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Tuesday October 23, 2012
By GRACE CHEN
Across the Causeway, a
literary brew is coming to a boil.
THE Singapore Writers Festival is into its 15th edition this year. Beginning on Nov 2 and lasting for 10 days, it will turn the island’s Bras Basah-Bugis districts into a literary hub where some 185 writers from Singapore, Malaysia and further afield will share their thoughts and expertise at workshops, readings and storytelling sessions.
Organising this year’s literary smorgasbord will cost the Singapore National Arts Council some S$1.5mil (RM3.73mil). It is hoped that the allocation, largely used to fly in and accommodate some 50 international writers – including our very own Star columnist, Marina Mahathir – will add sparkle to the ticketed events that will give literary fans the chance to rub shoulders with internationally bestselling authors the likes of Pico Iyer and Michael Cunningham.
But even festival director Paul Tan is uncertain if the council will make its money back. Last year’s turnout numbered 58,000 but ticket sales barely covered costs. Fortunately, they had revenue sponsors.
How then has this bookworm party survived for a decade- and-a-half?
Well, to flex one’s spending power in Singapore, there are shopping carnivals; to party till you drop, there are the renowned full-moon parties; and to get one’s brain juices flowing, to exchange thoughts and listen to opinions from the people who have seen history in the making, there is this writers’ festival on this island republic.
It is said that by words, we learn thoughts, and by thoughts we learn life. The festival, says Tan, 42, is where an audience can get an insight into life, to gain new wisdom.
Call it a gathering of minds, if you wish. Brand it as a meeting of intellectuals, if you must. But getting down to its roots, it is simply a collected effort, spurred by the publishing industry, to get people to R.E.A.D.
The English language publishing industry in Malaysia and Singapore is still an infant by comparison with the Western hemisphere.
Speaking from experience as a published author of three poetry books, Tan reveals that local print runs for fiction writers rarely exceed 1,000 copies. Non-fiction fares a little better, though only books by famous names like Lee Kuan Yew and Tun Mahathir Mohamad sell in the hundreds of thousands, Tan believes.
But one name sticks in his mind, Nirosette who, at merely 19, wrote this sentence in her novel, Cerita Kaseh: “I’ll never leave you. Even if I do, my shadow will follow you, my scent will fill your air and my voice will echo wherever you are.”
According to Tan, the Singaporean writer who graduated from Madrasah Al Maarif has sold 15,000 copies of one of her novels, so things are looking up for fiction.
But then, this festival is not about chasing the money. It is about inspiring new talent, encouraging existing ones, and spreading the love of the written word. A workshop tells parents how stories can come to life with ice-cream sticks and coloured paper. There is even a session on how to convert the reluctant reader.
“The day people stop reading will be the day civilisation ends. Just imagine, to know what we need to do tomorrow, reading is required. And that’s not including the tweets and sms-es that are transmitted every second,” says Tan.
Ultimately, there are lessons in the written word.
Tan shares an anecdote by frisking out Shadow Play, a detective novel written by Barbara Ismail. It is a story about a police man from Ipoh who is sent to solve a murder in Kelantan. Unable to understand the peculiar local dialect, he enlists the help of a makcik to act as translator. The storyline is something that must be left for the reader to discover but Tan shares that it is how he discovered the famed Malaysian East Coast dish, nasi kerabu (herbed rice).
So deliciously was it described in one passage that he was inspired to try it out. A new gourmet experience, gained from the simple pleasure of reading. And let’s not discount the creative energy that can be tapped.
In looking at this year’s theme, “Origins”, Tan hopes for budding writers to explore their origins and to reflect on what those roots mean. He is sure it will be the starting point of many thought-provoking conversations, something that audiences have come to associate with the festival.
The line-up is an interesting one.
In the non-fiction category, Singapore Straits Times editor Cheong Yip Seng is billed to appear with Cherian George, author of Freedom From The Press: Journalism And State Power In Singapore. Fireworks are expected to fly there.
There is one unlikely candidate in Mick Foley, better known to wrestling fans all over the world as “Mankind”. In truth, when Tan first heard about Foley, his first reaction was to put the retired American wrestler on the shelf. Smack down action, in Tan’s opinion, is best kept to a wrestling ring. But on digging further, Tan discovered that Foley is a New York Times bestselling author as well as a children’s book author. One of the latter, Tietam Brown, a coming of age story published in 2005, was nominated for the US People’s Choice Awards.
“That was when I looked at him in a whole new way,” says Tan, who is sure Foley will be an audience favourite.
As one of the very few multi-lingual literary events in the world, the Singapore Writers’ Festival will spotlight works from the Middle East. This new wave is touted to be the next literary tsunami. In the recent past, writers from China and India, either writing in English or translating their works into English, have enjoyed this sudden global popularity surge (indeed, this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature winner is mainland China author Mo Yan).
When the sun dips and the sky turns a shade of violet over Singapore, there is “Origins Of Desire”, a nighttime programme that will examine the different facets of desire and the manifestation of sexuality in books, films, performances and visual arts. It is expected to make one go “Aaaha!” it seems.
A sexy lit fest? Why not? Reading is sexy.
Visit singaporewritersfestival.com for more information.
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