THE BLOG
02/05/2013 10:24 am ET Updated Apr 07, 2013

Myanmar - Irrawaddy Literary Festival

Myanmar's first international literary festival over the weekend drew thousands of people. NGO workers, journalists, lawyers, business executives, monks and students -- it wasn't the usual book club crowd.

Nor was this any regular book festival.

A host of international authors, crowds of people speaking freely, Aung San Suu Kyi the patron and effectively guest of honour -- all this would have been unthinkable two years ago when festival director Jane Heyn, the wife of the British ambassador to Myanmar, pitched the idea to Suu Kyi over tea.

The NLD leader, only a couple of months out of house arrest, was immediately interested even though such an event would have been impossible at the time. And then things started to change. The Irrawaddy Literary Festival, which was played out at the Inya Lake Hotel and spilled out onto its manicured lawn overlooking the lake is the result of the sweeping political reforms that are shaping the country, allowing for cultural exchange and bringing in big business.

Bizarrely, that great tide of business and cultural exchange that's rolling across Yangon and deeper into the country may also be to blame if the festival doesn't happen again next year. But more of that later.

With Suu Kyi promising to get involved and fellow Irishman Fergal Keane, the BBC Correspondent, eager to help, Heyn knew she could pull it off. Writer and founder of the Jaipur Literary Festival William Dalyrmple -- or "Willy" as he was warmly referred to on and off the stage -- was another of her early supporters.

The festival had a buzzy but warm atmosphere -- there was laughter, in a couple of sessions a baby cried out (the same baby or perhaps there were several?) and no one complained. Vikram Seth, who was speaking when the wee one cried applauded him, suggesting the baby has the good sense to agree with him. It was a friendly vibe considering the high caliber of writers present, but perhaps that was made easier by the fact most of the 120 Burmese authors had never heard of many of the international writers. And why should they? Vikram Seth, Sudha Shah, Fergal Keane or Frank Dikötter haven't been translated into Burmese.

And equally, the Burmese writers were largely unknown to the crowd fresh off the plane. Writer and historian Thant Myint-U, the poet Pandora and the author, journalist (and medical doctor) Dr Ma Thida are known outside of Myanmar, but they write in English -- as well as Burmese.

Author and journalist Pe Myint, speaking during a panel discussion, even went as far as to say that the reason no Burmese had ever won the Nobel Prize for Literature was because of a lack of translation.

But changes are afoot. Jung Chang has already had Wild Swans translated into Burmese and published in Myanmar. A number of the poets at the festival were discussing translation opportunities -- a poem, after all, is much shorter than a novel so easier to translate. Burmese translation students should be looking forward to certain employment when they graduate.

There were also a number of publishers who'd come out of curiosity, perhaps to check the lay of the land. Publisher Magnus Bartlett from Odyssey Books was over from Hong Kong. Also over from the SAR were two literary agents Marysia Juszczakiewicz from Peony Literary Agency and
Kelly Falconer, both fresh from the Kolkata Literary Festival and scouting for talent.

As the sun set over Inya Lake -- just across the water from where Suu Kyi spent 15 years under house arrest -- the question being asked was will this be a one-off or will it become an annual event?

Heyn will leave Yangon in the summer with her ambassador husband, so she won't be around to organise it. Ma Thida, who helped line up many of the local writers through her writing group, might seem an obvious contender, but she laughs at the suggestion. "I'm too busy," she says. And she's not exaggerating - in addition to editing a weekly newspaper and a monthly youth journal, she also volunteers at a clinic.

Without the Heyns as a driving force, would the British Embassy be willing to offer so much support? There may be a war going on in the north of the country, but there didn't seem to be a shortage of very helpful embassy staff generously offering their time to make sure the event went smoothly. Is the correct term "soft power"?

Jane Camens -- co-founder of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival and Executive Director of the Asia Pacific Writers & Translators Association -- came to explore the possibility of taking the festival on next year. But there is one big obstacle to an international event -- the cost of accommodation.

Those sweeping political reforms that have brought about so much cultural change are also bringing in business folk by the planeload. Combined with the surge in tourist numbers, its led to a massive shortage in hotel rooms with rates soaring 350 percent in a year.

A very average hotel room goes for at least US$100 (plus, plus) and many attending the festival paid much more than that for a bed for the night. What's more, the hotel shortage is expected to last five to 10 years.

"We would need cheaper accommodation or accommodation sponsors," says Camens. "Then we could do it, assuming the political and visa situation remains open to this."

The crazy cost of hotel rooms is a challenge anyone wanting to bring in international writers -- and an international audience -- will have to face. Change is good, but it isn't always easy.

Suu Kyi, speaking to the thousand people squeezed into the hotel ballroom on Saturday afternoon, praised the format of the festival -- the openness and the exchange of ideas. "This is a very useful format. We have to learn from this. I would like to see it as an abiding force to open us up to the rest of the world."

Subscribe to the Culture Shift email.
Get your weekly dose of books, film and culture.