In Search of the Write Experience

Published on 27 October 2015

This year’s Singapore Writers Festival aims to expand our experience of the written word

BY PAMELA HO

Words are written to be read. Or are they? For avid readers and literary purists, a writers festival should focus on authors and books. But consider for a moment one of the greatest writers of all time, William Shakespeare, whose works every student of English Literature would be familiar with. His words were written to be performed.

A writer’s intention varies. Indeed, some words are written to be performed on stage as a play, as spoken word poetry to be listened to by a live audience, or appreciated as a song or a film.

“Why get all possessive about what writing should be? Aren’t film-makers, singer-songwriters and dramatists dealing with words too?” challenges Yeow Kai Chai, festival director of the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) 2015.

Themed ‘Island of Dreams’, SWF 2015 is the 18th edition of the Festival, which began in 1986 as a biennial event. Over the years, SWF has become known for its diverse programming and for being a festival of ideas. Attendances have swelled from a modest 2,000 to possibly 20,500 this year.

But Yeow, who took over the reins from former festival director Paul Tan this year, wants to take it up a notch. “My top priority is to continue this trend and to make it even more accessible. While we want to make the Festival deeply meaningful for the converted, we also want to reach out to the so-called ‘unconverted’, who feel they aren’t ‘literate’ enough to enjoy literature.”

Head Honcho Yeow Kai Chai takes over the reins as SWF festival director from Paul Tan this year, bringing a fresh perspective to a multilingual festival that started in 1986.

CHALLENGING PERCEPTIONS

Besides confronting the commonly-held belief that writers write for readers, SWF 2015 also contests the perception that it’s just a 10-day event held in October/November, concentrated in one venue.

“It should be a year-long celebration, nimble enough for us to introduce events throughout the year to cater to different audiences,” says Yeow, citing SWF’s year-round programmes such as Words Go Round, its schools outreach programme, and Utter 2015, which celebrates the best of Singapore writing and its potential to be adapted into different media and across languages.

In June, SWF worked with The Projector and Ethos Books to present a film screening where writers were invited to be part of a critique session. In August, SWF teamed with Indian Se magazine to bring in two-time Booker Prize nominee Amitav Ghosh for a literary salon, followed by the launch of his latest book, Flood of Fire. Singapore was Ghosh’s only Southeast Asian stop as part of the book’s global launch. That same month, SWF also partnered The Filmic Eye for Utter 2015: Head Trips, which showcased animation short films adapted from Singapore texts.

As SWF 2015 descends upon Singapore from 30 October to 8 November, our perceptions will continue to be challenged in the more than 300 events organised along five festival tracks.

SWF Stage consists of SWF Lectures, ticketed performances, commissioned pieces and the ever-popular Closing Debate.

SWF Class, the ‘learning arm’ of the festival, includes workshops and master-classes targeted at a range of skill sets, so that budding writers and published authors can learn from the best.

SWF³ (SWF for Families) is an expansion of Little Lit! and comprises family-friendly programmes for kids, teenagers, parents and guardians.

SWF Beyond focuses on cross-language, cross-genre programming, which includes music, films and translation.

SWF POP features fun guerrilla pop-up events throughout the year — in various locations such as Kovan Hub, Little India and Jurong East — targeting specific audiences.

“We decided to segment the Festival into five tracks for two reasons. From a programming point of view, it helps us clarify the areas we feel are significant and worth developing. It also allows festival-goers to plan their itinerary based on their interests,” explains Yeow. “We want everyone to see that the word, in its various forms, is integral to their lives.”

Festival of Ideas Learn from the best through SWF Stage, which features lectures and ticketed performances, and SWF Class, with its workshops and master-classes.

Dimensions & Demons  This collaborative production by SWF and the Esplanade features three writer-musician pairings: Daren Shiau x Riot !n Magenta, Dave Chua x weish, Stephanie Ye x Ferry.

(MULTI) DISCIPLINARY ACTION

Writers’ works have been interpreted by film-makers, animators, dancers and musicians. It’s not new and this multi-disciplinary approach will continue as SWF 2015 seeks to extend its reach beyond readers. But taking it one step further, SWF will collaborate for the first time with the Esplanade — Theatres on the Bay, through a project called Dimensions & Demons.

“The objective of this collaborative production is to show how artists who usually express themselves through different art forms are able to come together to negotiate a common ground for expression,” says Esplanade programmer Lucio Sucipto. “Will their creation necessarily carry two separate tracks of text and music? Will it be one form leading the other or something else entirely? We have left it to the writers and musicians to explore how they want to co-create the experience for the audience.”

You’ll witness more of such co-creation partnerships in SWF Beyond, which features artists such as Singapore Idol winner Sezairi Sezali, Joel Tan (Gentle Bones), playwrights Alfian Sa’at (a Young Artist Award recipient) and Han Lao Da (a Cultural Medallion recipient), as well as poets/authors Gwee Li Sui and Divya Victor.

FOUND IN TRANSLATION

Singapore is a unique melting pot of rich cultures that find their way into rich literary traditions. The SWF is one of the few multilingual literary festivals in the world. To capture our diverse stories across languages and generations is a National Arts Council-commissioned anthology which showcases 50 new works by past recipients of the Cultural Medallion and Young Artist Award.

Singathology is a majestic 636-page literary anthology in Singapore’s four official languages. Every non-English work in it comes coupled with a masterful English translation that will be read for the first time,” says its editor Gwee Li Sui. “Within the covers are poems, stories, plays, essays and comics. It boldly breaks down many barriers: it spans languages, generations of writers and artistic forms; not to mention genres, styles and themes too.”

To be launched at SWF 2015 on 6 November at the National Gallery Singapore, Singathology will be made available at the Festival bookstore. “There is a powerful Singaporean force in this anthology, and I think that anyone who reads a good portion of it will start to feel it,” reveals Gwee. “It’s a force that is familiar and yet seldom captured accurately for our own inspection.”

REGULAR GUY Poet, graphic artist and literary critic Gwee Li Sui, a popular face at SWF since 2009, is featured in five sessions, including the Closing Debate.

“Translation plays a pivotal role in breaking down language silos and expanding readership,” states Yeow, adding that SWF is collaborating with The Select Centre to curate a series of intercultural programmes which probe the nuances of translation and create new opportunities for dialogue.

“First of all, we want to create platforms for writers from different language groups to come together to discuss textual similarities and differences. Secondly, we want to position the Festival as the gateway to discovering Southeast Asian writers and writings, so that people can discover the rich, diverse literary traditions of the region,” he says.

REGIONAL RELATIONS

SWF has always been a showcase not just of Singaporean writers, but also Southeast Asian writers. And the art of translation will definitely be a growing focus at the Festival. For this year’s SWF Country Focus, a platform that showcases the diverse cultures and literature of our neighbouring countries and creates greater awareness of their literary scenes, the spotlight falls on Indonesia. Besides Indonesian literature, one can expect musical performances and even batik painting!

Also notable this year is the shift of dates for the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF) held in Bali. Traditionally held in early October, UWRF has been pushed to late October, to perhaps be closer to the SWF?

Unravelling Murakami Festival speaker Ted Goossen (above) has translated works by many Japanese authors, including Haruki Murakami’s  Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973.

“Yes, it is crucial the SWF sees itself as part of a regional ecosystem and a bigger literary circuit in Asia. We have been in talks with Ubud and other festivals and are exploring regional tie-ups,” discloses Yeow. “The Asian festivals should work more closely together to form a viable alternative to the more established North American and European festival circuits.”

SWF 2015’s evident expansion across languages, genres and disciplines will undoubtedly cast the net further for new audiences. But in tandem with this expansion is its valiant attempt to link and bridge through new collaborations, translation and regional coordination. While it spins a wider web of influence, it remains true to the word at its core.

SWF 2015 is on from 30 October to 8 November at various venues. For more information, please visit www.SingaporeWritersFestival.com and sistic.com.sg.

The Festival Director Recommends

What are personal highlights of SWF 2015 for festival director Yeow Kai Chai?  

Christian Bök

This Canadian experimental poet is definitely one of my favourite poets of all time. He’s willing to push boundaries and challenge the precepts of form and meaning. The Xenotext Experiment is a decade-long project where he tries to create an example of ‘living poetry’ through germs in Outer Space. It’s unabashedly high-concept and I love it!

Dimensions & Demons

I like the idea of having artists who work in different formats coming together to create a piece of art, whatever that may be. It’s a great risk and I applaud their willingness to go out on a limb and give this a chance. Another must-see is the musical performance by Tiny Ruins’ front-woman, Hollie Fullbrook, at Chamber, The Arts House. She’s such an exquisite storyteller and her lyrics are intriguing. She writes better and subtler than some poets I know.

What I Love About You Is Your Attitude Problem (R18)

An overnight programme curated by Checkpoint Theatre’s Huzir Sulaiman (above), this series of 24 text-based performance events happens over 12 hours, with readings, performances, DJ sets, theatre, visual arts… with supper provided!

Translation & Intercultural Programmes

Translation is a delicate art, and the role of the translator is crucial in evincing the shades of meaning in the original text. After all, without them, would we be able to read classics from Russia, Japan and South America?

SWF Closing Debate: This House Believes That Singaporeans Are Not Dreamers

With Gwee Li Sui and Adrian Tan at the helm, who knows what hilarious mayhem will ensue? They are joined by other excellent speakers such as Vernetta Lopez, Oniatta Effendi, Joshua Ip, Hirzi Zulkiflie and Deborah Emmanuel.

Tips for Festival-Goers

Festival director Yeow Kai Chai suggests ways to make the most of your SWF experience. 

Be a fan of SWF on Facebook and Instagram (@sgwritersfest) to get the latest scoops.

If you’re attending a free event, arrive early to secure a seat.

Purchase your Festival Pass at S$20 — one pass for all 10 days of activities, giving you access to over 100 events. Pass-holders also get a 20 per cent discount AT SWF ticketed events.

Come with an open mind and open heart; soak in the wonders of ‘Island of Dreams’.

Don’t forget to dress comfortably!

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