Sunday 6 November 2022

IF you fancy going to the Singapore Writers Festival, read this!

Singapore Writers Festival 2022 (SWF) opened on November 4, and continues until November 20th.  Here, Pooja Nansi, poet, educator and, since 2019, Festival Director, talks to Asian Books Blog 

Q: The theme for this years’ Festival is “IF”. Why was this chosen? How and why is it relevant to writing now? 

A: As the Festival celebrates its 25th edition this year, we are entering a time where the world is emerging from a pandemic, and we’re dealing with plenty of conflict, change and uncertainty globally. Things feel a little fragile at this moment. The Festival’s 25th edition also leads us to a kind of "quarter-life crisis" in that we’re reflecting on the Festival’s legacy, thinking about what could have been, and what lies in its future. We were inspired by local poet Cyril Wong’s poem If…Else. “If” is an interesting word that holds space for both regret and possibility, and allows for retrospection and ideation. Through this year’s programmes, we invite Festival-goers to join us in imagining and reimagining possibilities, with the literary arts as a starting point. The act of writing itself is a creation of possibilities. It is one of the safest ways of exploring different scenarios and taking risks. You can rewrite the past, change the present and imagine futures. We hope that the theme of “IF” reminds us all of how through literature, we create fictional worlds through our interactions with books, play with text, dream up scenarios, imagine the unfolding of narratives, indulge in fantasies, and transcend the boundaries of time, space and geography. 

Q: Naturally there is a huge focus on home grown literature, with very many of the featured local authors writing in English. Which event featuring local authors writing in English are you particularly looking forward to, and why? 

A: Since SWF was founded in 1986, it has evolved into one of Asia’s premier literary events, with a strong programming focusing on SingLit and regional writing. That has always been the focus all throughout the 25 editions of the Festival so far. As a national festival, I’ve always felt inclined to showcase a sense of community in our vibrant local writing scene. We have so many local talents and creatives to be proud of. I’m looking forward to some of the Youth Fringe programmes as they bring a very fresh perspective – particularly one where Experimental Poets meet Instapoets. I’m also looking forward to the Festival galas and Festival keynote talks. All of these can be accessed by a Youth or Festival Pass! 

Q: One of the most interesting features of the SWF is its commitment to a multi-lingual approach, with programmes in all four of the local languages, Tamil, Malay and Chinese, as well as English. What events are you particularly looking forward to from the Tamil, Malay and Chinese programmes? 

A: I’m very proud to say that SWF remains as one of the few multilingual literary festivals in the world. Since its inception, the Festival has been celebrating the written and spoken word in Singapore’s official languages – English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil. We make it a point to celebrate different literary voices across the various racial groups and communities through the Festival. It is also important for us to constantly strive towards welcoming new audiences and programmes for a broader appreciation of reading and writing across the diverse communities. This year, we are co-curating programmes with the Chinese, Malay and Tamil language and literary communities to present a strong suite of multilingual programmes that reflect the depth and diversity of the literary arts scene. I’m very intrigued by a Crime Fiction writing workshop with author Pattukottai Prabakar who is an immensely popular author in South India and has written many beloved and well-known books. I’m also looking forward to Gita Raga a very special concert in which homegrown Malay rock stars are creating new compositions based off some of our best Malay poets, as well as a session at Tea Chapter in which one can Zen out to poetry!

Q: SWF features writers from throughout Southeast Asia (SEA). How important is it to you to represent the region? I think it’s fair to say SEA literature is often neglected internationally. Do you agree? If not, why not? If so, why do you think literature from this region is so often overlooked? 

A: It is a shame that SEA fiction is underrated! The SEA Focus is one of the all-time favourite programmes at SWF where we spotlight regional creatives. Rather than representing the region, we hope that SWF continues to be a meeting point for writers, academics and thinkers from diverse communities and backgrounds to engage in conversations and for the Festival to facilitate cross-cultural understanding. As a festival we must be cognisant of where we are placed and champion the work that is happening around us! For this edition, we partner once more with the Singapore Book Council to present SEA Focus. The dynamic line-up of programmes features powerhouses such as Filipino author and journalist, Miguel Syjuco; Indonesian crime-fiction novelist, Tsugaeda; award-winning Lao writer, Bryan Thao Worra; and rising Thai writer, Prapt. From science fiction and fantasy to sequential arts and game writing, and even a curation of Southeast Asian films, you will experience the richness of SEA literature and hear from prominent voices from the region. 

Q: Many writers from the Philippines will be attending. Do you agree literature from the Philippines is even less well known internationally than that from other large countries in the region? If so, why do you think this is? Which events are you particularly looking forward to and why? 

A: The Philippines has a very rich, diverse and progressive literary tradition and they are probably one of the most poetic societies in SEA. 

Q: You have a lot of exciting Young Adult (YA) authors attending. How are you reaching out to a YA audience, and how do you hope to encourage a love of reading in the next generation? Do you think books stand a chance, long term, when set against the appeal of computer games and similar electronic entertainments? 

A: I believe that we can reach out to young people by simply listening to them. The way youths interact with text has completely evolved. They are interacting with text much more than previous generations as they are constantly reading and writing on their phones and devices. It’s important for young people to be able to address how their generation speaks and what “literacy” means to them. Since I introduced Youth Fringe in 2019, we have been engaging with Youth Curators to conceptualise programmes for their peers. Under the guidance of Sing Lit Station, these youths have ownership in what they choose to curate. Youth Fringe not only empowers Youth Curators, but also the youths who will check out the Festival to see what it has to offer them through literature. By engaging with Youth Curators, we believe that the Festival is a great place to give them a voice. We can’t say for sure that a love of reading will develop, but if our programmes spark some conversation and curiosity, and stimulate them to step outside of their world view, even if just for a short while, I think we are moving in the right direction. We are featuring sequential arts, comics and graphic arts heavily in this edition. More than just for avid readers or aspiring writers, we want to invite people to encounter the written word in diverse formats, whether it be comics, theatre, music, games and even astrology - literature is all around us. These different formats appeal to each of us differently and by offering diverse and robust programming, we are able to make the Festival accessible to more audiences. 

Q: Translation is important to SEA literature, both translation of text written in local languages into English, and translation between local languages.  Can you comment of the Festival’s approach to translators, and translating?

A: The Festival has always had an interesting selection of programmes on translation. This year, we have the programme The Mindful SEA Translator, which dives straight into the challenges faced by translators of SEA literature. Many of them feel like the stakes are against them in terms of nurturing tradition, marketability and available support. On the other hand, the stories that they are handling are rich in cultural nuances and socio-historical complexities. In Why Get Them Translated? we invite Festival-goers to explore the reason behind the demand for translated books in a conversation with a panel of industry leaders. Festival-goers will also get plenty of insights at Reading Jin Yong in English, a bilingual conversational programme which considers how to translate culturally and historically specific content to engage readers and make the stories appealing to an international audience. 

Q: France is this year’s country of focus. What links do you see between France and Singapore literature-wise? What can the two countries offer to each other? 

A: There is so much in common! Our love of food for one! Our interest in innovation! Over the years, SWF has partnered with a wide range of foreign embassies to provide opportunities for Singaporean writers to interact and network with their international counterparts. We are partnering with the French Embassy Singapore this year to celebrate the rich history and diversity of French literature. There will be collaborative programmes to spotlighting French or Francophone writers, as well as a showcase of diversity with French film programmes and screenings, presented in collaboration with the Institut Français and the Embassy of France in Singapore. The Country Focus will profile a wide range of French or Francophone writers from the areas of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, games writing, and sequential arts. These include headliners like professor of literature and psychology Pierre Bayard; and science fiction writer Sylvie Denis. Film buffs can also look forward to an opportunity to meet French-Afghan writer and filmmaker, Atiq Rahimi, known for his 2012 film The Patience Stone and other novels. 

Q: You have some big names attending. Which internationally famous authors are you most looking forward to presenting to the Singapore audience, and why? 

A: I am very excited to present incredible names from the spoken word scene which I grow up in such as Nate Marshall, from the USA, and Shane Koysczan, from Canada. As well as the poet Claudia Rankine, also from the USA, who is a legend! 

Q: What do you hope for from the Festival's next 25 years? 

A: I can only hope that it continues to grow from strength to strength and be ahead of its time.