Monday 21 October 2019

Language as an Identifying Force: Pooja Nansi on the SWF 2019

We are so excited about the opening of the Singapore Writers Festival! In less than two weeks, writers from all walks of life will grace stages at the Singapore Arts House and other venues to deliver lectures, workshops, readings, and even to perform rap!

Singapore Writers Festival has established itself as a dynamic and current autumnal literary event. Last year more than 25,000 literature enthusiasts attended the program based around the possibilities represented by 界 jiè, meaning world or universe.

This year’s theme is A Language of Our Own, and the Festival invites us to contemplate the multi-dimensional impact of language on both ourselves and on others. SWF runs from November 1st to November 10th, and you can see a programme here.

The woman who worked hard to bring this year’s festival to life is director Pooja Nansi. A poet and performer, she received a 2016 Young Artist Award, and is also Singapore’s first Youth Poet Ambassador. We caught up with Pooja to learn a little more about the processes behind Singapore Writers Festival and her hopes for what it will achieve.

Can you explain how you chose this year’s theme?
We usually have a giant brainstorming session in which everyone comes up with suggestions for themes. We then consider how we could expand the programming around each theme, what it allows possibilities for, and what fresh and new angles it allows us to explore. This year’s theme, A Language of Our Own, examines the role of languages, which refers to any system that allows for communications, be it verbal, physical or visual. While language has the capacity to create belonging, it can also be cause for displacement. The festival team and I were curious about how we could expand the ways in which we thought about the languages we use every day.

Could you share more about the planning process for this year’s programme?
Planning for the Festival starts more than a year in advance. We start by locking down the theme for the next edition, the line-up, and the potential new and engaging areas and topics to be explored. We follow up by inviting writers and matching them to the best-suited programmes. There are also commissions to consider and that requires a long lead-time due to the coordination between the partners and artists we work closely to bring on board.

How and why did you select the featured authors?
We look across issues and genres, and identify as many diverse voices as possible around the world that answers the questions and theme of the festival. We also thought of various ways in which the theme have been explored by the most important voices of our time, and identify the authors who are doing interesting work around themes that aren’t talked enough about. This helps us to stay true to the festival’s mission to inspire, excite and engage fans of the literary arts through thought-provoking topics and diverse programming.

SWF is one of the few literary festivals in the world that is multi-lingual and celebrates works in Singapore’s four official languages as well as other languages. It makes a great platform to promote new and emerging Singapore and Asian writing to the wider public, and present the world’s major literary talents to the people of Singapore. We have invited leading writers and speakers across different genres and cultures to discuss this year’s theme and issues, and have fruitful exchanges of opinions and learning opportunities. We are grateful to find like-minded partners who also believe in growing the appreciation of literary arts in Singapore and across the region.

We are pleased to feature about 200 Singapore-based and 50 international writers who write in various genres including crime fiction, speculative fiction, sequential arts, poetry, young adult fiction, children’s fiction and non-fiction in over 250 programmes this year.

What kinds of discussions do you hope the theme will provoke?
As we approach the close of another decade, SWF aims to explore the relationship between language and identity: how can we navigate our sense of self and community in a world that is so simultaneously globalised and fractured? Who has language left behind? How can we use language to rethink existing social models, reclaim conversations and to re-examine the status quo? What has language taught us about the past and how must language evolve to accommodate a changing humanity? What do we owe ourselves and our larger communities to manifest a better future?

We hope to invite discussions on how language can be utilised to create communities or create divisions, as well as how new forms of language such as the use of emojis help to facilitate communication.

What do you expect the audience and featured writers will take away from this year’s festival?
We are creating opportunities to make the written and spoken word accessible for people from all backgrounds and walks of life, and I hope festival-goers can participate and appreciate the literary arts in their own way. As our understanding of the world and its norm evolves, I hope people can develop a true understanding of our differences, and be conscious about their use of language given its ability to include and exclude. With the assembly of writers and thinkers from across diverse cultures and countries under one roof, we hope everyone can get to explore and understand how language can allow us to stand more compassionately together, and be kinder to each other.

This year, we honour Rex Shelley as the Literary Pioneer for his works that capture a historical sense of the Eurasian community in the 50s and 60s. We want to celebrate him as a literary pioneer to increase his visibility to our audience, like young Eurasian writers who might not be aware of him, and increase our appreciation for our literary history.

Could you share 3-4 festival highlights (adult programmes)?
I am particularly excited for audiences to catch Marlon James at the Festival Prologue and In A Tiny Room with Marlon James, where guests can enjoy an intimate reading and a Q&A session with Marlon James himself.

We are also proud to present the d’Monologues: A Lecture-Performance by award winning writer and disability activist Kaite O’Reilly. This lecture performance has been 15 years in the making and inspired by interviews with disabled people from across the world.

The ever-popular Festival Debate is also back this year, this time returning on a weeknight. This year’s debate sees an all-female line up chaired by Ashley Fifty, where they discuss if men’s involvement in feminism helps or hurts the cause.

Finally, we have the Perang Spontan: A Dikir Barat X Rap Battle, which allows us to explore how intertwined our present is with our history. Hip Hop has always been poetry and relatively new art forms are much more rooted in tradition than we give thought to. In this 60-minutes performance, Tukang Karut performers from various Dikir Barat groups will be pitted against some of the best Malay rappers in a gelanggang or a free-style arena format to test their wit in traditional Malay quatrains.