Singapore Writers Festival opens this weekend
LIKE the passing of rainy season in many Southeast Asian cities, sayang – a Malay term of endearment – leaves a bittersweet taste on the palate, a feeling of both love and loss. In its 19th edition, running from November 4 to 13, the Singapore Writers Festival, a multilingual and international gathering of writers, poets, artists and musicians, brings this notion of sayang to the literary forefront, begging readers and writers alike to ponder this fleeting tenderness together.
Originally founded as a biennial festival in 1986, the Singapore Writers Festival became an annual festival in 2011 showcasing the best Southeast Asian literary talents. With each passing year, the festival organisers strive to include a greater diversity of both Singaporean and Southeast Asian writers in addition to highlighting the literary achievements of artists around the globe.
“The Singapore Writers Festival has become known for its eclectic and inclusive programming and being a place for an exchange of ideas,” said Singaporean poet and Singapore Writers Festival director Yeow Kai Chai. “We continuously make a concerted effort to invite writers from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and who have differing points of view on various topics.”
Though this year’s guiding theme is sayang, a term found not only in Malay but in Tagalog and Sundanese languages, the festival internationalises sayang with a variety of lectures, workshops, readings, and activities covering topics as diverse as the refugee crisis in Europe, the US presidential elections and the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Among the writers exploring this theme is Myanmar’s very own internationally renowned poet and visual artist, Maung Day, the third Myanmar writer to appear in the Singapore Writers Festival line up. Maung Day will appear in one reading and two panels, sharing his work on love and art in different mediums.
Before the electing of the NLD, the Singapore Writers Festival hosted two other Myanmar poets: Myay Hmone Lwin in 2015, who sits on the board of directors for PEN Myanmar, and Maung Pyiyt Min in 2012, whose work is featured in Ko Ko Thet and James Byrne’s anthology of contemporary Myanmar poetry, Bones Will Crow.
Myanmar literature, much like Southeast Asian literature, is having a moment. English translations and greater opening of these countries governments make this region’s literary culture more accessible to a global audience.
“No figure in the Southeast Asian literature scene has won the Nobel Prize in Literature yet,” said Yeow Kai Chai. “But we are glad to see an increase of writers from this region shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in recent years.”
In 2014, novelists writing in English and published in the UK became eligible for the Man Booker Prize.
Though no Nobel Prize winners will grace the stage this year, 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry Vijay Seshadri will give a reading, participate in a panel about cultural identity, and lead a classroom series about his prize- winning collection, 3 Sections, inspired by his experiences working in the fishing industry in the Pacific Northwest.
The festival’s international big names include American writer, Lionel Shriver, who made waves across artistic and activist circles at the Brisbane Writers Festival in September when she criticised, to the praise of some and disdain of many others, the concept of “cultural appropriation” – a social justice term delineating ownership of culture, and calling to question who has a right to tell certain stories or explore certain cultures.
Other well-known writers include Hawaiian writer Hanya Yanagihara, whose 2015 work A Little Life intertwines the lives of a quartet of gay men and is a horrifying exploration of sexual and physical abuse, BritishNigerian writer Helen Oyeyemi whose collection of short stories What Is Yours Is Not Yours has received critical acclaim, and Chinese avant-garde fiction writer Can Xue, who will appear in a series of Chinese-language panels on experimental writing.
In addition to readings from local and international writers, the festival is also home to a series of performances such as the opening night’s “Between the Lines: Rant and Rave II”, described by the SWF program guide as “a love letter to SingLit” by playwright Chong Tze Chien.
The second weekend of the festival finds a multilingual performance called “Cache”, with Singaporean and Chinese poets Jennifer Anne Champion and Tan Chee Lay, Malay writer Hassan Hassa’Ree Ali pairing up with dream pop band enec.e and music trio SA.
Though Singapore Writers Festival is by name for writers, the organisers evidently see “writing” as a broad term encompassing all of the multidisciplinary genres of expression and a testament to the in-between state of sayang.
“This region possesses some of the most colourful dialects,” said Yeow Kai Chai speaking to the English, Chinese, Tamil, and Malay-language events.
“Coming up with a festival theme that is applicable to literary works across cultures can be quite challenging at times, but every time we find that one universal button to push, such as sayang for this year, that sense of accomplishment can be very rewarding.”
The Singapore Writers Festival runs from November 4 to 13 in Singapore at a series of venues close to the National Gallery of Singapore. For more information, visit singaporewritersfestival.com
Men play sepak takraw in front of a mural that reads “We were born in the reign of King Rama 9”, referring to the late Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, known as the ninth king of the current Chakri dynasty in Bangkok.