Monday 9 October 2023

The Plot Twists In Singapore

Southeast Asia’s largest literary extravaganza, The Singapore Writers Festival, will be held next month. Now in its 26th edition, this year’s theme is “Plot Twist”. 

Devika Misra spoke to Festival Director Pooja Nansi about what audiences can expect at the upcoming event.

2023, SWF says, is all “about unexpected combinations and unlikely connections.” …Such as? 

…Literature and hip hop for one. Nansi admits “being a bit of a hip-hop nerd” herself, she wanted to celebrate the movement’s 50th anniversary.

PN: “We're exploring its very close relationship with poetry and how it's become its own kind of global presence and language. So we've got a series of five programs across the youth range….and we've got one for children by rapper BGourd ….who dresses up in a bitter gourd suit and he's teaching kids how to come up with their own rap persona.”

The festival will also have its share of literary heavyweights.

Scholar and literary critic Gayatri Chakrobarty Spivak will hold “an informal conversation about her activism in between flying in from a Marxist feminist conference and flying out to teach rural children in Kolkata.”

Audiences will also be able to get up close with Pulitzer prize winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen  ("The Sympathizer") as part of the festival’s “Tiny Room” series, a space that holds only about 50 people.

Singaporean poet, dramatist and novelist the late Goh Poh Seng will also be honoured.

PN: “I think Goh Poh Seng is very much alive and well. The title of the exhibition is “Tell Bowie, He's Only a Rockstar. I, However, Am A Poet,”. It is what he actually said when David Bowie refused to show up at his house because he said didn’t fraternize with concert promoters. And he told Bowie's people, Tell Bowie, he's only a Rockstar, I, however, am a Poet. And I thought that was like the most badass thing anyone could say. And, David Bowie showed up!”

Goh Poh Seng’s work will be presented “with a twist”.

PN “The idea is really to remind people that these are not old people who have passed on and once did important things, but that their legacies really live on today. So one of the programs at the festival is called "There's No Cause for Grief, reading Goh Poh Seng in 2023". We've got very contemporary poets like Cyril Wong, Ang Kia Yee and Zeha   I think one of them was born in like 2001… it's very moving to hear them. The family was very kind to give us unpublished work. So these are poems of his that  have never seen the light, and it's very moving to see, to hear them in the mouths of poets reading and living today and to feel how immediate he feels when you hear them. The poets said, this feels like it needs an electronic sound and so it's set to music by Chok Kerong who is an amazing musician…it really started off as a tribute to his jazz and poetry.”

This type of exploration across artistic genres and literary mediums is a focus this year, as are Asian American artists.

PN: “Fatimah Asghar, of the web series "Brown Girls," has worked across poetry, film, TV, we've got Jeff Chang who's a hip -hop historian and he talks a lot about what the Asian immigrant communities have brought to global cultures in the US. His current book is a biography of Bruce Lee and we've also got Kyeong Mo (Jeffrey Stuckel) who's a punk rocker, a Korean adoptee in America, so he's gonna be talking about the relationship between punk rock and poetry. Jeff Chang is doing a live lecture on the birth of hip hop while spinning because he also used to be a DJ. So he's talking about the birth of the music along with a live demonstration and then there's a DJ set after that.”

In her five years helming the festival Nansi describes the outreach program as unconventional, featuring  events which connect with larger audiences.

“I've seen more youth attendance at the festival and also a real attempt to reach out beyond traditional audiences at literature festivals, so not just your avid readers and writers but people who are reading and writing but may not think that they are. That's why we've reached into more lifestyle areas like chefs, fashion writers, memoirs … we've had athletes who've written sports memoirs. For me it's really important that the festival is relevant to everyone.”

Last year, its 25th anniversary, the festival drew in an audience of about 46,000. This year the organisers say they have no idea how many to expect!

The Singapore Writers Festival will run from the 17th to the 26th of November 2023. Most programmes will take place on the festival grounds in Singapore’s Civic District but some events will be held at different locations across the island.