Record attendance at 21st Singapore Writers Festival

SINGAPORE – From sombre subjects such as climate change and the global migration crisis to light-hearted spiels on social media, the 21st edition of the Singapore Writers Festival ran the gamut from satire to sincerity in its more than 310 programmes featuring a record number of more than 390 writers and speakers.

This year’s festival attracted a record 26,500 festival-goers, up from nearly 25,500 last year.

Life picks out eight of the highlights from the two-week festival, organised by the National Arts Council, which wrapped up last Sunday (Nov 11).


Victoria Theatre, Nov 3

American humourist David Sedaris’ sold-out show saw him regale the crowd with funny remarks about love and life. He spent the bulk of the hour-long talk reading out from his published works, but the audience loved it.

“Reading out loud is really the laziest form of show business,” the 61-year-old essayist said, to much laughter from the crowd.

He read from Your English Is So Good, a semi-autobiographical essay from his latest collection Calypso (2018) whose narrator deviates from the usual script while talking to cashiers and hotel counter staff; The Ones That Got Away, a piece where he (unwisely) asks his partner Hugh Hamrick how many people he has slept with; and the darkly comic Just A Quick Email, from Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls (2013), where a woman called Ronda writes an e-mail to her paraplegic sister.

Author Anita Thomas, who attended the talk, said: “What struck me was how quickly he answered the questions with acerbic wit. It was not so different from what he was reading.”


The Arts House Blue Room, Nov 5

Ahead of next year’s Singapore Bicentennial to commemorate the arrival of the British on the island 200 years ago, this panel shed light instead on what came before the milestone year of 1819, from a map of trade routes to a mysterious statuette.

Moderated by Singapore Bicentennial Office executive director Gene Tan, the panel featured National University of Singapore academics John N. Miksic and Peter Borschberg as well as author Koh Buck Song.

Prof Miksic, the first person to conduct an archaeological dig in Singapore in 1984, won the inaugural Singapore History Prize earlier this year for his book Singapore And The Silk Road Of The Sea, 1300-1800.

Malaysian writer Smita Sharma, 30, who attended more than 20 events at the festival, praised the panel and said Prof Miksic’s talk in particular was “brilliant”.

“I loved how grounded in research it was and I hope the festival brings in more such events with a strong South-east Asian focus,” she said.


The Arts House Play Den, Nov 10

With a festival theme as fluid as Jie, a Chinese word for “world” and “boundary”, some authors chose to interpret it in a personal way that required them to bare their souls.

In this frank, vulnerable panel on queer identity, Canadian author Ivan Coyote and Singaporean writers Amanda Lee Koe and Cyril Wong opened up about difficult experiences growing up and transcending binaries.

Coyote is the author of 11 books, including Tomboy Survival Guide (2016), as well as a performer. Wong has won the Singapore Literature Prize twice for his poetry while Lee Koe was the youngest winner of the prize at the time in 2014 for her short story collection Ministry Of Moral Panic.

Writing coach Sharon Lee, 48, who attended some 16 events this year, said panels such as this one showed her how much more she had to learn about LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issues. “It comes at a very appropriate time, when we are talking about inequality and the assumptions we make about minorities.”


The Arts House Living Room, Nov 10

The recent death of legendary wuxia (Chinese martial arts) novelist Louis Cha, better known by his pen name Jin Yong, hung over the festival, which had a number of wuxia-related events.

Unsurprisingly, it was standing room only at the lecture by British translator Anna Holmwood, who made headlines earlier this year for being the first to take on Cha’s monumental epic, Legends Of The Condor Heroes, for an official English translation.

The affable Holmwood was frank about the stumbling blocks she faced with the work – asked how she dealt with a particularly complex translation, she admitted: “First, I go away and cry” – and the discussion was a heated one, with audience members confronting her about aspects of her translation they found problematic.


The Arts House Living Room, Nov 11

This lively event moderated by writer and translator Shelly Bryant presented poetry by multilingual writers Sithuraj Ponraj, Mannar Mannan Maruthai, Hing Jia Wen and Sim Yee Chiang, who had taken turns translating – in that order – an unpublished English poem by Singapore poet Tse Hao Guang.

The original poem went through several incarnations, from English to Tamil, Tamil to Malay, Malay to Chinese, then from Chinese back to English. The writers, who also took turns translating the poem’s last two lines on the spot, spoke about what was gained, lost and retained in translation .


Victoria Theatre, Nov 11

Man Booker Prize-winning novelist Kiran Desai spoke of writing as an immigrant and the power of literature in this poignant lecture.

Desai, who was born in India and has lived in the United States for 30 years, won the prestigious Booker in 2006 with her second novel, The Inheritance Of Loss.

In her lecture, she outlined the series of “dislocations and displacements” that had led her family across the globe and spoke of how it affected her sense of identity, yet inspired her writing. She also shared her difficult writing process, which involves a reclusive lifestyle of living alone with just a plant.

Listening to her speak was “like gospel”, said Californian arts administrator Teri Nguyen, 33, whose parents were also immigrants to America and who jumped at the chance to see Desai while here on holiday.


The Arts House Blue Room, Nov 11

Chinese science fiction author Xia Jia, known for short stories such as The Demon-Enslaving Flask (2004), charted the evolution of the genre from the late Qing dynasty to the present day.

Texts discussed ranged from Liang Qichao’s unfinished political novel The Future Of New China (1902), which presents a utopian vision of China in 1962, to Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem (2006), the first novel in his trilogy about aliens, which received international acclaim after it was translated into English.

Xi’an-born Xia Jia, whose real name is Wang Yao, is an associate professor of Chinese literature at Xi’an Jiaotong University.

Retired businessman Peh Chin Sin, 59, found the talk “very encouraging”, saying that the rise of Chinese science fiction would expose more people to Chinese culture. “At the same time, Chinese writers are also being exposed to the world, and this opens up their minds.”


Victoria Theatre, Nov 11

The festival closing debate is usually a raucous affair and this year’s edition brought the house down with a slate of writers and comedians that ranged from the millennials – writer Daryl Yam and self-avowed “satirical Internet queen”, local YouTuber Preetipls, who was inexplicably on the opposition – to veterans such as poet Leong Liew Geok and lawyer Adrian Tan, famously the author of The Teenage Textbook (1988).

Both sides delivered arguments that were not always coherent, but often hysterically funny.

Writer and moderator Shamini Flint, playing up the persona of a dour bouncer as well as her Malaysian background for laughs, delivered some of the best punchlines of the night. “So climate change is happening, but let’s talk about Instagram,” she quipped.

The night was won by the proposition, thanks to a judicious use of data, Adrian Tan’s litigating prowess and comedian Sharul Channa’s unerring ability to roast anything in sight, figuratively.

It culminated in a tribute to outgoing festival director Yeow Kai Chai, who hands over the baton to poet Pooja Nansi after four years helming the festival.

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