‘South Asia 39’ to promote new Asian writing: Peter Florence

Thiruvananthapuram: ‘South Asia 39’ is a unique literary project to promote new intellect from this part of the world. But choosing young writers for it will be tough because of the talent and diversity in the region, says Peter Florence, founder of the Hay on Wye festival.

‘The South Asia 39’ will encompass Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and India. The idea would be to survey and choose 39 writers under the age of 40 from the South Asian region and present them to the world," Florence told reporters in an interview here.

The Hay on Wye festival is the parent edition of the Week Hay Festival in Kerala that was held Nov 12-14. Under ‘South Asia 39’, new Hay writers will be promoted in literary festivals and book fairs across the world.

"There are several arguments about what you can call South Asia - it could be possible to have writers in 39 South Asian languages. Adjudication will be the hardest part in South Asia 39 because of the talent and diversity in the region. You have to raise the bar very high."

The project will be formally unveiled at the Week Hay Festival next year, Florence said. He and his crew have begun to identify the jury for South Asia 39.

"The jury members will have to be writers. But first of all, we have to get nominations (endorsement) from publishers, journalists, booksellers and universities on who is the best of the best in as many languages we can find," Florence said.

The Hay on Wye festival has initiated three similar literary projects - "Bogota 39" for Hispanic American writing, "Beirut 39" for writers from the Arab World and "Scritture Giovani", a project to promote new European writings themed around the sea.

"Bogota 39 was thrilling because we had to choose writers from across the Hispanic world. Beirut 39 was challenging because it involved the Arab world. In Beirut, we had to debate what constituted an Arabic writer. Palestinian-Dutch poet, Ramsay Nasr, the Dutch poet laureate of West Asian origin, was glad to be included in Beirut 39," Florence said.

While the "spotlight was on poetry in the Arab world project because of the region`s long tradition of poetic literary genres, fiction was the mainstay of the Latin American project", Florence said.

South Asia 39 could see "a combination of both", he indicated.

Florence founded the Hay on Wye festival in the Welsh village of Hay on Wye with his father Norman Florence with winnings from a Poker game 20 years ago. The festival - a ticketed event in Britain - has grew from 1,800 visitors in its opening year to 200,000 visitors in 2010.

"The Hay on Wye festival in our village (Hay) is almost like Thanksgiving in America. Kids and folks come home during the festival. Every guest room is full and there are tents in the garden. It is like any traditional or religious festival in a village," Florence said.

The Hay Festival has nine editions across the world, including Kerala.

Florence strikes a spontaneous chord with India.

"India is a natural home for this festival because of the multiplex (many textured), argumentative, contradictory and engaged nature of the India life. The festival works here with its own contrasts. We want to see what life it takes on here after and how it grows," Florence said.

According to Florence, the crowd in Thiruvananthapuram is similar to that of Hay-on-Wye in Wales.

"The common denominator is that the people in both venues are open-minded and hearty. But I am not sure if the audience at Hay is quite as beautiful as that in Kerala. Wherever you look - you see exquisite people - it applies to India in general," Florence said.

The festival is planning to shift its profile in the coming year.

"We want to bring more young Malayalam writers, Arabic writers and voices from the Pacific rim. There is real energy in writing around the Pacific area. In Britain, the nature of the festival is defined by Britain`s relationship with the rest of Europe, the US and the Commonwealth.

"Given the history and geography of India, the identity of the festival should be forged within itself and in context of the country`s relationship with its interesting neighbours," Florence said.

"If 1,000 people in the audience managed to have a good time, the festival is successful," Florence said.