Text and the City

Published on 27 October 2014

Beyond stoking a love for the written word, why do writers festivals matter?

TEXT BY PAMELA HO / ILLUSTRATION BY BRIAN CHIA

On cold winter days in Boston, Channel NewsAsia anchor Glenda Chong would curl up with a book that reminded her of home. Then an undergraduate studying at Boston University, she could have a pick of any author in the world. But when homesick, she picked Catherine Lim.

There is something to be said about literature from one’s homeland. Just reading words on a page brings back – in an instant – the smells, sounds and sights of all that is home. You see, there exists a distinct literature of Singapore. Though diverse, this body of works captures the colourful tapestry of Singapore life, and is a significant part of our culture.

For Our Place and People

The move to create a platform to showcase and celebrate this unique body of works started in 1986, with a modest Writers Week, which was held biennially under the umbrella of the then-Singapore Festival of Arts. In 1991, it became an independent annual festival.

The Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) by the National Arts Council is today one of the premier literary festivals in Asia. It remains one of the few multi-lingual writers festivals in the world, celebrating the written and spoken word in our official languages: English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil.

Long queues outside the festival pavilion : Singapore Writers Festival 2013 (Photo Singapore Writers Festival)

“Certainly, the festival has established itself as a key pillar of support to the local literary eco-system,” says SWF’s Festival Director, Paul Tan. “Its purpose has always been to bring the best of international writers to Singapore audiences, and to showcase the range of Singaporean and Asian writers to the rest of the world.”

And SWF has grown over the years in terms of reach and quality. Between 2001 and 2013, attendance tripled from 6,750 to 19,200. From 40 writers and 90 events in 2001, this year’s festival – themed ‘The Prospect of Beauty’ – will see a bumper crop of over 250 events and close to 200 writers, the bulk of whom are Singapore writers.

“There are also a lot more writers from across the spectrum of genres, from serious literary fiction to popular genres such as women’s fiction, fantasy, travel writing, graphic novels and comics, children’s writing and non-fiction,” says Tan.

This year’s line-up will see the likes of travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux, science fiction and fantasy writer Raymond E Feist, and feminist and political activist Naomi Wolf.

For Intellectual Engagement

“A good festival is a reflection of the intellectual maturity of a society. That’s why we have positioned our festival as a festival of ideas,” says Tan. “It’s about having open conversations on different ideas, trying to find some common understanding, and agreeing to disagree.”

And this movement towards focusing on ideas over books is evident in other writers festivals around the world, too. The Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF), for example, has seen a strategic shift in focus since its founding in 1986. “We’re no longer focused on traditional forms of literature, but ideas and writing of all types,” states Lisa Dempster, MWF’s director. “Our purpose is not just to celebrate literature but to promote creativity, knowledge and reflection.”

Janet DeNeefe, founder and director of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF) concurs. “A writers festival brings the kind of people Ubud loves. They’re culturally sensitive and interested in global issues, so it’s a festival of the minds,” she shares, explaining that UWRF was birthed as a response to the Bali bombing in 2002 to draw visitors back to Bali.

(LEFT) Spoken word performance by Cambodian-American exile Kosal Khiev, Singapore Writers Festival, 8 Nov 2013, at Molly Roffey’s Irish Pub. (right) Paul Tan, director of the Singapore Writers Festival (Photo Singapore Writers Festival)

For Celebrating Diversity

Beyond a shift from literature to ideas, is a shift from literature to literary-inspired events. It’s no secret that diversity in programming draws in new and curious audiences, even non-readers. There needs to be something for everyone.   

SWF’s literary-inspired line-up this year includes Body X, an interactive-experiential murder-mystery production that’s inspired by the books of Japanese author, Keigo Higashino. There are also literary-inspired walks and film screenings.   

One such film screening is Love in the Time of Cholera, based on the classic novel by Nobel Prize-winning Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It’s part of SWF’s South American literature focus this year, and held at The Arts House. Another literary-inspired film is Paul Theroux’s Saint Jack, which was once banned in Singapore.   

In addition to diversity in programming is the aim of reaching out to a diverse audience, including Chinese, Malay and Tamil-speaking Singaporeans. The young ones are also not forgotten, with ‘Little Lit!’, which is specially designed for children aged four to 12.

Reveals Tan, “This year, we’re expanding ‘Little Lit!’ and dedicating a children’s space of over two floors at the National Museum of Singapore. The programmes are free, and feature a wide variety of interactive activities, from writing and craft workshops to storytelling and drama sessions.”   

Amitav Ghosh signs books for fans (Photo Readings.org)

Gala opening of the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2014 at Puri Ubud (Photo Vifick)

For Empowering and Inspiring a City

Other than the power of the written word to enlighten, there is an immense power in the act of writing that heals and empowers.

“Through the years, we have used creative writing as a tool to empower a community, whether they are residents in a hospice, low-income families or ex-convicts,” Tan recounts. “This year, we’re collaborating with ‘EtiquetteSG’ and ‘We Can! Singapore’ to explore gender-based violence.”

Above all, a writers festival inspires a city. “We’re all seeking inspiration! So that’s the basis of the UWRF – to be inspired and to provide inspiration,” affirms DeNeefe.

Adds Dempster, “Literature is life – it’s telling stories, interacting with the news, thinking about big issues. Therefore, a writers festival that promotes these is vital to the life of a city. It enhances the creative and intellectual potential of a city.”

“It’s a celebration of the best stories borne out of our common humanity,” reflects Tan. “At its core, the festival should unite lovers of the written and spoken word and bring them together to celebrate the beauty in writing by remaining relevant and accessible to all.”

The Singapore Writers Festival (www.singaporewritersfestival.com) takes place 31 Oct to 9 Nov. 

Children engaged in interactive activities at the Melbourne Writers Festival. (Photo Caria Gottgens)

The Word Auction Game, Children’s Programme, Ubud Writers & Readers Festival (Photo Matt Oldfield)

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