Top of the book bunch: Asia’s best literature festivals

The 2012 Jaipur Literature Festival

The Jaipur Literature Festival

Top of the book bunch: Asia’s best literature festivals

01 October 2014

By Jemimah Steinfeld

Once a byword for rigid affairs catering to a niche crowd, literature festivals have undergone a significant makeover of late and become a fixture – and indeed highlight – of everyone’s annual calendar. This is no more so the case than in Asia, which is hardly a surprise. As our annual Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival highlights, the disparate countries and cultures of Asia are fertile ground for the written word.

Here our Literature Festival Manager Jemimah Steinfeld highlights her top picks of the best of the literature festivals in Asia. Whether you’re fortunate to live in or near the place where they’re set or are planning a trip to one of the locations, these festivals are sure to stimulate and impress. You might want to start with the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, which kicks off in Bali today, 1 October, 2014.

ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival

Sort of like the Glastonbury of the literary world, albeit with a lot less mud, ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival is the superstar on our list. Set in the opulent surrounds of Diggi Palace, Jaipur, India, at the end of January, and with themes that range from historical fiction to books on mathematics, it’s an action-packed and lavish affair. Attendees can rub shoulders with the new literati; 2015 speakers already include Man Booker prize winner Eleanor Catton, Neel Mukherjee and Paul Theroux, to name drop just a few. Oh and did we mention it’s free? A winner all round.


The marquee on the Front Lawns of Diggi Palace at the Jaipur Literature Festival


The audience waits for the next speaker inside a marquee at Diggi Palace

Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

Not quite as glitzy as Jaipur, but with a splash of razzmatazz, the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, held each March in Dubai, is the place to be for those who want to learn (and read) more on the Middle East. It’s been voted the region’s Best Festival at the Middle East Event 2014 Awards, fighting off serious competition from the Dubai Food Carnival, Qasr Al Hosn Festival and the UAE 42nd National Day Celebrations, which really says it all. For those unable to make the main festival, fear not: a roster of related events takes place throughout the year.

Karachi Literature Festival

That it’s set in somewhere called Beach Luxury Hotel is only one part of the charm of this relative newcomer to the scene. Karachi Literature Festival is a written word pioneer in Pakistan and lines up some of the country’s top authors, such as Mohsin Hamid of Reluctant Fundamentalist fame. Held in February each year, discussions take place on a range of topics and in a range of languages. It’s an excellent way to get under the skin of Pakistan.

The Bookworm Literary Festival

China now hosts several lit fests and it’s impossible to choose one over the other. That said, we have a soft spot for Beijing’s Bookworm Literary Festival in March. Unlike some of the other entrants on this list, there’s no showbiz element to this festival, and that’s precisely the point. Set in the intimate surrounds of the Bookworm, which is a rustic and quirky space featuring library, bookshop, café, bar and rooftop, the events are lively and thought-provoking.

Irrawaddy Literary Festival

It’s set in a Unesco World Heritage Site, it features the ‘world’s largest book’ (Theravada Buddhist scriptures fyi), Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is it’s patron … need we go on? Irrawaddy Literary Festival is a reason to go to Myanmar, if ever you needed one. Another February festival, 2015’s highlights so far include Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes. In stark contrast to the Bookworm above which is totally informal, Irrawaddy is a smart affair, with a strict dress code due to its sacred location.

Ubud Writers and Readers Festival

While we don’t want to pick favourites, there’s something magical about Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. It was born in 2003 as a project to help Bali recover from the bombings of 2002. Since then it has grown in size and scope, and yet still manages to retain a laid-back feel befitting of Bali. In addition to more traditional literature events, there are plenty of special events, such as ‘bahasa breakfast’ which takes place daily and offers attendees the opportunity to learn Indonesian all while being treated to Balinese sweets. Booked your ticket yet?

Our next literature event is More or less Asian? A debate on stereotypes in literature, taking place at Asia House on 12 November 2014, when Bidisha, Daniel York, Yasmeen Khan, Anna Chen and Niven Govinden will discuss Asian stereotypes in the written word. Don’t miss it! For more details click here.

For more details on the exciting literature programme at Asia House, in which Asian authors and those that write about Asia, come and speak about their books all year round, click here.