Monday, 2 November 2015

Day 3: 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 3...

My personal highlight of day 3 was, inevitably, Monsoon Books' joint launch of Olivia & Sophia, by me, and of Singapore Yellow, by William L. Gibson. Both are works of historical fiction. 

Olivia & Sophia, a tale of two audacious women, and one extraordinary man, explores the life of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, through the eyes of his two wives.  

Singapore Yellow is the second in William's 19th-century Detective Hawksworth trilogy, set in Singapore and Malaya - the first novel was Singapore Black.

Olivia & Sophia takes the form of two diaries - to state the bleedin' obvious, one from Olivia, the other from Sophia. Since the launch was at SWF, I read the entry from Sophia's diary that concerned the day, in February 1819, when Raffles took control of Singapore. And since local Hindus were yesterday celebrating their annual Fire Walking Festival, in which devotees walk across hot coals to prove their devotion, William read an excerpt that concerned this very festival.

Monsoon Books is based in the UK. Their publisher, Phillip Tatham had flown in for SWF.  He faced down jet leg to moderate the discussion that followed the readings. His questions for me included whether I preferred Olivia, or Sophia - I like them equally - and to William why he'd included supernatural elements in his novel. William explained he didn't like the term supernatural, since there is always somebody for whom the supernatural is real, and believable.

Phillip's general questions, for both of us, touched on the relationship between historical fiction and (so-called) historical fact, the responsibilities of writing about people who once lived, and the choices made by historical novelists in representing thought and speech: do you write in a modern way, or try to hint at historical patterns of thought and speech, at the risk of cod historicism?  If you want to find out what I think about these questions, read Olivia & Sophia! Likewise, if you want to find out what William thinks, read Singapore Yellow!

The audience asked a range of lively questions. William, who is Western, was asked about, and complimented on, his representation of Asian characters. Four of Sophia's children died.  I was asked what it had been like to write about their deaths (challenging), whether there were elements of autobiography in my representations of Olivia & Sophia (I hope not), and whether I wanted to shift Singaporeans' somewhat low opinion of Sophia (yes.)

The readings and questions were followed by a book signing - I signed one book for a boy who looked to be about 8 or 9.  I was most flattered he was interested; 8 year old boys were perhaps not the readership I'd expected...