Essays / November 2009 (Issue 9)

Join in the Queue, Get under the Covers: Singapore Writers' Festival 2009

by Yong Shu Hoong

My advice would be that you'd really needed to look past the long queue of Neil Gaiman fans, all waiting eagerly to get their books autographed, to get a fuller sense of what the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) 2009 was all about. The theme of the event (which took place at The Arts House from October 23 till November 1) was after all, the very catchy-sounding "UnderCovers." This title should imply the need to peer under the surface of things and delve deeper, even though the programme did not seem to adhere too strongly to this line of thought.

Nevertheless, Gaiman had no problem stealing the limelight from everyone else on the SWF line-up—especially since all the tickets to his free events were swiftly snapped up, and his talk on graphic novels and fantasy on November 1 had to be shifted from the original venue of The Arts House's Chamber to the larger-capacity Victoria Theatre.

On October 31, Gaiman (famous for The Sandman graphic novel series, American Gods and Stardust) also conducted a talk focusing on literature for children and teens. He then accompanied his partner Amanda Palmer (lead singer of American "Brechtian punk cabaret" duo, the Dresden Dolls) in a reading of excerpts from their photo book, Who Killed Amanda Palmer, which juxtaposes depictions of Palmer's death with Gaiman's text.

Aside from the attention accorded Gaiman and Palmer, whose events occurred during the Festival's second weekend, other literary luminaries from Singapore, other parts of Asia and beyond were seen floating in and out of The Arts House (whose premises by the Singapore River used to be the nation's parliament house).

Singapore writers, myself included, savoured this chance to meet up with one another under one roof—whether it was to trade commentary during panel discussions, check out rivals' new books in the festival bookstore or indulge in the latest lit-scene gossip over free bites and booze at the many receptions. While it's true that there are other occasions on Singapore's literary calendar for such get-togethers, this biennial festival offers the added benefits of networking with writers from other countries as well as festival directors from diverse venues as Shanghai, Beijing, Melbourne, Darwin and Byron Bay.

The SWF's multilingual events (in Singapore's four official languages of English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil) might cater to different audiences, but the launch of Tumasik: Contemporary Writing from Singapore helped to highlight the importance of having more interaction and collaboration between writers of different languages.

Edited by Alvin Pang, Tumasik contains contributions from thirty-nine Singaporean writers who write in different languages. Chinese, Malay and Tamil works by the likes of Chua Chee Lay, Yeng Pway Ngon, Mohamed Latiff Mohamed, Isa Kamari and MK Narayanan were translated into English and printed alongside original English works (by writers like Philip Jeyaretnam, Simon Tay, Ovidia Yu, Heng Siok Tian and Edwin Thumboo) in this anthology jointly published by Autumn Hill Books, International Writing Program at the University of Iowa and the National Arts Council of Singapore.

Also included in Tumasik is the United States-based Wena Poon, one of the new voices in English fiction in Singapore. Hot on the heels of her first collection of short stories, Lions in Winter (2007), which enjoyed overseas publication under Salt (United Kingdom) this year, she flew in to launch her second short-story collection, The Proper Care of Foxes (Ethos Books).

O Thiam Chin, a name to look out for in the future, also launched his second collection, Never Been Better (MPH Publishing). The title seemed to capture the state of Singapore's English-language fiction, which is flourishing at the moment.

Notable poets also had new works to offer—for example, Felix Cheong with Sudden in Youth: New and Selected Poems and Cyril Wong with his collection of twisted fables, Let Me Tell You Something about That Night. Wong's new poetry collection, Oneiros, was not out in time for the Festival, which was also the case for my fourth book, From within the Marrow, but both of us were able to share our experiences working on our new titles with Firstfruits Publications on the panel, "Point of View: New Singapore Writing", which featured a lively and honest discussion on the difficulties and pleasures of being published.

O, who was also on the same panel, praised his publisher for maternally guiding him towards his sophomore publication. Co-panelist Cheong, however, was impelled to offer his side of the story, citing the sometimes difficult relations that a writer has with his editor and publisher—Sudden in Youth, as he revealed, has moved from his former publisher to find a new home under Ethos. It was in forthright events like these, when we got under the pleasantries and reticence, that I felt we inched closer to the festival theme.

It was obvious that, even if you're not a Gaiman fan, there were many other interesting writers to meet at the Festival. For those into comics and graphic novels, you had Singapore's Troy Chin and Sonny Liew, as well as Mark Waid and Lat. Drama fans could attend award-winning playwright Jean Tay's launch of her book containing the script for Boom or meet the next generation of Singapore playwrights, like Jacke Chye and Yak Aik Wee, whose plays were introduced in staged readings.

Movie and book buffs alike would have be thrilled to meet authors whose works have been adapted for the big screen—like Ireland's John Boyne (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas), Sweden's John Ajvide Lindqvist (Let the Right One In) and China-born, France-based Dai Sijie (Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress).

Lovers of Chinese language and literature had the chance to rub shoulders with Ma Jian, Duo Duo and Yan Lianke; whereas, fun-seekers, decked out in cosplay garb, could do no better than to attend Amanda Palmer's live musical performance entitled "The Graveyard Party" on Halloween night.

But if you were hoping to get some insights into Singapore's literary scene, several events in particular really stood out. One was a night honouring the poet Edwin Thumboo as a Literary Pioneer, a recognition of his central place in English-language writing in the city.

For many people, however, it was the SWF closing event, "Dissecting the Merlion", which was the Festival's real highlight. The occasion was dedicated to Singapore's symbol the Merlion, a strange beast which sports a lion's head atop a scaly body ending with a fish tail. This imaginary creature was designed by Fraser Brunner, a member of Singapore Tourism Board (STB)'s Souvenir Committee, in 1964 as an emblem for STB. Since then, the creature has taken on a nearly iconic status within the city. For many tourists visiting Singapore, the statue offers a much-desired photo opportunity. But for Singapore poets, the Merlion is the subject of much love and scorn.

Both feelings were evident at the event, which began with the launch of Reflecting on the Merlion, an anthology featuring Merlion-inspired poems penned by close to forty poets across several generations. The book contains Ulysses by the Merlion (1979), Edwin Thumboo's seminal poem which started it all, together with other spurts of creativity by his compatriots like Lee Tzu Pheng, Alfian Sa'at, Alvin Pang, Daren Shiau, Paul Tan and Grace Chua, who have (like how Yeow Kai Chai, one of the book's editors, describes in his foreword) "projected their own particular hang-ups about nationhood onto (the Merlion)".

After a session of readings for the launch, eight writers from diverse backgrounds took part in a no-holds-barred debate moderated and hosted by playwright Eleanor Wong. The topic: "The Merlion has been maligned." Taking the proposition was the team calling themselves "the Government": Desmond Kon, Leong Liew Geok, Ovidia Yu and Adrian Tan. "The Opposition" consisted of largely younger members of the Singapore literary scene: Ng Yi-Sheng, Alfian Sa’at, Teng Qian Xi and Gwee Li Sui.

When the dust settled in the Chamber, it was obvious that the Government had enjoyed victory and provided the most memorable speeches. But there were a couple of standout moments for the Opposition. Gwee invoked much laughter with his rebuttal delivered in an Ah Beng (colloquial term describing an uncouth Chinese male) accent. Ng, in a fit of theatrics, called on Thumboo to be his volunteer to don a monkey's mask, to which the Professor calmly declined by saying something along the lines of "I'm just an old man watching young people play."

Perhaps I'm reading too much into Thumboo's remark, but it felt like a reminder of the generational lines within the literary scene, where issues of seniority and propriety are summoned for questioning from time to time. In any case, it was fortunate that Thumboo didn't accede to Ng's request, because the latter was trying to make a point about how, in Balinese folklore, the monkey is obligated to lick the worms off the feet of the mythical creature called the Barong, the mask of which was stuck resolutely on Ng's face.

If you let your sleuthing continue, you’d have also discovered that much discussion had spilled over from the Festival onto Facebook and blogs long after the SWF 2009 had lowered its curtains. Some commentators continued the Merlion debate, while others focused on the role and nature of the festival itself. One blog post on the Writers Connect website had this insight, "A writers' festival may be a meeting of minds and a marketplace of books and ideas where publishers come to tout their wares and national organisers attempt to hoist a flag of prestige and culture, however, more importantly, it should be a place of goodwill and bonhomie. How does one build an audience for a national literature if the literary stars are stand-offish, aloof, unwilling to come out and build rapport with the common person – their possible Reader? Is the Singapore Writers Festival reader-oriented or writer-oriented? Should massive public funds be allocated for what appears to be a behind-the-scenes networking club open to just the chosen few?"

Whether one agrees with the above ruminations (or any other grievances aired casually or on other platforms), there should be room for further discussion to explore the festival. My one suggestion would be that if The Arts House continues to be the official home of SWF in the future (which I have no qualms with), I would propose that the open debates be made a permanent fixture of the Festival. As to what topics can be rolled out for dissecting in the Chamber, I think there would be no shortage for the next 20 SWFs. Of course, not every issue will be fully resolved in these debates and differences will continue to exist—as the Government had it in their rebuff of the Opposition, "You said we are too rigid; I say you are too flaccid." But at least in these coordinated uncoverings, emotions will be vented, bugbears allayed. Surely, UnderCovers, if it was about anything, was about leaving behind our cosplay garb, Balinese masks and Merlion costumes and laying out the key issues in Singapore literature for open scrutiny.

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