BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Local indie publisher Heartwrite Co will be staging a “tiny” literary festival from December 4-8 as part of the roster of events for the Brunei December Festival.

The five-day event, dubbed the “Tiny Lit Fest“, will feature a series of panel discussions on literature, writing workshops with authors from Malaysia and the Philippines, poetry and spoken word performances, networking events for local publishers, as well as activities for children.

Festival director and editor at Heartwrite Kathrina Mohd Daud says the intention behind the Tiny Lit Fest is to build connections between Bruneian publishers, readers and writers.

“Heartwrite Co has been thinking about a literary festival for a few years now… We see the industry of literature in Brunei as this kind of latticed community, and we want to be a part of fostering these connections and conversations.”

Huwaida Ishaaq, co-founder of the publishing company, adds that they wanted to create a space for industry players to network.

“Publishing falls within the creative industry and we are slowly growing. Having this platform, I hope that we can create opportunities for mutual support, collaboration, learning and information gathering.”

Literary events are a rarity in Brunei — some might say the sultanate lacks a strong reading and literary culture — although the government’s Language and Literature Bureau and other local publishers have staged smaller-scale events in the past.

But a fledgling scene of independent publishers and self-published authors have cropped up in the past five years, producing everything from science fiction and poetry collections to ‘halal’ romance novels.

“There’s an appetite for Bruneian content. I think that’s clear from the hearty support for local theatre, film and performing arts in general. So maybe we can say there’s demand locally, but not enough supply,” says Kathrina, who is an assistant professor of English Literature at Universiti Brunei Darussalam.

“Getting good writing is a challenge partly because it is such a personal risk to put your work out there. Honouring that courage while also being honest about the limitations of someone’s work is something we take seriously.

“A small market also means a smaller pool of writers and writing to draw from. So one of the challenges for publishers in a small market is the entire ecosystem — [there needs to be] an emphasis on, and valuing of, the creative production in the educational curriculum; the reading culture, the cost of printing; the bookstores; and having a robust culture of feedback — all of these factors affect publishers.”

Representations of Bruneian stories and experiences in literature are scarce, although local content in other mediums — from film and visual arts, to playwriting and journalism — has begun to blossom.

“If you are watching a lot of Bruneian tv and a lot of Bruneian content on stage, it’s different when you’re translating that into literature,” Kathrina says. “There isn’t a vocabulary that exists to describe ‘Bruneian-ness’. With film it’s almost easier because visually its easier to just replicate.

“But there is such a scarcity of books… What we know is only the Malay literature.”

One of the aims behind the Tiny Lit Fest, she adds, is to create a directory of publishers and writers which can be a shared resource for anyone looking to break into the industry.

“Whether they’re a writer looking to get published, an editor looking for opportunities, academics and researchers looking for information, or just readers like us who are greedy for more Bruneian content.

“We hope that as the industry in Brunei grows, we continue to look more deeply inwards at ourselves, our own stories, and how to tell them.

“We hope when writers come to us, it is with a story they want to tell, that they feel so passionately about that we can’t help but feel passionately about it too.”