Literary festivals are like dog shows for the educated classes, where literary and not-so-serious minded folks turn up for high voltage conversations or just plain entertainment, or both.The writers on show, perhaps dragged out of their studies, are placed on corporate-sponsored stages because they now need to moonlight as performers. They also need to pose for selfies with apparent fans, some of whom will never read their books.

It is not known when exactly this phenomenon started, but most refer to the 1949 Cheltenham Music Festival, when John Moore, a canny book dealer, invited some of his literary friends to do a side-gig. He also got the famous actor Ralph Richardson to give a reading.

Although Moore’s model proved to be a success, “lit-fests” remained relatively small until about two decades ago, when the festival circuit had its Big Bang moment, much like the London Stock Exchange in 1986. Festivals became an essential part of the book trade: books and booze, talks and tea, conversations and coffee, all with a dash of literary gossip. What’s not to like?

Gossip is part of the fun at literary gatherings, though no one likes to admit it. Some start playing the game of Chinese whispers early on, even before the festival begins: who is coming, and how much are they charging – a puzzle pertaining to fees. Aspiring names count their lucky stars to be invited, swapping penury for possibilities. It’s the New Age thing of being #blessed.

Bigger names will rely on their agents to negotiate, and fees may or may not be a part of the conversation. If you know you’re one of the “headline acts”, meaning it is your name and headshot that’ll pull in the punters, just like Richardson did 70-plus years ago, then you have the prerogative to dictate terms.

Some headliners are reticent to share the stage with other writers, and some do not even wish to be seen at the same festival. Passion or politics, it’s an act of forgivable prima donna. The headliners are seasoned actors and they know every line of the script. Let’s be fair, any writer worth their salt wishes to be left alone at their desk to do the actual work: writing. Writing and reading are solitary pursuits, and a “literary festival” is an overlooked oxymoron.

At one point, every organiser or promoter has asked a basic existentialist question: what’s the point of working tirelessly, and often voluntarily, to organise a literary festival? Surely the model is flawed, and writers are best suited to write.

Agents and publishers will ensure readers find the works at a book fair, in a bookshop, local library, or on the Internet. The increasing need for the writer – who was in all probability a shy kid in school – to perform on stage, to receive the kind of attention only rock stars are comfortable with, has frightening mental health implications.

In light of the pandemic, thinking, planning, and worrying about the future of a literary festival may seem to be an exercise in luxury. And yet, that is exactly what I have been doing on Zoom calls with my two co-directors of the Dhaka Literary Festival, more popularly known as the Dhaka Lit Fest or DLF.

The pandemic is not an equaliser

Back in November 2019, long before Covid-19 became part of our daily vocabulary, we announced the dates for the next edition of DLF. We had been excited to celebrate our 10th anniversary and extended the duration of the fest from three days to four: 14-17 January.

After much deliberation, we decided to postpone by a year. It’s important to emphasise on postponement, and not cancellation. This doesn’t mean the festival model isn’t under threat. Whilst we cannot dart around the issue of the coronavirus becoming a permanent feature, we are thinking of ways to work around it.

DLF thrives on two factors: curating a solid programme with a diverse range of topics and speakers, and the energy and enthusiasm of a large crowd in attendance. Let’s consider the first issue, as the second is somewhat obvious in the age of social distancing. At the best of times, it’s challenging for us to secure speakers. Like every festival, we need our headliners, both to attract sponsorship funds and audience.

In our experience, we found that, headliners or not, some would simply express reticence in accepting our invitation. We understood Dhaka, being a relatively unknown quantity, was bestowed with a sort of permanent amber warning. The blogger killings of 2015 and the attack on Holey Bakery the following year meant the warning signals for visiting Bangladesh changed from amber to red.

Anyone from our neck of the woods would attest bureaucracy and red tape are omnipresent and writ large, relics of an Empire we somehow decided to cling to even as we stepped into the digital era. There have always been numerous forms to be filled, application letters to be written, permissions to be sought. Given that is the “old normal”, try imagining the new.

Virus or no virus, consider the fact that Dhaka has very few direct flights with the rest of the world, and our embassies and high commissions are yet to adapt the model for e-visa applications. Our traffic problem is legendary, on par with Bangkok and Jakarta. Our city is neither aesthetically pleasing, nor does it have many architectural marvels.

Our situation with alcohol is tricky business, but in all seriousness, one cannot be hosting a dry literary festival, even in a predominantly Muslim country. Depending on your luck, you might get a mosquito or two saying hello. Dengue isn’t the forgotten plague yet, and it can be as deadly as corona.

Of course, what I am illustrating is a well-known fact: running a literary festival in the third world comes with its own set of challenges. Perhaps I listed a few that are unique to Dhaka, ones never encountered by organisers in the first world. But the pandemic is posing the same threat to urban Dhaka as to a bucolic venue like Cheltenham, except it is much harder for us to bat against this googly, given that we were up against so many pre-Covid-19.

Why do we need it?

As though we didn’t have enough on our plates, some writers would also question the lack of freedom of expression in Bangladesh. Some would cite it as a reason to not participate in our festival, despite our assurances. Interestingly, we have always had full freedom in our programming, without any intervention from the authorities. And we have never asked any speaker to censor themselves.

The result has been sheer brilliance in exercising the freedom of expression. We have had speakers jousting over controversial issues ranging from gender, sex, patriarchy, and rights for minorities, to various politically sensitive issues. Local and international speakers went on stage demanding the release of bloggers and journalists incarcerated under the Digital Security Act.

We opened the floor at the end of every panel so our audiences – over 70 percent of them under the age of 25 – could ask questions. The pandemic poses a very unfortunate threat to the free space that we worked hard to create.

Second, we created a platform where local writers and journalists could share views on and off stage with their counterparts from around the world. DLF is a special event that offers this sort of exchange at a large scale. Consequently, we have had more works of translation, and for the first time, modern classics in Bangla reached a wider audience beyond the two Bengals.

Third, we kept the festival free and open to all. This meant two things. We would be hosting over 30,000 people at the Bangla Academy, with an energy and vibrancy that would work like caffeine-on-drip for anyone attending. Given that some form of social distancing is here to stay, the atmosphere won’t be the same in the future.

It is worth mentioning that for a lot of these young minds, the festival provides a rare opportunity to listen or interact with a world-class writer in person. As travelling abroad remains a distant dream for many book lovers in Bangladesh, this is immensely important and necessary.

What bears repeating is that it is our audience who are most deprived of literary engagement throughout the year. Festivals across the world may be lionising writers and occasionally accommodating a few outlandish requests, but it is the audience who make a festival.

What of the future?

Some have asked us if DLF will host a digital festival. We won’t. The unique atmosphere created with the interactions of our audience with the speakers is lost on a computer screen. For the curious writer, the edginess of Dhaka is what lures them. A testament of that would be our past speakers; most of them had never been to Bangladesh, and most have expressed an eagerness to return.

We would, however, look at more engagement via live broadcasts of sessions. We think more cross-border cooperation would be helpful, especially post-Covid-19, when travelling won’t be as frequent as before. If festival directors in the region can agree on their respective dates to avoid possible clashes, and if there could be a way of having those dates fairly close to each other, that may work well in favour of speakers travelling from afar. Given that a global recession is inevitable, it might be worth sharing the cost of flights if the same speaker is attending more than one festival in the region.

Perhaps this is a call for organisers to reconcile and reconsider a few things. Perhaps we got too used to a model that had its Big Bang two decades ago, and it was bound to crash at some point just like the stock market. How we reshape our plans today may well determine the future of literary festivals.

Must the show go on?

It is important for our audience that the Dhaka Lit Fest carries on. It is also important for writers that literary festivals – in Dhaka or elsewhere – carry on. The writer may be best suited indoors, working away on their next manuscript, putting their ideas, thoughts and experience on a page. The corollary to that is the collective experience of writers attending a festival.

Our past speakers shared with us the joys they had meeting the audience; making new friends and catching up with old ones; exchanging views and taking notes; and visiting a country they otherwise never would. It is a special way to not only connect but also socialise with fellow lovers of the written word. Writers need that, perhaps more so in an increasingly digital world.

Even if the virus is here to stay, as most scientists have predicted, its evil power will perhaps be minimised as we build more antibodies and practice staying safe. It is precisely for the reason of safety that the Dhaka Lit Fest decided to have a fallow year, allowing us to come back with our 10th anniversary edition with the promise to make it one of the very best yet. But until there’s a show, we can read all those books we’ve been meaning to and write a few, too.

Ahsan Akbar is co-founder and director of Dhaka Lit Fest.

This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.