Wednesday 12 November 2014

Lion City Lit: Q & A with R Ramachandran

Following on from the success of Singapore Writers Festival, we realised here at Asian Books Blog that we ought to give greater coverage to what's going on in our own backyard. The result is Lion City Lit, our new Singapore slot.  Here, Rosie Milne talks to R Ramachandran, executive director, National Book Development Council of Singapore.

Singapore aims to position itself as a centre for publishing of Asian content - it wants any writer with content relating to Asia to think of it as the place to publish. It helps that the country has four official languages: English; Chinese; Malay; Tamil. The vibrant local publishing scene is unusual in that it has houses specialising in each language. As part of its strategy to win pre-eminence in the region, the National Book Development Council makes a number of awards through the Singapore Literature Prize, which has categories in each language sector.  The 2014 awards were announced last week. I asked  Mr. Ramachandran about the tiny City-State’s big ambitions.

How does the Singapore Literature Prize contribute to raising Singapore's profile as a centre of publishing? 

Books can be eligible even if they are not published in Singapore, and the award system is geared to grow both to include books published throughout Asia, and also to include a larger number of categories and languages than at present.

Other than administering the Singapore Literature Prize, what else is the National Book Development Council doing to promote publishing in Singapore?

In order to serve as an effective centre of Asian content, we need to develop our translation resources so that Asian content in other languages can be translated into English and published in Singapore. Such translated works could be more easily marketed in the region and beyond than could books in Asian languages.  We are planning to set up a translation centre to facilitate translation of literary works into different languages.  We have also upgraded our established training body, the Academy of Literary Arts and Publishing, to develop the skills of those in the local publishing industry. 

Doesn’t the City-State’s small size and small books market limit its ambitions?

No. We publish for the world. For instance, each year we organise the Asian Festival of Children’s Content. This brings together content creators and producers, publishers, teachers, librarians and anyone interested in quality Asian content for children. The Festival carries the slogan: Asian Content for the World’s Children.  But it’s not just children’s publishing, we want all our local publishers to publish beyond the region to the world market, as do publishing houses in the US and the UK.

Have you learned from other small countries, which have had a big literary impact?  I'm thinking of Ireland.

We have not only studied Ireland, but also Israel and New Zealand, countries whose writers and creative people have made an impact on the rest of the world. The great advantage these countries have over us is a longer tradition of literature and a culture of publishing. Singapore is a migrant state, and a relatively new one, and even though our fathers and forefathers came from nations with rich cultural traditions – China, India, the Malay world - they migrated for materially better lives. Singapore’s early years were essentially spent on day-to-day matters and economic concerns were predominant. Since independence, after 50 years of post-colonial development, cultural interests have come to the fore. The growth of libraries, museums, art galleries, performing art centres, and a host of other services have emphasised the importance of the arts.

Okay, but are Singapore’s publishing ambitions driven by commerce, or culture?
Singapore has always been a commercial city and it will continue to be. But great commercial cities also emerge as centres of culture. Take London and New York in the present day, and Alexandria and Venice in earlier times. All are great examples of cities that are or were centres of the arts made possible by their commercial wealth. While commerce and banking are the foundations of wealth in Singapore, it has also realised the important part culture plays in people’s lives and is committed to nurture Singapore as a global city of the arts. The government has spent billions developing arts infrastructure, for example setting up the National Arts Council, the Media Development Authority, the School of the Arts, LaSalle College of the Arts, and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, to train, nurture and support creative talent.

An international publishing industry needs an international rights marketplace. Are there any plans for Singapore to develop a books fair and rights market?  
Yes, the Singapore Book Publishers Association is planning to set up such a fair. The Book Council hopes to be involved in this effort. Meanwhile, the Book Council has developed a marketplace for children’s contents called Media Mart as part of the Asian Festival of Children’s Content. We want Media Mart to become known as the foremost regional rights fair for children’s content.