On Wednesday I blogged about the Brunei jungle part of my trip, and the Jerudong International School. Now let me tell you about the Kuala Lumpur bit. Very different but equally amazing for me.
I was invited to the Cooler Lumpur #Word festival because I’m one of the writers involved in the Edinburgh World Writers Conference, which has been travelling the world since last August. This was my turn to contribute. I was part of this panel on censorship. (I’m a bit confused by that link because it was a panel and there wasn’t a keynote speech, but Dr Ma Thida did a lecture later on, I think.) I’ll come to the panel in a minute – it was an incredible experience. And she is an amazing and lovely woman.
Arriving at the hotel, I was welcomed, as promised on the website, by a warm and welcoming chocolate chip cookie.
And in the executive lounge by some delicious food:
The following two photos are the same view from the hotel – one before the infamous “haze” and one when it arrived dramatically on Sunday. (I woke up thinking the hotel was on fire…)
I’d been worried about jetlag but the nice people at the British Council had suggested arriving early. They were paying my travel, expenses and fee and I was going to be working hard and had prepared hard, so this was a good idea. I arrived on Wednesday evening but had the whole of Thursday free. I’d expected to lose Thursday to jetlag but in fact felt 100% well so I went sight-seeing. In the absence of haze and with no idea how timely this decision was, I went up the Twin Towers. I’d rather not say how high they are.
Here is me, on it:
Here is an incredibly unnecessary sign on it:
And here is the view from the top:
Safely down again and after negotiating the gift shop, I bought my lunch from a supermarket and looked for somewhere outside to eat it, but was a bit concerned about the possibility of tree snakes and whether I’d be able to spot them in these snakey trees, so I wasn’t terribly relaxed during this exercise. Also, it was a tad hot.
Anyway, I was here to work and work I eventually did. Very hard. But surrounded by lovely, welcoming people who kept saying nice things and looking after me, which is always a great help.
I had three events over the two days:
1. A workshop on writing YA fiction. This was over-subscribed so chairs had to be found from somewhere and I delivered a three-hour workshop in beautiful airconditioning. I was getting to like airconditioning. There was (planned by me) a 2o-minute break in the middle and anyone who has delivered a workshop to aspiring writers will know what happened in this break: everyone else had a break and I didn’t because participants pinned me down relentlessly with questions. So, by the end of the three hours, I was a) happy with how the thing had gone and b) exhausted. People, if you are ever a participant in such a thing, please let the speaker have a break. It’s very tiring speaking for three hours… Oh, and kudos to the only teenager in the class, whose writing at the end showed that he’d understood everything I’d said brilliantly.
2. A lecture on Reading and the Brain. This was a capacity audience despite the haze (which by then meant we’d all been issued with masks – I didn’t wear this during the lecture.)
One of my favourite topics!
Unusual venue for a lecture – the live-music stage in a restaurant. I felt I should have brought my guitar, although that honestly wouldn’t have helped anyone:
In a separate post, I’m going to talk about this lecture and topic in more detail, because the result was several people from various educational organisations asking if I could come back and to Singapore to talk about this more widely because it’s relevant to what is being discussed in education over there. I blogged a list of resources for participants, so you’ll get some idea of what I covered.
Anyway, I enjoyed it and felt quite relaxed standing on stage like a rock star. Great questions at the end, too.
3. Then, a short break before the scary bit: the censorship panel. Why scary? Well, first, it was being live-streamed and also recorded. (No sign of a link yet.) Second, I was in awe of my fellow panellists: Dr Ma Thida, a Burmese surgeon who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for her writings; Marina Mahathir, leading political activist, writer and daughter of the former Malaysian Prime Minister; Lourd de Veyra, a well-known poet, broadcaster and musician from the Philippines; and Ezra Said, political publisher who has also been arrested by the religious authorities. They were all charming and it became quickly obvious that it wasn’t scary at all..
Obviously, a UK experience of censorship is on a different scale from anything experienced in Burma, or, I had by then discovered, Malaysia, but I talked about the unusually strict libel laws we have in the UK (with the example of the Simon Singh case), read out the crazy exceptions to free speech in our country, criticised the silly over-reactions to offensive remarks on Twitter/FB leading to investigations by the police and the fear of terrorism and fear of causing offence that we labour under, and talked about our duty in relatively “free” countries to act on behalf of those less free. One of the ways of doing that is the Imprisoned Writers strand in the Edinburgh Book festival, something I’m part of along with many other writers.
I said that the greatest weapon against censorship was the knowledge or suspicion that censorship exists. Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984 doesn’t fail because he fails to destroy censorship, but because he fails to let everyone realise that censorship is happening. We need good access to good information and should question and doubt everything, always wondering whether we’ve been told the truth or whether something or someone has been suppressed.
And then I was done. All over. I was feeling quite sad because I’d had a great time and been so welcomed. Back to the hotel for more canapés in the executive lounge and, next morning, my last ride in the special #Word cars that had been ferrying us through the gorgeous heat.
I want to go back! Next week, I’ll talk about how that might happen. I’m determined that it will.
Meanwhile, huge thanks to many people, especially Grey, Uma, Sandi, Ee-Lyn, and so many people whose names I can’t remember. You did a wonderful job and I am hugely grateful.