Everything is political, Mirza Waheed told me, in the interview I conducted with him before the Asia House Festival of Asian Literature; “you cannot not be political” were his actual words. Little did he know how this would become one of the main features of the festival, where the events focussed on the problems of Asia rather than literature. That is not, however, something to frown upon, given that literature as a concept, as an idea, is political as well. In times like these, when political turmoil goes well beyond Asia, it is not surprising that people were more interested in discussing politics; though of course, these discussions were deeply connected with literature.
In its fifth year, the Asia House Festival of Asian Literature brought to its home in Marylebone an array of writers, including Colin Thubron, Tahmima Anam, Wendy Law-Yone, Patrick French, Mirza Waheed, Daisy Hasan, and Hanif Kureishi.
At first glance, Asia House seems to be a product of a colonial past; one can almost sense a colonialist nostalgia, as if it were a post-modern East India Company. But one could not be more mistaken – the cultural and corporate programmes are extremely engaging and diverse. The Festival of Asian Literature is proof of this: it is not afraid of dealing with sensitive issues and establishing new connections.
The crowds that attend Asia House events are also extremely diverse, not restricted to those interested in Asia or Asian people. This demonstrates the more universalist issues dealt with under the Asian umbrella – which stretches as far as Turkey and Iraq, and the Kamchatka Peninsula.
As happens in all festivals, there were events that drew larger crowds than others and there were also events where the topics of conversation were far more engaging than others.
On the opening night Colin Thubron talked about his experience in the Himalayas, around the mystical mountain Kailas. For a Mountain in Tibet is not just any travel book, it is also the journey of an aged and ageing man dealing with the death of his those close to him. And, like Patrick French's evening about India, the main issue around travel writing seems to be the promotion of stereotypes, as the observation of different cultures and ways of life cannot be made without any judgement: the observed culture always seems to be detailed and depicted in some sort of patronising way. Naturally this is not exclusive to Colin Thubron and Patrick French; other travel writers such as Paul Theroux and Ranulph Fiennes have fallen into the trap of stereotyping and patronising. Nonetheless, both Colin Thubron's opening night and Patrick French's portrait of India sold out.
The Literature of Conflicted Lands evening, at which Mirza Waheed, Daisy Hasan and Roma Tearne were guests, went as far as debating apartheid in South Africa, showing how universal literature can become, as happened at the evening dedicated to the relationships between East Africa and Asia.
The Festival also hosted two cookery events, on Chinese and Persian food, respectively, featuring Ching-He Huang, Jila Dana-Haeri and Shahrzad Ghorashian. And on the weekends there were children's events with the Vayu Naidu Company and Xanthe Gresham.
More than just focussing on Asia and the most westernised Asian countries, the Asia House Festival of Literature broke visible and invisible borders and brought together different cultures to showcase an intellectually engaging community.