In 2011, in its inaugural year, the Hay Festival, had 23 speakers. Among the featured speakers only one was a Bangladeshi writer who writes in vernacular language: Selina Hossain. The rest consisted of seven foreign writers, one foreign cultural activist/performer, one British writer of Bangladeshi origin, a renowned Bangladeshi classical dancer and cultural activist LubnaMarium,11 Bangladeshi English language writers, and one Bangladeshi Bengali and English language writer.
Syed Manzoorul Islam a Professor of English in Dhaka University who has earned his media fame by writing poignant column for a leading Bangla daily – was also in that featured list of the first edition of the literary festival.
While still trying to find its own voice and style, since its rebranding as the Dhaka Lit Fest, the event, even in infancy, demonstrated a willingness to represent Bangladeshi writers. Most of them happened to write in the English language, but they were Bangladeshi writers nonetheless. However, the festival has since expanded so much it is almost unrecognizable from its earliest iteration.
The guest list at last year’s event, consisting of 180 speakers, could rival any festival in the world and was truly international in nature.
DLF 2017, to be held later this month, will feature 124 speakers, according to the guest list, which will announce more guests. Among the 124, the primary work area of 62 guests is in Bangla or on and about Bangladesh. The rest of the guests for DLF 2017 range from Booker Prize judge professor Valentine Cunningham, to Booker Prize winning authors Ben Okri and Aravind Adiga, to the pioneer of modernist movement in Arabic poetry Adonis to global movie superstar Tilda Swinton.
The diversity of the guests speaks to DLF’s desire for more inclusion. One of the primary criticism of the Hay Festival was that it did not include enough Bangladeshi Bangla language writers. Whether that happened by design, or the organizers of the DLF later listened to the detractors of the previous iteration and amended their program is not entirely clear. But the effort to make the festival representative of world literature, while keeping an adequate presence of Bangladesh has been increasingly visible since the festival’s inception.
How Bangladesh and its literary scene can benefit from it is another question that has been raised by some. One of the stated goals of the festival, according to Kazi Anis Ahmed, one of the directors of the Dhaka Lit Fest, is to “present Bangladesh to the world and present the world to Bangladesh.” To that end the organisers have been true to their intention it seems.
Literary fest and prizes are always susceptible to criticisms of elitism. In 2009 Peter Englund, one of the most prominent member of the Nobel literature prize jury said that the secretive panel for the prize has been too "Eurocentric" in picking winners. Alex Shephard, in his article for the New Republic, wrote that the Nobel prize opens up valuable new horizons by awarding lesser known authors, which has “led to the perception that the Nobel is the vegetable of literary prizes: not very fun, but ultimately good for us.”
The Independent of the UK ran a scathing piece in 2016 on the British Hay Festival with the title “The Hay Festival is an embarrassing celebration of elitism. It must open up to new readers.” The main criticism in the opinion piece was that the festival isn’t inclusive enough and as a result “wealthy white people hanging out in luxury yurts and splurging on novelty Jane Austen tea-towels is the image that most Brits now associate with literary events.” The writer also slammed the ticket price for the event, calling it indicative of the festival’s exclusiveness.
Judged on that standard the DLF has certainly been able to avoid the trap of being exclusive by design. It is a free event and one of the title sponsor Bangla Tribune provides coverage of the event in Bangla. Ultimately, the impressive diversification in the guest list, as well as inviting high profile guests such as the world renowned novelist VS Naipaul, the DLF is trying to find the sweet spot of being special and inclusive at the same time. The best proof of its success is perhaps the growing participation of the public in the event. This year’s edition will hopefully be a glaring example of the increasing participations from all spheres of the literary enthusiasts.