Singapore Writers Festival unveils the true beauty of the literary arts
“The literary arts is the cornerstone of a society’s cultural and intellectual life. People express themselves as well as engage each other and society through the written word. Additionally, the literary arts has a unique role to play in building national identity and fostering national bonding through telling stories.”
— Singapore Writers Festival’s Organizing Committee
THE WORDS of a mother expressing her love for her child. Of a doctor healing the sick. Of lovers and friends grateful for one another. Of a writer to a reader. Of a leader to a nation. Words, whether simple or profound—in their specified purpose—always hold the power to communicate thoughts, beliefs, emotions, pronouncements and inspirations that ultimately affect the life of every individual.
Throughout history, it is the spoken as well as the written word that has been used to fight for freedom, wage world wars, or simply express undying love. However pieced or sewn together, words are what ultimately convey the human condition.
For a society such as the culturally diversified city-state of Singapore, the 10-day Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) from October 31 to November 9 celebrated four of the country’s official languages—English, Malay, Chinese, and Tamil—bringing the local and international literary community together to participate in a series of fora that range from travel writing, feminism, cultural references, food and regional journalism, to name a few.
Creating an avenue for the multi-lingual exchange of over 200 local and foreign writers, SWF engaged thousands of local and international participants through interesting discussions, lectures, workshops and shows that explored both fiction and non-fiction writing, across 280 events, which was centered—but neither limited—to the theme, “The Prospect of Beauty.”
In a grand spectacle that holds words in high regard, The Sunday Times Magazine was fortunate to be in the midst of it all—a riveted witness to intelligent discussions, thus gaining priceless lessons from young and seasoned writers, as well as readers from around the world.
In today’s extensive feature, The Sunday Times Magazine zooms in on the Singapore Writers Festival’s closing weekend experience, comprised of three marvelous days of back-to-back panel discussions, lectures, an exhibit, a unique theatrical production, and formal and informal interviews, which naturally stirred heated debates among some of the world’s most passionate wordsmiths.
This is also a salute to Singapore’s arts and culture and literary communities for upholding the beauty and importance of words through the SWF, which has been running for 17 long years with the full and dedicated support of the country’s National Arts Council (NAC).
In effect, by embracing differences, finding unity in one voice, and sharing the same passion for knowledge, excellence, and national pride, Singapore has turned itself into a highly critical, progressive country that nurtures all art forms for the benefit and prosperity of its people.
Situated in Singapore’s arts and culture district, The Arts House was The Sunday Times Magazine’s first stop in its three-day literary sojourn. Known as the “center for literary arts,” it certainly became a “home to words” with an exhibit throughout its hallway titled Inscription, featuring works of Singaporean artists Vanessa Ban and Lee Wen.
Artist and exhibit curator Jason Wee first introduced Ban’s works—which collects forgotten notes, lists, reminders, sketches and doodles, statements, and questions once discarded by strangers—into words connected by lines and figures or formed into shapes, turning every installation into art.
Meanwhile, Wen’s work conveys his vibrant personality [he is a performing artist who creates his own music and body movement]as forms of self-expression and artistic freedom, within the limitations of Parkinson’s disease. As his story goes, the 57-year-old found drawing as an introspective performance of movement in paper, accompanied not by music but by figures and words that are song-like verses of melancholy, self-reflection, and of everyday musings.
According to Wee, Inscription is inspired by “how fear can hold back our most intimate inscriptions, [and]our most daring verse,” as expressed in the works of these two artists, and how they have brought the written word into visual art forms.
Still at The Arts House, the highly classified, sold-out “Body X” experiential mystery-murder theater production turned the former Parliament House of Singapore into a crime scene where an audience of about 30 was tasked to investigate who murdered the Groom during his wedding rehearsal dinner.
Inspired by the works of Japanese mystery novelist Keigo Higashino, the audience follow six characters—Auntie, Housekeeper, Brother, Bride, Uncle, and the Groom himself—who guardedly reveal their own secrets while walking into different rooms in the 200-year-old colonial building. On November 11, the SWF-Body X Production later revealed that Auntie is the murderer, listing evidence found during the 70-minute performance.
Filipino pride swelled at SWF when it hosted the “Pinoy Poets Panel” at the Glass House of the Singapore Arts Museum (SAM). The discussion featured two Singapore-based Filipino poets Mayo Martin and Eric Tinasay Valles, as well as Manila-based poet Conchitina Cruz who flew into the Lion City to speak at two panel discussions. She took part in “Between Our Lines,” which discussed issues of female poets, and the festival’s closing debate.
All three spoke of their artistic journey into becoming Filipino poets, Western influences that led them to mostly write in English, and their experiences working and writing abroad and how these inspired them in their poetry.
“Although Tagalog is still considered the primary language in the Philippines, the unofficial national language seemed to be English. It felt unnatural to write something real in the local language—since I grew up reading Western novels like Nancy Drew. I think this is part of the limitations of education. I think in that aspect, something needs to change,” Cruz said as she discussed her early beginnings in writing English poems.
Currently pursuing her PhD in English at the University of Albany, State University of New York, Cruz found her passion in writing as early as 13 years old, attending writing workshops offered in high school. Since then, she has published poetry books including Dark Hours (2005), Elsewhere Held and Lingered (2008), and Two or Three Things About Desire (2013).
Besides being a celebrated Chinese-Filipino poet, Valles is also a noted teacher of English and Literature at the National University of Singapore High School of Math and Science. As a Filipino national living abroad for over 20 years, he believes that Filipinos should instead embrace their “hybridism” rather than negate this nature.
“Being born and raised in the Philippines, one cannot get away from home. In the Filipino diaspora, there are at least 10 percent who live and work abroad. This is part of our experience. Being in other places doesn’t really take away my nationality,” Valles replied, when asked if his “displacement” has affected his writing.
A well-versed poet and master of the pen, Valles’ works are featured in acclaimed journals such as Routledge’s New Writing: The International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, and the Southeast Asian Review of English, among many others. His poetry collection includes A World in Transit and After the Fall (dirges among ruins), which was launched on November 9 at SWF’s Festival District at the Singapore Management University’s (SMU) Campus Green.
With Ilocano and Bicolano parents, Valles openly expressed that literature from the provinces need more visibility and exposure in the Philippines. Although he feels that Filipinos and Singaporeans share the same issues when it comes to regional literature, this is nonetheless a problem that needs to be addressed by cultural heritage preservation and literary institutions in the Philippines.
Such institutions that are expected to preserve literature of the regions are the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) as well as the National Book Development Board (NBDB). In a separate interview, National Artist for Literature Cirilo Bautista told The Sunday Times Magazine that he hopes to see more regional literary works published and taught in schools nationwide.
Despite the recent staging of the 5th Philippine International Literary Festival and Book Industry Summit from November 12 to 14, NBDB has not only failed to involve a wider audience with its limited public exposure and awareness, but has also maintained a culture of “elitism” comprised of a small group of close-knit Manila-based writers and academics that neglect to promote regional writers and literature.
Meanwhile, MediaCorp’s 2013 Journalist of the year and deputy features editor of the Singaporean daily Today, Martin talked to The Sunday Times Magazine about how the Philippines can learn from SWF in drawing young and old to the literary arts.
“The model of the SWF is for everyone—children have fun workshops and readings; then you have gallery museum exhibitions that also engage the visual arts community. They have movie screenings and music events, it really is for everyone,” Martin enthused.
Both a poet of English and Filipino works, Martin launched Occupational Hazards in 2013, following his previously released book of poems in Filipino, Babel, as well as the production of Uniberso: New Pinoy Poets Calling, which is a collection of bi-lingual audio anthology by emerging Filipno poets.
Besides joining the Pinoy Poets discussion, he was also part of the panel, “The Writer in the Gallery,” as he consistently reports on various performing, visual and literary arts events in Singapore.
Martin, who is also part of an independent, non-profit Philippine press called High Chair, believes that events such as SWF could be an avenue for aspiring writers to learn and interact with professional authors and poets throughout the 10-day event.
The debate: True art is always ugly
As an annual tradition, the SWF closed with a culminating debate on thought-provoking statements argued by a panel of experts. This year, the closing debate statement intentionally challenged the festival’s theme of “The Prospect of Beauty.”
As the first speaker to deliver the opening statement, and the first international panelist to join the SWF debate in history, Cruz defended that true art is indeed always ugly by asserting that more than intending to comfort or entertain, real art challenges conventional ideas and depicts realities that is bleak and sordid.
“When do we say true art is always ugly? By that, we are saying that true art is not beautiful. It is a way to dismiss what is incomprehensible, obscure, upsetting, uncomfortable, disgusting, not entertaining, and not relaxing,” Cruz began her argument.
“Reality is ugly and ugly art is real. It refuses our indulgent and mindless pleasures when the world continues to be divided into the haves and haves not. When a few have a voice and the many who don’t are made to suffer for the lack of basic needs. It shatters the delusion that the given is true and dominant.
“Three things that I leave you with—one, true art is against you. It is uncomfortable, shocking, provocative, and oppositional; it is contrary and it aims to disturb what is known to be comfortable. True art is against the status quo—it is against reigning politics, socio-economics and equity. And saying that, true art is against itself. It stays off its struggled path of being aestheticized, or deemed beautiful.
“True art is always ugly. You don’t have to buy it, because it is not for sale,” the Filipina poet ended.
Those who were part of Cruz’s team were visual artist and critic Darryl Wee, and poet, graphic artist and literary critic, Gwee Li Sui. On the opposition were lawyer Adrian Tan, SAM director Susie Lingham, and curator, director and artist, Loretta Chen.
After three speakers on each side presented their position, the audience was encouraged to join the discussion. The intelligent yet casual exchange among a diverse crowd of young and old teachers, poets, students, readers and spectators, left a lasting impression that an event such as the SWF effectively challenge the mind and inspire the heart.
Neither siding on the negative or positive, a bright mind from the audience proposed, “What ‘is’ is ugly; but what can ‘become’ is beautiful,” paving the way for more riveting discussion to the very end.
Straight from the experts
As one of SWF’s featured international writers, American travel author Paul Theroux conducted a lecture on “The Roads I Travelled” at the School of the Arts (SOTA) Drama Theater. As expected he arrived to a full house.
Never one to travel in comfort, Theroux challenged writers to explore the unknown. “You won’t find out anything about yourself if you don’t leave home,” he said. Theroux supported his point with the principle of “Individuation,” where an individual goes through a process of self-development through personal and distinct experiences.
He also took an anecdote from Mao Tse Tung, emphasizing that “All original knowledge comes from direct experiences” to further encourage the audience to explore the world.
In his 90-minute talk, Theroux narrated about his travels to the different continents of Africa, Asia and Europe, even sharing with The Sunday Times Magazine how he traveled to Palawan via a portable kayak where an American reader recognized him when he went to shore.
Meanwhile, at a panel discussion on “Morality and Writing” at the National Museum of Sinagpore’s Gallery Theater, writers Aaron Lee, Karen Joy Fowler and Isa Kamari concluded that while a writer’s only responsibility is to himself, he is also bound by a more important duty “to write truthfully.”
BBC’s Simon Long and Straits Times’ Zuraihda Ibrahim also led a panel discussion on “Journalism in Asia and the West,” where distinct differences in journalism practices were discussed in their intellectual debate.
For one, Ibrahim admitted that “asking the hard-hitting questions” were much more prevalent in the West than in Asia, as inexperienced journalists are not supported by proper training and mentorship that should be provided by their media institutions.
In the end, both agreed that news outlets should “have a clear sense of who they are and the values that they hold,” and that these should be made accessible to their readers and employees. There should also be “editorial leadership and vigilant editing,” coming from the desk, one that should not only consider correct form but more so in substance.
A literary haven
In just three days at the SWF, there is so much to be learned, pondered and appreciated. With endless activities that celebrate and embrace the written and spoken word, there is a common denominator that emanates from the huge number of participants. Passion for the literary arts.
And what else can come from passion but good?
For not only does SWF gather bright minds an passionate hearts but it also helps to feed dedicated wordsmiths so they can continue to do what they do by providing a space where they can sell and share their stories. The main Festival District at the SMU was in fact turned into a literary haven where writers participating in the SWF had the opportunity to offer the literary market what they have.
At the end of the festival, the one significant question that demanded an answer was, “What is your purpose?”
For Paul Theroux, it is “to tell everything as it is”—to write with truth and honesty. No matter how ugly the truth can be.