wonders to share in their writing.Rory MacLean, Monisha Rajesh and Caroline Courtauld

They shared insights, anecdotes and techniques and I scribbled furiously.  The future of travel writing was explored, given that the physical journeys have pretty much been travelled. How can a travel writer then focus on new wonders? The writers talked about the importance of reflection in travel writing, in describing an experience using all the senses and not only visual and the facts.  There is no wonder in recording basic facts.  Do photographs make us lazy? The beauty of travel writing is in enabling the reader to re-live the wonder which enthrals the writer.

I was able to speak briefly with the writers after the session, which added to the inspirational mood and set me up beautifully for the remainder of the day.  I was already forgetting that I missed the first day completely!

From the time I first saw the information about the Festival, I was blown away by the calibre and number of the writers who would be there.  I was particularly excited about a session on narrative fiction with a writer I had not known about – Akash Kapur along with two names very prominent on my bookcase.  Thant Myint U and Pascal Khoo Thwe, both are authors I worship.  One of the first books I read after being posted here in Myanmar was The Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe and I have read this once more since then, as well as gifting the book to several friends.

Land of Green Ghosts

It provides a wonderful insight into Myanmar traditional and rural life, and is an utterly engaging and compelling memoir of a young man from a very remote part of Myanmar.  Pascal Khoo Thwe now lives in the UK and in fact has only visited Yangon three times in his life!  He shared beautiful insights and details, and one which stayed with me was his account of arriving in the UK.  He told us that he arrived in London after a long flight from Bangkok and was most disoriented.  The plane landed in thick grey cloud, and after he was met he was taken onwards on the London Underground.  He told us that at the forefront of his mind, was the voice of one of his grandmothers.  She maintained that on death, we move on from this world to a place where the sun is unseen and people live underground! You can see why I love his book so much.

PascalKhooThwe

As this session was coming to an end, people were getting up and leaving early.  We knew why.  The next session, due to start as that one came to a close was an audience with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and there was a palpable sense of anticipation.  My friend and I did not leave the session until it was completely over, we were enjoying every last word, and also did not like to give a message that this session was in any way less engaging.

Of course, we had planned to listen to her talk though, and we trotted on over to the room where it was to take place. And we were not alone.  There were hordes of people and we soon discovered that the room was full and the doors shut.  However, the word on the lips of everyone in the crowd was that she would address everyone on the Terrace after her audience.  The Terrace is lovely, but hot, and exposed to the scorching afternoon sun.  When you add that to the fact that I would not see anything thanks to my short stature, and that the crowd was growing by the minute, my friend and I decided to step away and head for a cup of tea in the cool and shade.

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Afternoon tea with a colonial feelOur tea arrived, and I glanced up to see some new activity a few feet away.  A group of photographers and TV cameramen were tripping over themselves and each other as they scurried backwards in our direction.  While the crowds were outside or in the main lecture hall, we were in the tea room and suddenly, the Lady was walking right past us! Sometimes things are just meant to happen.

And at the end of her address on the Terrace (which we could hear, but could not see) she walked back past us.  This time the camera scaffolding was not there, just a few people and by pure luck I caught the moment where a young girl briefly grasped her hand.

Luck and the Lady

So unexpected, and very special.

She was due to speak again later, after the Orwell Lecture which I also attended.  The final session was a panel discussing “Desert Island Literature”.  The writers on the panel was a treasure trove of writers – it was truly astonishing to see William Dalrymple, Jung Chang, Vikram Seth and Aung San Suu Kyi and Fergal Keane (moderating) sitting together. I was completely star struck. Each with such an impressive presence. Jung Chang, whose “Wild Swans” is another book I have read twice (a rare phenomenon) and Vikram Seth whose epic “A Suitable Boy” also sits in a prominent place on my bookshelf. How a man with such a slight and small physical stature can produce works of the enormity of “A Suitable Boy” was an irreverent thought which made me chuckle!   Tiny man – HUGE book 😉 Enormous personality and charisma.

William Dalrymple, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Fergal Keane, Vikram Seth and Jung Chang

The panel discussion was fascinating and moving, and provided insights into the lives of these iconic people. I held on to every word, still scribbling into my little notebook, so that I would not forget little snippets of treasure.

I had been surprised and delighted to be invited to the Gala Dinner that evening, so rushed home to change and returned in time to mingle and chat with writers, friends and literary aficionados.  Surreal and wonderful.

Sunday was just as inspiring.  I chatted with writers, listened to powerful and emotional readings, had copies of my books signed and was humbled by the modest and supportive words from these well known authors.  I bought more books.  Because you can never have too many, and because I had become acquainted with new writers and wanted to read (and own) their works.  The day melted, and as the sun sank over Inya Lake, there were many exhausted and contented smiles.

Listening to poetry at Irradaddy LIterary Festival,  as the sun setts on Inya Lake

Listening to poetry at Irradaddy LIterary Festival, as the sun sets on Inya Lake

By the end of Sunday, I had forgotten that I had been so ill and missed the whole of the first day, because there had been so many special and memorable moments.

Another incredible and inspiring event had taken place, and I had been fortunate enough to be at the heart of it.

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And inspired to continue in my quest to seek out wonders.

Happening Yangon!

So it is Sunday evening, my planned post (about my personal Irrawaddy Literary Festival experience) is nowhere near ready ……  I have been guided by my five stickies for this weekend but still I have things to cram into the final hours of the weekend.

Why is this?  I am being focused, and fairly productive.  So why am I way behind on my blogging?

I can tell you why.  Happily, there is not an underlying or upperlying cancery reason for this which is in itself worth noting.  Rather the opposite in fact. It is because life in Yangon these days is really busy – Yangon is happening!!  Combine that with current good health, and the result is that I am spoilt for choice when it comes to activities and ways to spend my leisure time.

happening Yangon

This week was particularly busy.  On Monday our Book Club met, and we talked about Ali Smith’s Book “There but for the“. On Tuesday the new Yangon Photography Club met to share images on the first month’s theme – Transport.  I tend to see things a little differently, and one of my contributions (frog on a bike 🙂 ) for the evening was discussed, despite my camera being the only point and shoot in the group. This little frog was unexpectedly clinging on to my bike as I was leaving for my my regular swim and I was able to get a very quick shot.

Yangon 2013 018c

Very helpful to get suggestions and feedback and a spur to upgrade my camera.  Scary but exciting territory.

On Wednesday evening, our Writing Group met and we spent another inspiring and interesting evening, sharing our work and giving feedback to each other.  We assigned ourselves with a task for the next meeting – a try at flash fiction with a writing prompt.  It is good to try something new.  Also a bit scary though!

Half the week had already disappeared in a flurry of activity and energy.  And it did not stop there.  Thursday evening, saw a wonderful get together to bid a wonderful couple farewell as they prepare to leave Yangon at the end of their assignment.  It was one of those evenings when you really bask in a rosy flow of contentment in the company of special people.

And then it was Friday evening and the working week already over.  In addition to the evening activities, I enjoyed my daily cycle (now up to 6.5 km every morning) and half mile swim.

There are so many options and choices in the city – have a look at the WhatsonYangon site to get a sense of the variety.  If you have a look at the “blogs from here” links on the right hand side bar of this page, you will also see that the number of blogs is growing.

The city is happening indeed!

irrawaddylitfest

And that is why I am not quite ready to share my experience of the recent Irrawaddy Literary Festival.  But it is coming very soon, I promise!

From gutted to gushing!

From the moment I heard that the Irrawaddy Literary Festival was to take place in Yangon, I have been in a state of undisguised anticipation.  I booked a day’s leave for the first day on Friday and managed to protect the time.

So to say I was gutted when I awoke in the early hours of Friday morning, with tell-tale stomach cramps and all the other signs of a nasty stomach bug, would be a highly accurate description of my physical as well as emotional being.  I was violently ill all day and was unable to venture far from bed let alone get dressed and head anywhere near the festival. There are some things which just cannot be rationalised, and are just plain not fair!

By Saturday morning, although still not truly back to full strength, I was at least able to head outside, and slowly made my way mid morning to the Festival.  From that moment onwards, I spent the most amazing time.  My whole bookcase seems to have come to life with such a wealth of well known writers as well as authors new to me being all around me.  I listened to wise and inspiring words, chatted with the real people who own the names I have seen on my bookshelf day in and day out, and I turned into one gushing “I-just-loved-your-wonderful-book-and-fascinating-talk” groupie in a frighteningly short period of time. I am not quite sure how otherwise to articulate that in a non gushing way.

Listening to poetry at Irradaddy LIterary Festival,  as the sun setts on Inya Lake

Listening to poetry at Irrawaddy Literary Festival, as the sun sets on Inya Lake

The sun has set on this first Literary Festival, and I have a great deal to share,  about the ideas and inspirations I have gained and the conversations I have been part of.  This is a very quick preview for now…………..