Between performing as a poet at the world’s largest literary festival and rubbing shoulders with literary giants, I found myself meditating on the question “who is reading us?”
While there is a surplus of literature events on a local, regional and global scale, publishers have seen a decline in sales as new readers seem to prefer shorter texts on online platforms over meticulously designed hardcover books.
Writers today are expected to go beyond the page and meet their fans on social media, where the measure of success tends to be based on likes instead of literary accolades.
I was determined to gain some perspective on this at the epic five-day ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival 2018 in Rajasthan, India, earlier this year.
With award-winning Malaysian predecessors such as Tan Twan Eng and Tash Aw representing us in the past, I was surprised and honoured to be the first Malaysian performance poet invited to the festival. It was a long-held dream come true.
On its website, jaipurliteraturefestival.org, the festival’s 11th edition seemed to comprise 200 events, but what it does not tell you is that, as a participating author, each night would feature exquisite dinner parties at palaces and mind-blowing musical performances at forts across Jaipur.
It was a sublime feast of experiences and a minor existential crisis of “Is this my life now?”
Participating As An Author
My first spoken word performance was a poetry and jazz set that was skilfully composed just the night before by Stefan Kaye and his three-piece jazz punk-groove band, Jass B’stards, in their hotel room.
Alongside drummer Nikhil Vasudevan and bassist Tony Guinard, Kaye formed a spectacular rhythm to elevate each metaphor of my memorised poem, My Country Is A Man.
The show took place at Clarks Amer Hotel and I was shocked to see a huge concert stage and nearly 500 people in the audience. No amount of preparation could quash the stage jitters I felt that night.
There was a rare air of excitement for poetry generated by a crowd that cheered every punch line and stayed on to applaud all the poets who took to the stage.
The next day, I performed at the festival’s largest venue, The Front Lawn, alongside stellar performance poets from India Tishani Doshi, Jeet Thayil, and Janice Pariat, as well as French-American poet Nathalie Handal and American poet Jovan Mays.
The audience swelled up to about 1,000 people and I only realised much later – luckily! – that the entire show was being livestreamed to an online audience.
Upon exiting the stage, my Instagram account flared up with tagged photos and kind messages from new fans that I had no chance of meeting in person.
It was quite extraordinary to realise that I could no longer pinpoint who my target audience is anymore. I no longer know who is listening to my stories much less do I know which stories they need to hear. All I know is that I am speaking to invisible ears.
I was also part of a thought-provoking panel discussion titled “Why Being Fair Matters, Especially When It Doesn’t” on the troubling narratives of skin colour in the media with The Colourism Project founder and media activist Jyoti Gupta alongside poet Jovan Mays and moderator Puneeta Roy.
Here I performed my poem Indiantity, which touches on unmet social expectations and dark skin discrimination within the Malaysian Indian community that continues to happen today.
Being part of the festival’s youth outreach programme gave me the opportunity to share poems with 600 students from Jayshree Periwal High School and International School. Although they had not read my book, Taboo (2015), the students had thoroughly researched my repertoire prior to my arrival – to the point that they knew my poems line by line!
Some students posed alarmingly specific questions about my views on feminism, Indian diasporic identity and women in mythology, which gave me an epiphany that perhaps our new literary audience is the one who needs to know writer behind the book before actually reading the book.
Perhaps young readers crave a more personal connection with the person behind the pen in order to connect to their stories, or maybe they want to see themselves in the writers they love.
Witnessing Rupi Kaur
Awash in fame and fandom, Instagram poet Rupi Kaur seemed to be quite out of reach as she was not grouped together with fellow performance poets.
So I stood in the front row of her 45-minute solo performance and observed the 25-year-old Canadian Punjabi poet in a custom tailored pink dress and five-inch heels charm her cult-like following with tremendous poise.
Three of her spoken word poems were tuned to playback instrumental music. The rest were poems from her two books – Milk And Honey (2014) and The Sun And Her Flowers (2017) – read in a performative manner, introduced by page number.
Each time she announced the page number she was reading from, her fans flipped vigorously through their copies and, remarkably, devoted their full attention to her every word.
At one point, she asked “Who would like to read this poem with me?” and chose one of her screaming fans at random to join her on stage.
This is a very clever move as it not only cemented her fans adoration but also enabled her to efficiently use her time on stage. I laud this technique with great respect as I have only seen rock stars work this to great effect.
The church of Rupi Kaur has been under tremendous global scrutiny especially by those who disqualify her work as poetry.
It is possible that Kaur’s kind of cosplay and circumstance is the catalyst that attracts new readers and writers of poetry, regardless of quality.
Giving credit where credit is due, we must acknowledge that Kaur is still a craftsman in her own right and a savvy operator that has won the hearts of diverse audiences.
Following his keynote presentation, I was swept away by the charismatic Pico Iyer and attended his session on “The Art Of Stillness” named after his book and viral TED talk.
“You cannot be moved if you are running around,” he said, which prompted me to join the a 45-minute-long queue to get my book signed by him.
Iyer was a vision of calm who patiently signed each copy, attended to questions and photo requests from fans. When my turn arrived, Iyer exclaimed at my name and asked, “Melizarani. Is this a Malaysian name?”
I was also enthralled by French Moroccan writer Leila Slimani who spoke passionately about the significance of women in writing and writing women’s stories.
“The aim of literature is empathy. To be able to tell the story of monsters. Because even monsters have stories.
“It is an objective fact that women are victims. But I do not think victim is an identity. It is a fact but it is not in our nature to be a victim,” she said.
I also attended the star studded session on “Adaptations” that was populated by Amy Tan, Michael Oondatje, Nicholas Shakespeare and Tom Stoppard.
Out of the vibrant discussion, the one takeaway I noted was aptly put by Stoppard, who said, “The key to the adaptation of a novel is to find the short story within it.”
The Sum Of Its Parts
On the final day of this literary Lollapalooza, award-winning novelist and poet Jeet Thayil and I sat together at lunch to unpack our shared experiences.
A lady delegate recognises us and promptly asked us for our thoughts on Rupi Kaur, to which Thayil swiftly responded “Well, she outsells Homer”.
Dumbfounded and relentless, the lady brushes off Thayil’s remark by saying, “Why do you talk about this Homer guy? He should get on social media.”
Realising that this woman had no idea who Homer is, Thayil aptly responds, “You know, that’s what I keep saying to him. ‘Homie, you gotta get on Instagram’”.
We sought refuge from the lady delegate and mid-afternoon heat on the terrace of Diggi Palace.
I had just sold all 50 copies of my book over the past five days that I had carried from Kuala Lumpur and ceremoniously declared to Thayil my future career plans: “You know, I don’t want to be only a poet. I want to be a writer,” I said.
Thayil laughed and offered me some valuable advice on moving forward: “They have a short memory span here. Whatever you do, do not lose momentum. Do not let them forget you,” he said.