Highlights from the Singapore Writers Festival from Contributing Editor Alexandra Touchaud


4 November – FRIDAY

Somewhat unexpectedly for a festival of the written word, the opening ceremony for the 2016 Singapore Writer’s Festival (SWF) kicked off with a bang, and a roll, and a thump, thump, thump. The cross-genre event featured music, poetry and theatre – a sampler of the activities planned over the coming ten days of the SWF – in addition to the much anticipated line-up of 310 world-class writers, poets and publishers.

The beat of the drums slowly died away, overtaken by applause for the members of the SA(仨) Singaporean musical collective; next on stage was well known local thespian Kamil Haque, giving a live-story performance (a most engaging tale of a hungry waiter stealing a Valentine’s pizza – you had to be there!).

There was a change of pace as the festival theme of ‘Sayang’ (a Malay word encapsulating the entwined concepts of love and loss) was brought to life, off the page and onto the stage, in an exquisite mixed dance and poetry piece performed by mother-daughter artistic team (Noor Hasnah Adam and Nur Aisyah Lyana). As Festival Director, Yeow Kai Chai, said, ‘With its dual meaning, ‘sayang’ aptly represents how the stories which speak the most deeply to us – whether written, spoken, danced or sung – are centred on love and loss.’ The tender performance of this SWF-commissioned piece, ‘Genggaman Sayang’ or ‘Love’s Grasp’, certainly painted a hauntingly beautiful scene, exploring familiar emotions between parents and children.

6 November, 4–5 November, 8:00PM–9:30PM

Covering an encyclopedic breadth of Singapore’s history of English language literature, this play managed to cram in, in just 90 minutes, the highs and lows, key writers and events that have shaped the literary scene here in the last 50 years.

The sold-out crowd laughed, giggled and groaned in recognition of familiar stories and events presented in this two-woman show (featuring actresses Serene Chen and Jean Ng), written by playwright and director, Chong Tze Chien. It felt like a whirlwind tour – at times the blistering pace of the projected slides outlining key dates, quotes and pictures whirling overhead the stage seemed overwhelming, but the audience was swept along with the momentum and energy of it all.

What a show – what a story! Taking the audience on a journey from a time when Lee Kuan Yew said in 1968 ‘Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford,’ through to the literary giants of Arthur Yap, Goh Poh Seng and Edwin Thumboo, and on to more recent writers. It attempted to provide various perspectives as the actresses read aloud extracts from book reviews, news reports and books themselves. There was much laughter at recognition of the old Bookworm Club, sighs at memories of afternoons spent rummaging through Sunny Bookshop, and a collective smile at images of couples snuggling in the comfortable couches of Borders Books. How attitudes have changed, since earlier days when poetry and books were a luxury, to ‘it doesn’t matter what they are reading, as long as they are reading’, and by 1997 when the Straits Times declared that ‘to be a nation of writers, we must first be a nation of readers’.

Serene Chen and Jean Ng flitted from one fascinating topic to another: why Singaporeans don’t support Singapore literature more, the treatment of Bonny Hicks, why schools stopped backing English Lit, the issues around state control of the arts and its funding (including when the true story of two male penguins hatching an egg was withdrawn from libraries, and Sonny Liew’s grant was withdrawn for The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye). All this was done in a playful and often tongue-in-cheek fashion, with the actresses donning hats and glasses to impersonate well-known figures (amongst others Baey Yam Keng, Parliamentary Secretary for the Minister of Culture, snapping selfies, and Kenny Leck, owner of Books Actually and huge supporter of local writers, with his big hair and feline fancy).

The journey through this compacted chronology literally swept the audience along, right up to 2016 – a time when many now agree that Singapore Literature has indeed come of age.

The future is a blank page of an open book.
5 November – SATURDAY

Master class WRITING FOR CHILDREN Jacqueline Harvey
Nov 5th 10:00AM–1:00PM TICKETED

Mention the name Jacqueline Harvey to a classroom of 5-12 year olds and you’ll no doubt have a screaming mass of delighted children discussing two of their favourite characters, Alice-Miranda and Clementine-Rose. The lucky writers who managed to secure places to Jacqueline’s sold-out master class ‘Writing for Children’ shared much the same enthusiasm.

The classroom fell silent as she spoke, explaining her approach to writing, insights on character development, plotting (and how to make a ‘satisfying ending’), tips on dialogue, as well as tricks in seeking agents and publishing deals.

She really is a manifestation of her own personal mantra – ‘live with passion, grace and gratitude’. The audience was clearly both surprised and delighted at the generosity with which she shared her knowledge and insights gleaned from a long career as a bestselling author (of more than 30 children’s books), teacher and educator at writing classes and festivals worldwide.

The three hours drew to an end all too soon, and participants floated off on small, wafty clouds of inspiration – hoping that a little of Jacqueline’s success would have rubbed off on each of them.

Time 1:00PM–2:00PM Venue The Arts House, Gallery II FREE

A delightful children’s book series exploring friendship and family relationships. A magic crystal allows two girls to time travel back to the 1980’s, where they must overcome their differences if they are to successfully fight against the evil Midnight Warriors. New local literary talent Low Ying Ping, launched her book series published by Epigram books, to the applause of family, friends and a growing audience of those interested in supporting home-grown Singaporean talent.
‘It is hard to get the exposure and numbers’, admitted Ying Ping, ‘but hopefully these books will take off.’ And judging by the way my children and their friends have enjoyed them I think that’s a very distinct possibility.

Nov 5th 2:30PM–3:30PM Venue Asian Civilisations Museum, Ngee Ann Auditorium, FEST PASS,

To see a hardened news reporter, who has witnessed countless atrocities reporting on the wars in Afghanistan and Syria, choked with emotion and gulping back tears, one appreciates the true horror of the refugee situation.

It was a powerful moment. On stage, Atia Abawi, international news correspondent and writer, turned away from her presentation slides – images of the tiny, lifeless body of Alan Kurdi on the beach and the wide eyes of dust-covered, shell-shocked children – she looked out into the audience, battling to regain her composure before continuing.

Abawi shared her experiences, telling stories of the people behind the headlines and statistics of Europe’s migrant crisis. Abawi’s own background as a child of Afghan refugees who were fortunate enough to have been given asylum in America, where they have integrated and thrived, makes her sympathetic to the plight of the millions currently fleeing strife and war.

‘But sympathy is not enough, it takes empathy,’ she tells the audience. ‘We need to understand that these people are just like we are; many having lived stable and prosperous lives before war came, now forced to escape a situation so unbearable and dangerous that they have no choice but to flee.’

She read from Warsan Shire’s haunting poem ‘Home’: ‘No one leaves home, unless home is the mouth of a shark.’ And so her rallying cry to people and governments around the world is to ‘Act!’, to encourage and support the relocation of refugees to safe countries. She also points out that with so many talented refugees, countries have the opportunity to actually cherry pick those with the best fit of skills and professions.

The timing of this message at such a decisive moment in history (with the embittered campaigns around the US election) was clear – this is everyone’s problem, it is not going to be ‘fixed’ anytime soon, so now is the time for individuals and countries to help find long term solutions.

As Abawi’s mother used to tell her in times of crisis – ‘look for the helpers, there are always helpers to be found’. Now is the hour – the time when we must individually and collectively become ‘the helper’.
LIVING THROUGH ADVERSITY, Moderated by Alice Clark-Platts
5 November, 4:00PM–5:00PM, Asian Civilisations Museum, Ngee Ann Auditorium FEST PASS

Three writers from vastly different backgrounds joined a panel to discuss how they have each coped with ‘living through adversity’ and how it has affected their work. One story built on another and it become clear how much art has proved therapeutic to them – helping the artist to heal (and often helping their audience too).

Deborah Emmanuel, Singaporean spoken-word artist, painted a picture of the hellish twist her life took when she was incarcerated for drug use at just 19years old. Life in prison, especially the long period in solitary confinement, had huge long-term ramifications for her as she struggled to get her life together and find her artist’s voice upon release. Writing about her experiences proved a cathartic experience – as she was finally able to let go of so much of the anger and pain.

Likewise, Sabata-mpho Mokae, post-Apartheid writer and academic, found solace in writing about the horrors of the past. Whilst laws may have changed, life for the black population today remains enormously challenging and disadvantaged; Sabata-mpho Mokae uses his literature as a vehicle for discussion and to help shine a light on the situation.

Ryoichi Wago, dazzled the audience with a dramatic reading of his poem about Fukushima. Presenting in Japanese, most of the audience could not understand the words, but the force of emotion and the power of the story was clear. As the booming tidal wave of his voice died away, the audience erupted in applause (one could only pity the poor translator who had to follow, trying to do justice with her English rendition). Like the other panelists, Ryoichi Wagu poured his trauma into his words; his Fukushima poetry, often written in 140 character tweets, has helped many Japanese process and deal with their pain.

PANEL AMERICANS IN THE PACIFIC Featuring Atia Abawi, Nisid Hajari Moderated by Elvin Lim
Time 10:00AM–11:00AM Venue The Arts House, Play Den FEST PASS

Two high profile American journalists and writers on stage to discuss America’s role in the Pacific proved a real draw card and packed out the venue at The Arts House. Atia Abawi and Nisid Hajari spoke from the perspective of Americans living abroad, who have reported extensively from this region.

There was broad agreement on the importance of America’s historical role in the region (often discussed as ‘the American century’ and ‘ the American Pacific’) as well as its future role, given mounting tensions as power shifts between nations.

There were interesting discussions around the significant levels of awareness and interest amongst Asian populations and Asian-based media for insight into America’s domestic affairs: and how this is not always being mirrored, with some saying that a significant proportion of American people and media attention is less interested and knowledgeable with what is going on outside of the country, in areas such as Asia-Pacific.

Atia Abawi talked with particular insight into the Afghanistan situation, explaining how her recently released book, ‘The Secret Sky: A Novel of Forbidden Love in Afghanistan’, brought to life the history and politics through a fictionalized story. Nisid Hajari spoke of his 2015 best seller, ‘Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition.
DHEEPAN 3:00PM–6:00PM Venue The Projector, Redrum NC-16 • 114 minutes
Palme d’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Three Tamil refugees who fled to France to escape the atrocities of war-ravaged Sri Lanka. FEST PASS

Surely one of the festival highlights, a special showing of Dheepan, winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, was followed by a discussion with lead actor Antonythasan Jesuthasan.

On the losing side of the civil war in Sri Lanka, a Tamil soldier (Antonythasan) escapes by pretending to be the husband and father of two other refugees. The ‘family’ arrives in France, and tries to reconstruct a life in the Parisian banlieu – only to be dragged into more violence between displaced communities there.

The film is a powerful depiction of the immigrant experience – made all the more real as Antonythasan is himself a former Tamil Tiger child soldier, and a refugee who ended up in France, where he has lived for the last 20years (tragically he remains in exile and essentially stateless, without the right to return to his home in Sri Lanka, and without permanent status in France).

The pain and scars of his early life experience have helped shape him into a powerful artist: a convincing actor and also a highly regarded Tamil writer who has found writing books and plays cathartic. He is a powerful advocate for refugees, ‘there are hundreds of thousands of other ‘Dheepans’ living in Europe right now and millions of other refugees,’ Antonythasan reminds countries that most have blood on their hands from their involvement in other countries over the years, and to be compassionate to refugees as ‘so many of the weapons used in these wars are produced in the West, and therefore countries need to take some responsibility for the consequences of war.’

He was engaging and extremely funny – joking with the audience and translator in a mix of Tamil and English. It is hard to recognise the broken man in the film – testimony to the power and resilience of the human spirit.

7th November – MONDAY

READING BETWEEN THE LINES, Featuring Chong Tze Chien, Kirpal Singh, Ong Sor Fern, O Thiam Chin How did the SG Lit Scene take shape? 8:30PM–9:30PM Venue The Arts House, Chamber FEST PASS

Following the success of the three performances of Rant and Rave II, this panel discussion brought together the show’s Director, Chong Tze Chien, with leading personalities from the Singapore literary scene: Kirpal Singh (poet, literary and cultural critic), Ong Sor Fern (The Straits Times art and literary critic), O Thiam Chin (writer and winner of the inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize for his first novel, ‘Now That It’s Over’).

There was a lively discussion between these old friends as they debated key moments in the history of the Singapore Literary scene. Whilst the general feeling seems to be that there is a real ‘coming of age’ for Singapore writers and poets, there is still a slight reticence and sometimes an almost apologetic tone to discussions; Ken Hickson, founder of The Avenue, Singapore’s most important arts newsletter, suggested that now is the time to shake off these attitudes and proudly claim the excellent work and talent that was being developed here. There was such audience applause to this suggestion – the public mood is certainly confident that Sing Lit is heading in the right direction – up, up, up.
9th November – TUESDAY


A fascinating discussion was to be had in the Chamber of The Arts House as the panel debated the rather provocatively worded question: ‘Does Singapore need a Poet Laureate?’

Paul Tan, poet and Deputy CEO of the National Arts Council, moderated this lively conversation between poets Yong Shu Hoong, Kirpal Singh and Amanda Chong. The panel was split as to whether a poet laureate was needed or not, however, all were clearly in agreement that the promotion of poetry to the wider public should be encouraged (Kirpal Singh reminded the audience of the importance of poets, dating back to the ancient Greeks – where lyric poets, like ‘bards’, acted as the conscience and philosophers of society). There also seemed consensus that should there be a Poet Laureate it should be an honour bestowed for a relatively short period of time (similar to the US model) rather than being a life-time status (as is the case in England), and all affirmed the need to place special importance in honouring Singapore’s different communities and languages.

Many issues were discussed as to whether the poet selected for such a role would be in some way obliged to write state sanctioned poetry for national occasions, ‘how could the authentic voice of the poet’ be ensured when they were essentially being ‘commissioned’ to write, and so presumably the client (government) would hold some implied expectations or control over the poet’s works? ‘It risks becoming a sort of nationalistic propaganda,’ warned Amanda Chong, ‘there would need to be a way of clearly differentiating between national interests and political interests – so a poet laureate could write ‘without strings attached.’’

Paul Tan opened the question to the wider audience: what does the public think about the need for a Singaporean Poet Laureate? The vast majority voted ‘no, it wasn’t necessary’. But who knows, maybe the question is not whether we ‘need’ one but rather whether we ‘should’ have one – as a symbol of the maturity and importance of Singapore’s poetic and literary scene?