Sunday, 1 November 2015

Day 2: Singapore Writers Festival

Asian Books Blog is based in Singapore. During the Singapore Writers Festival, (SWF) which is on now, and runs through until November 8, daily posts will offer a flavour of events in the Lion City.

So: Day 2 ...

I evidently managed to miss Stories From Islands, Songs From Islanders 1, but I did catch Stories From Islands, Songs From Islanders 2. This brought together 5 authors, from geographically widely separated islands, to explore what, if anything, is unique about literature from islands. Does it reveal a sense of isolation? A strong sense of identity? Or what?

The event was sponsored by The Japan Foundation and the British Council, and each of these two island nations was represented by an author: Mieko Kawakami from Japan; Deborah Levy, from Britain.

Mieko Kawakami is one of Japan's most highly regarded young authors. In 2007 she was awarded the Akutagawa Prize for promising new writers for her second novel, Chichi to Ran (乳と卵 Breasts and Egg) which describes the relation between the female heart and body through the characters of three women. As well as novels, she also writes short stories, and poems. Furthermore she is an accomplished singer-songwriter.  She read in Japanese, which was interesting to hear. Both her unscripted spoken words, and her written ones, were translated into English by Motoyuki Shibata. She read a moving short story set in the moments before the 2009 earthquake in Japan. It concerned an expectant mother dreaming that the world, her baby, and time were all made of yarn.

There was perhaps nothing specific to islands in this story, but the much-acclaimed novelist Deborah Levy made sure to link her reading to a discussion of her love of sea-swimming, both for exercise, and as a chance to let the mind drift and explore the world through a membrane of water - sea-swimming is of course much more easily available to island-dwellers, than to those living in the middle of a continent. Levy explained she had swum in the cold and weedy sea in various places in the British Isles, and she gave the audience a quick lesson in English seaside rituals: "Picnics are for sharing with the birds; a sandwich for me, and a sandwich for the seagulls." She then read from her highly-praised novel Swimming Home. The excerpt concerned an established male poet trying not to fall in love with a younger female poet, who was desperate for his opinion of her work.

Despite all the swimming references, it wasn't clear to me that one person trying not to fall in love with another had any more specifically to do with islands, than did a story about the moments before a natural disaster. Singapore’s home-grown performance-poet Deborah Emmanuel perhaps came closer to addressing island themes directly. She performed three poems; one of them concerned the disenchantment she'd felt with Singapore, as she sat by the Singapore River on National Day. There were hints here that life on a small island can be oppressive, and stifling, although this potential downside of island life was left largely unexplored.

I'd seen Omar Perez Lopez, the Cuban poet, musician and translator, and Fijian performance poet Daren Kamali at the Festival's launch on Day 1.  They also participated in Stories From Islands, although this time they presented individually, not in collaboration.

Omar Perez Lopez performed a song-poem to his own accompaniment of the hand drum - he sung and spoke in Spanish, so, lacking that language, and with no translation on offer, I couldn't understand him. Still, the rhythms were great, and I enjoyed the unintelligibility of it all.

Meanwhile, Daren Kamali spoke and sung poems that mixed English and Fijian - this was the first time I'd ever heard Fijian, so that was interesting. His poems were perhaps the most island-influenced of any of the pieces delivered during the event. Like Levy, Kamali was inspired by the sea; his poems concerned the sea creatures the Fijian islanders think of as gods and tutelary spirits: giant squid; whales; turtles; sharks.


Alas, there was no time for questions, or for conversation between either the authors, or the authors and the audience.  What a pity the event couldn't have been longer,  so the authors, and the audience, could have explored links between the various pieces, addressed more deeply some of the ideas and themes introduced, and got to grips with the question raised by the event: what, if anything beyond an interest in the sea, is unique about island-written literatures?  

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