Diversity and identity in a “very good” Writers Festival
Twenty years in the making: the Singapore Writers Festival seems to be turning on a bigger and brighter show each year.
Whilst Singapore is often criticised for not supporting the arts, this year’s anniversary edition was a real celebration of the increasing power and relevance of the written word in our Little Red Dot.
The success of the two-week festival came from the combination of a diverse line-up of speakers and well attended sessions.
Whilst many participants were attracted by the line-up of top international writers (including poets Li-Young Lee and Simon Armitage, and writers Junot Diaz, Edouard Louis and Tash Aw) equally many were lured by our own home-grown talent (veteran poets Anne Lee Tzu Pheng and Edwin Thumboo, writers Catherine Lim, Meira Chand and Shamini Flint, and playwright Haresh Sharma amongst others).
Many events were packed. It was dramatic to see the hallowed Chamber Hall at the Art House stuffed full of plastic fold-out chairs, and standing-room-only crowds squeezing into the back of many sessions. There was the usual crowd of art aficionados and aspiring writers, but also an increasing mix of students, curious passers-by, and fans who’d come to see a favourite author and ended up popping in to other discussions and finding new interests there.
The ancient Tamil word ‘Aram’ was the theme this year. A word that invites us to contemplate what it means to be good: to explore the universal meaning behind doing good, living ethically, exploring ideas on what constitutes a good life, and how we go about building a good society. It was a powerful theme and led to a huge array of related panels and debates between the 340 creatives on the programme.
Origins and Identities
One of the stand-out panels was entitled ‘The Responsibilities of Origins and Identities,’ with poet Li-Young Lee and novelists Lydia Kwa and Xu Xi.
Though all three are ethnically Chinese their identities are markedly diverse – born in Vietnam, Singapore and Hong Kong respectively they’ve all moved and taken on different languages, passports and cultures in the course of their lives. So how do they identify themselves?
Li-Young gave a suitably poetic response. In his lilting honey & treacle voice he talked of a certain restlessness of the spirit, how he doesn’t really feel ‘at home’ anywhere, in any place, in any time period, even in his own body.
The audience seemed to lean in, curiously discombobulated, yet empathising – is this something many of us travellers in the world can relate to? He continued with a quiet intensity explaining his belief that we all have a composite nature and a primal one. He suggested that we’re made up like a jigsaw of our family history, our gender, race, and humanity; and through these pieces we project our differences – but also our sameness. Yet like Odysseus, we’re trying to get home – home to our primal selves. For Li-Young the very practise of art, or writing his poetry, is the door through which to access this primal self.
The fabulous and feisty, mediator (and crime novelist) Shamini Flint interjected, “I don’t feel comfortable anywhere. I feel like a fraud. I don’t belong.” A powerful confession that resonated around the Chamber and was picked up by a nodding Xu Xi. “All of us have multiple origins and identities – how and why do we need to be loyal to any one of them?”
Rather than looking for external societal confirmation, is the very idea of identity not born of private reflection? For her the concept of ‘home’ shared a dual meaning – an emotional as well as a physical place. Like Shamini, she had always felt “like an outsider, but art and writing became my escape: I feel at home in my fiction.”
Xu Xi explored the idea that concepts of identity and home can also evolve over time, “Age makes a difference, ‘home’ becomes more important – because I ask myself: where do I want to die?” For Xu Xi the answer to that haunting question had been answered: “In the woods.” She has found a place in the US (not too far from the ocean that reminders her of her childhood in Hong Kong), a quiet place in a forest where she plans to build her home.
Lydia Kwa has also faced challenges in identifying just who she is and what home means. “My identity was unexamined – until I lost it,” she explained how leaving majority-Chinese Singapore and moving to Canada made her suddenly realise she was different and caused her to question who she really was. “I was forced to find ‘home,’ then slowly realised that this was not an external place but an internal one: the only place that is unconditionally accepting is within. I am home.”
The audience and other panellists fell silent. A powerful truth.
Shamini tried to turn the conversation to the idea of ‘responsibility’ – the obligation that comes with identity but the panelists seemed unconvinced. The idea of responsibility has very strong Asian overtones – where life can often be seen as a series of obligations.
Lydia Kwa explained the dominant narrative of her youth was filial piety, but it was also overlaid with ‘commonwealth traits’ where it was aspirational to speak English and take on Western ways. She found this paradox “unhelpful and limiting.” She mused “is an origin a rupture – like a birth?” She felt under pressure to confer to the dominant social structures – are we accountable, do we owe the state, or are we (as writers) responsible to a higher sense of value?” She posed the question, but no-one responded – maybe the earlier discussion on identity (“I am home”) had already provided the philosophical answer.
The responsibility of identity and origins is the writer’s own internal exploration of authenticity as they go about finding out who they are and where they belong.
Sons and Daughters
One doesn’t naturally associate comedy with writers’ festivals but one of the most surprising and well received events in the line-up was the ‘Sons of Singapore. Daughter of Singapore’ stand-up comedy.
The beautiful, foul-mouthed hostess, Sharul Channa, set the tone with her boast that “comedy is now a ‘proper’ art form” – being centre stage at such a highbrow literary festival. She’s magnetic on the stage; looking sweet and demure one moment in her full length gown, before yanking it up and flamboyantly swashing around the stage riling and reeving up the audience.
Her warm-up also set the tone for the three comics to come – clearly nothing was to be off limits. In fact everything that nettles and festers, rankles and chaffs, all the Singaporean cultural quirks and political angst were dragged out of dark corners and held up in a blinding spotlight for teasing and ridicule, ribbing and taunting.
At first the laughter was really nervous chuckling masked by waves of polite coughing – the audience seemed to find it all a bit shocking (was the Singaporean cultural censorship police going to suddenly leap out like Ghostbusters to obliterate the feisty free speech?); but the almost guilty giggles of the audience quickly morphed into chortling, then full blown laughing and belly clutching hooting.
With a fabulous sense of irony the emphatically politically correct lineup (an ethnically Indian female hostess, with Chinese, Indian and Malay male counterparts) held court with a most politically incorrect show. Jinx Yeo was perfect to start as he was probably the tamest in his delivery – sticking very much to the (hilarious) differences between the Chinese / Malay and Indian approaches to life in Singapore. Fakkah Fuzz upped the ante – luring the audience along with increasingly risqué jokes.
He has tremendous good fun on stage and has the audience in the proverbial palm of his hand as he bounds around the set, laughing and cheering at his own jokes, thumping his thighs and clapping his hands in contagious hilarity. He’s a master of self-depreciation to comic effect.
To the audience’s delight his jokes would snowball to take the mickey out of himself and then everyone else – but especially his own Malay people. The audience was filled with Tudung covered heads bobbing in laughter as he often broke into Malay – it’s curious, looking back, that despite few in the audience being able to understand his words they were clearly so funny that the rest of the crowd joined the applause equally enthusiastically.
Rishi Budhrani like the others before him picked up on the recent report in The Straits Times headlined, “Most Singaporeans prefer children and grandchildren to date Chinese and Caucasians in inter-cultural romance.” The comic material in the article was obvious and brilliantly brought to life on stage.
After the show there was a brief dialogue about the craft of comedy writing – with audience questions. It fell a little flat – as the mood shifted and the audience tried to suddenly be all sensible and grown up again after the silliness of the first part. But the comments were pointed – it is so refreshing to laugh at ourselves. The comics agreed that audiences internationally are often more comfortable with boundaries being pushed far further. In Singapore, where stand-up is still in its infancy, audiences are a little more cautious, and so too are the comics who take the attitude ‘you go as far as you can – till you get fined!”
If the audience reception is anything to go by comedy will become increasingly popular here. They discussed that they are not in any way challenging the government, just acknowledging that with much frustration here – comedy can help “release the tensions”. In reality, they seem to stick to pretty innocent material, pushing boundaries are far as they can, often sticking to stories and jokes based on cultural and ethnic truisms. The aim of their satire isn’t political, they’re clearly just having a rollicking good time – and the same could be said for the audience!
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