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Sunday November 11, 2012

Word fest of love

How often can you get a book signed personally by a Pulitzer Prize winner? Michael
Cunningham hard at work signing books How often can you get a book signed personally by a Pulitzer Prize winner? Michael Cunningham hard at work signing books

Whether you prefer graphic novels or grand prose, this year’s Singapore Writers Festival offered something for every type of reader.

IF there was one credo uniting every author partaking in the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) 2012, it was this simple statement uttered by author Michael Cunningham during his lecture: “It’s the only law of writing ... you have to keep readers reading.” The festival was a manifestation of that unique symbiosis that exists between writers – whether Pulitzer-prize winner, graphic novelist, political commentator, satirist, or genre writer – and their readers: that as much as we need them to write, they also need us to read.

The hows and whys of this relationship formed the basis of the festival’s many events, all revolving around the theme “Origins”. It was a theme simultaneously vague and specific, as it lent itself to discussions both literally on beginnings and more generally about our engagement with language, literature and writing.

Organised for the last 15 years (at first biennially and then annually) by Singapore’s National Arts Council, the SWF, which comes to an end today, aims to both promote new and emerging Singaporean and Asian writing to an international audience, as well as showcase some of the world’s major literary talents.

This was my first visit to the festival, and I found the experience a heady combination of excitement and camaraderie; the former at the prospect of meeting some first-rate authors, the latter due to being surrounded by so many fellow book-lovers.

There was something very pleasant about striking up conversations with strangers over our mutual love for a particular book, or chatting with someone while waiting in line, only to realise he is the author of a book you’ve been dying to read (this was Singaporean author Jason Erik Lundberg, who wrote Red Dot Irreal).

And while there were plenty of intellectual pleasures to be derived from the festival, little can compare with the thrill of striking up a spontaneous conversation while crossing the road with 2012 Man Booker Prize nominee Jeet Thayil (who penned Narcopolis); or discovering over an interview that you and the charming Cunningham (Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hours) are currently reading the same book (Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, for the curious)!

With panels on topics such as sports writing, literary awards, crime fiction, playwriting, diasporic writers, and political commentary, there was something to cover almost every area of the literary spectrum at the SWF. Subjects close to home were also given emphasis, with panels on South-East Asian writings, Malay literature in the 21st century, and the Peranakan presence in modern writing, to name a few.

Marina Mahathir (left) and
Catherine Lim at their
standing-room-only session;
Marina also launched her
latest book, Telling It
Straight, a compilation of
her columns in The Star,
at the festival. Marina Mahathir (left) and Catherine Lim at their standing-room-only session; Marina also launched her latest book, Telling It Straight, a compilation of her columns in The Star, at the festival.

The highlights of the festival included Cunningham and revered travel writer Pico Iyer, with the unusual addition of professional wrestler and bestselling children’s book author Mick Foley (popularly known as Mankind). Alongside them were notable regional writers such as Philip Jeyaretnam and O Thiam Chin from Singapore, Marina Mahathir and Che Husna Azhari from Malaysia, Ahmad Tohari of Indonesia and Charlson Ong of the Philippines.

The festival offered many delights for the literary fan, and the discussions generated during the panel sessions allowed the audience to both listen to and participate in hugely diverse subjects that all tied back to writing and literature.

The “Making It (Up) In The Middle Kingdom” panel, for instance, had authors Paul French, Linda Jaivin and Jonathan Campbell sharing the pains and pleasures of living in and writing about China as “outsiders”, the discussion peppered with their many humourous anecdotes.

“Where Is South Asian Writing Going?”, meanwhile, featured Thayil, Singaporean writer Krishna Udayasankar and Shehan Karunatilaka of Sri Lanka discussing alternative ways to view literature from the subcontinent.

The three authors highlighted the stereotyped expectations that often plague writing that is culturally grouped, and the fallacy of trying to lump together the diverse cultures that make up South Asia under one category.

One of the most popular panel discussions was “Of Book Awards And Best Sellers”, which had Cunningham, multiple award-winning Australian author Brian Castro, and Singaporean academic and writer Simon Tay discussing not just the merits of literary awards, but also the often flawed systems that award them.

Another session that drew the crowds was “Marina Mahathir In Conversation With Catherine Lim”, where audience members resorted to sitting on the floor or standing because the room was so full. The politically-charged discussion between the two women, both social and political commentators and writers, gave much insight into the challenges of using the written word to raise societal issues in countries where doing so is not always viewed positively (Lim is from Singapore).

Such diverse conversations on literature and our engagement with them, coupled with book launches, meet the author sessions, and intimate meals with various writers, made for a festival that gave readers myriad ways to indulge in their love for the written word.

And if the number of attendees was any indication (1,600 festival passes were sold by the end of the first weekend alone), there was no danger of people in this part of the world stopping reading any time soon.

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