The fifth edition of The Script Road – Macau Literary Festival starts on Saturday. It is the biggest yet, co-founder Hélder Beja tells mART. Mr Beja, who is also the editor-in-chief of Macau Closer magazine, says he hopes the festival could grow even further and become professionalised. One of the team’s ideas is to create side events of the festival in different cities around the world.
By Sofia Jesus
This is the festival’s fifth edition. How did this idea start?
It started with me and Ricardo [Pinto] talking about the fact that there was no major event in Macau regarding literature. We had little things, organised by universities, schools or private entities, but all in a very small scale. I, myself, was very fond of literary festivals – I had been to Correntes de Escritas, in Portugal, a couple of times; and I knew about the big festival in Brazil, Paraty, and the way they were doing it. So, when Ricardo decides to move forward with the idea to try to get the Portuguese bookshop [in Macau] concession, everything started to make sense. […] From day one, [our idea] was based in two things: one, to have a moment of gathering Chinese and Portuguese-speaking authors; and two, to invite them to write about the city. That was our goal. We wanted the best – or some of the best – writers from those two big languages to write about Macau, because there was – and there is – something awkward which is almost no one is writing about Macau. For some centuries we had some of the best writers writing about Macau, [but] this wasn’t happening nowadays.
How do you look back at these past years?
When we look back, it is incredible to realise that it was such a small thing in the beginning and how it has grown in these five years [including the 2016 edition]. Our first base was the Macao Polytechnic Institute […]. We were lacking a lot of experience at that time; we had all the passion and very little experience for such an event. We did it in a smaller scale, but still it was very ambitious, because part of the concept was already this idea of also welcoming different art forms into the festival – which I think really works, but, of course, it is a huge challenge. And, at that time, with no experience and no structure, it was an incredible challenge. So, now, when we look back and we realise how we overcame those challenges, and how, step by step, we tried to improve every single area of the festival; and, at the same time, how it has grown in terms of exposure, audiences, media coverage and so on, it makes us quite happy. We definitely had a positive path along these five years, not without some problems. And there is still a lot to improve. It is still a little miracle to make this festival happen with such a small structure. I would say this shouldn’t be done like this, and it is almost not feasible like this. We make it happen because we do a huge effort for a number of months.
You have mentioned in the past there is a need to professionalise the festival… Is this what you are referring to?
I think the festival needs something very obvious that does not exist at this stage, which is a small, dedicated team along the year. For you to have an idea, there is not one person working only for the festival along the year. So, during the whole year it is basically Ricardo and I doing what we need to do for this to be possible every March. Both of us have a lot of other projects […], which makes things really, really hard. I think the festival needs: number one, someone working on the programme, inviting the guests and doing that kind of more creative work along the year – it doesn’t need to be full-time, but at least part-time; and then a second person taking care of all the production side, and the logistics. […] With these two staff, we could spread [the work Ricardo and I do] along the year.
I suppose that it has not been done yet because of budget constraints… The Macau Cultural Affairs Bureau has joined the project for the second year, with funding. Do you believe this kind of support is not enough?
We need two things: one, ourselves, we need to find a way to manage the funds we already have in order to allocate a sum of money that would make it possible for us to have those two people working along the year; number two, which comes together, is that we need to try to improve, of course, to upscale our funding. Maybe not as much with public entities – even if I think the support they give is good, it could definitely be better, if we compare it with the support the government gives to other events. It is a good kind of support, because we cannot forget this is a private-public partnership, which is nice, it happens in many places around the world, but there is no tradition for that in Macau.
Only through associations…
In fact there is [that tradition], but it is masked. Basically a lot of private industries have huge funding from the government, but they are not recognised as companies, but as associations. We haven’t done that, we do it as [company] Praia Grande Edições, but, of course, that poses some challenges and some problems. We would like to keep doing it like this, as a company, because that is the truth, it is the reality, so, what we can try to aim for is to have more private funding. There is also the Cultural Industries Fund, [which is] something we are looking at, at this stage, because it makes total sense for us to be supported by that fund.
Although gross gaming revenues have been falling, Macau still enjoys an economic situation that many countries may envy. Do you believe that gaming concessionaires [in Macau] should enhance their support to such projects?
We have the support of almost all the gaming companies, but, of course, it is not a large-scale support. We have one main supporter, which is Sociedade de Jogos de Macau (SJM) […], and almost all the other gaming operators – except Melco Crown, at this stage – support the festival. […] If I think they could do more? Definitely they could do more; I hope they will in the future. […] We need to be really thankful to other kind of private institutions, which are the hotels – some of them are inside gaming companies’ complexes, but there are also non-gaming hotels. [The latter] have been amazing in recent years […]; they are extremely supportive, in terms of room nights, mainly. In terms of the gaming operators, I would say all of them are on board; SJM and MGM are probably the most generous.
This is a literary festival, but it is not only related to books. Many people also know about it because it includes some concerts or exhibitions. Why this option?
Exactly because of what you said. The number one reason: in order to create a bigger awareness about the festival; and also because we did not want this to be – with all the respect to the term – an academic event. We wanted this to be a celebration of books and of arts in general. So, from year one, we decided that we would invite filmmakers, visual artists, and musicians, and put together what we sometimes call, as a joke, an “arts festival disguised as a literary festival”, which is not. And for me this is something really important: the focus is literature; personally that’s where I want to put my efforts in. And if those efforts need to go in another direction, for another art form, that project/event should be connected to literature as well. For example, [that is the case of] the film we are bringing this year, “Letters from War”, by Ivo M. Ferreira […], [or last year’s exhibition] by João Fazenda – in that way it makes sense. Other events related to different art forms are bigger scales, more challenging; they create that awareness, they give another dimension to the festival, but they also pose a kind of challenges that sometimes I find really hard to face.
The concerts have not had much audience, right?
Depending on the years; it floated a lot. Year 1: bad. Year 2: good. Year 3: bad. Year 4: very good. […] This year, we are downscaling it in a way because of the risk it implies to do something like this; it is really risky in every sense, mainly financially. And also because we wanted to move the festival to the city centre. I love the [Macau] Cultural Centre, I think it is a beautiful venue; we will go back to Fado because it was successful in previous editions and also because it has a special connection to literature. […] Then, we bring Macau-raised João Caetano; there is a lot of people here who follow his career as a professional musician. It is the first time he is going to perform in Macau with his own name and act. And then [we will have] Yao Shisan; we know Mainland China bands are not the most well-known in Macau […], but at the same time we also feel that at least part of the responsibility of the festival is to try to introduce good things from Mainland China. That happened with the writers: what you feel is that in here people don’t have a big awareness of major literary names in Mainland China, and some of them are really brilliant, translated into many languages, very successful in the US and so on. And Chinese readers here have a tendency to read Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan’ books. […]
You work a lot with schools and universities, during the festival. From the feedback you have gathered so far, do you believe Macau is a place where people read a lot?
No; not at all. I used to tell my friends this was the most unlikely city for a literary festival, in a way. At the same time, that is the mountain that you have to climb, so, it really stimulates us. I hope and believe that the work that we do [with schools and universities] – working at the base of the pyramid, with young people – will have an impact, lets say, in ten years. […] We see their enthusiasm and we see that, hopefully, the fact that we do this once a year will generate more things in those institutions along the year. […] At the same time, [we hope] that [impact] would create some possibilities to have more bookshops or reading habits. That will never be possible just because of the festival, of course. There should be more [co-ordinated] promotion of languages, literature, books, reading habits, which needs to come from the government. How? That is such a complex question. You need to start with an original reading plan, then work with the schools in order to make sure they are taking the books you believe they should take to teach the kids, standardise things a little bit, in a good way. I’m talking about the biggest part of the city, the Chinese community and so on. For the smaller, Portuguese community, in general there is a slightly bigger awareness of the names we bring here – we are a smaller country. Still, the reading habits don’t seem to me in large scale. […] Macau needs more bookshops. There should be a large-scale bookshop in Macau; that could be a game-changer, including for the festival.
This is a trilingual festival. How has this been working? Do you believe you have reached audiences as much as you wanted to? And have those audiences been segregated?
The festival doesn’t really reach out to the expat, non-Portuguese community. For the English-speaking world in Macau, which is growing every year – because of the casinos, and so on –, I don’t see a lot of participants, in general, every year. The reason I don’t know, […] but the truth is I don’t see a lot of non-Portuguese expats at the festival. For the Portuguese-speaking audience, since the festival was grown in the middle of a Portuguese-speaking environment, the company Praia Grande Edições, that was easier. And for the Chinese-speaking audience it was a big conquer: we got there already, in a way; and we are getting there more and more. Not only with local audiences, but also – this is really nice – with a big number of Mainland Chinese living in Macau, as students, as workers in different fields. They are really sensitive to literature […] and you see more and more people [from Mainland China] coming to the sessions every year. In terms of segregation, the language is a big issue. What we try to do, since 2014, is to have simultaneous translation. We have a number of mixed sessions – meaning that we have Chinese-speaking and Portuguese-speaking authors on stage and we use the English language as the communication language; so, everything is translated into English. It works and it is the best way to do it. For those sessions, when you put together authors from different backgrounds and nationalities, you tend to always attract the Portuguese-speaking community […]; on the other side [Chinese-speaking audience], you also see it, in a smaller scale.
You mentioned before, in an interview, you had the ambition to see the festival becoming “one of the major festivals of the Portuguese-speaking world”. How do you plan to achieve that?
Not in terms of structure, and certainly not in terms of team along the year –if we forget all that, we are clearly on the top five of the biggest Portuguese-speaking festivals around the world, at this stage, already. […] How do we want to really be one of the biggest festivals, also in terms of structure, which implies a lot of activities? Some ideas that we have include professionalising the festival, to have a permanent team. And then, number two would be to work more with academic institutions in two fields: to create literary translation scholarships for students both from the Portuguese- and Chinese-speaking worlds; and to create residence programmes for writers in Macau – something I find very important to pursue that goal of having not only short stories, but having very good novelists coming here and staying for a few months. […] [We hope] becoming one of the major festivals also by generating a big awareness of the festival around the world. That is also why we are going more international now, inviting writers from a different scale – bringing a Pulitzer, a Booker or a Nobel prize [winner] is something that really puts you on the world’s agenda of events in the literary field. And, finally, which is the most challenging, but also the most passionate and the most amazing idea, is that we want to create side events of the festival in different cities around the world. It would be good to have “The Script Road São Paulo”, “The Script Road Lisbon”, “The Script Road Maputo”, “The Script Road Luanda” and The Script Road Shanghai, or Guangzhou or Beijing. Ideally, one three-day festival in Brazil, one three-day event in Portugal, one three-day event in Mozambique or Angola, and one three-day event in Mainland China. That would be the top of the hill.
And at what stage are the contacts regarding these ideas?
In a way, most of them are still in a very preliminary stage. What we are sure is that in all these years, all this experience accumulated, all the contacts, if we want to make it happen, it is just a matter of putting the machine working properly – meaning, with a team, putting it together. I am very confident that we can make it happen. Not all at the same time, one by one.
Can we expect any of these ideas to become a reality next year?
I hope that next year there will be news regarding the translation scholarship and the residence programme. […] Personally, I wish I can devote more and more time to the festival every year. First, because I love it; second, because it is not healthy to do it in the last few months. So, I see those two ideas coming soon, hopefully next year, but in a two-year period I definitely think we can make them happen, 2017 or 2018. As for the others, it would be lovely if we could start at least one of these side events in two-years time. I would love to have something put together in 2018 in Brazil, Portugal or Mainland China.
You have also mentioned in a recent interview your will to bring Spanish-language writers into the festival…
The festival is drawing attention to the rest of the world; that is the idea. And the world doesn’t only speak English. You have amazing writers in the Spanish language – my favourite language of all –, as well as in French, or German, or from South Korea or Japan. We will definitely start to pay attention to all these countries, all these literatures, one by one. This year we decided to try to put our attention in the English-speaking world, and bring a big name and a good writer of course from there [Adam Johnson].
This year’s edition pays tribute to two writers: Portuguese author Camilo Pessanha and Chinese author Tang Xianzu – both with links to Macau. How will the audience get to know them better?
For Tang Xianzu, we have a Chinese opera, an adaptation of The Peony Pavilion – it is not the integral version –, which is called “Peony, my beauty”, coming from Foshan, to be held on March 6, in the D. Pedro V Theatre […]. Before that [on the same day], we will have a talk on Tang Xianzu with a local expert Ms Mu Xinxin. […] Together with her, we will have the writer – who also writes for theatre – that adapted The Peony Pavilion to “Peony, my beauty”, who wrote the script for the opera. […] And there is also the exhibitions: we will have Alexandre Marreiros creating pieces inspired on The Peony Pavilion; and we have Eric Fok [with a work depicting the possible arrival of Tang Xianzu to Macau]. Then, for Camilo Pessanha, […], one of the exhibitions, by Pedro Barreiros, has already some connection to him. And then there are the main sessions about Camilo. Event number one: the presentation [on March 12] of a new [Chinese] translation of Clepsydra by Yao Feng, to be published by the International Institute of Macau; after that we move to a more academic session with three experts: Daniel Pires, Pedro Barreiros and Paulo Franchetti. […] On the following day, we have a very special session that can be one of the best sessions of the festival, with a very peculiar writer called Paulo José Miranda […].