This is the first year that I’ve attended the Singapore Writers Festival. I am amazed by the creative vision behind the entire festival that valued storytelling and writing in its various forms – from cinema to shadow puppetry to high fantasy for scifi geeks, to treasure hunts for children – and poetry above all else.
My involvement with SWF this year has to do with my being a moderator for the panel above: Reinvention and Adaptation – Tales for the Modern Age.
The panel includes Daphne Lee who edited the book Malaysian Tales: Retold & Remixed, and is also known as the premiere children’s literature editor in Malaysia. Cyril Wong is one of Singapore’s literary icons. He is the Singapore Literature Prize-Winning author of several poetry anthologies including Tilting Our Plates to Catch the Light. I also read his collection of short stories (fractured fairy tales) entitled Strange Tales: Let Me Tell You Something about that Night. Karsono Putra is a Lecturer in the Faculty of Cultural Science at Universitas Indonesia and was previously a Javanese dancer and dance teacher until 1990.
The panel talked about their issues with the term reinvention and noted that they would prefer the term reinterpretation instead. They also discussed the function of fairy tales/folktales in society and how its essence has been commercialized by major Hollywood productions to the point of non-recognition. Karsono discussed how the political climate as well as social events in Indonesia have influenced his writing and how his fictionalized tales provided a venue of sharing his reflections in a more socially-acceptable way. Daphne also shared that she is coming up with a new edited book of a similar vein as well as some of her inspirations in creating such an anthology. Cyril spoke about the gaps in fairy tales/ folk stories and how he uses those spaces, filling them with his own imaginings and ruminations about missing perspectives, concealed nuances, or threads of thoughts that he picks up and transforms into his own version of the tales.
Treasure Hunt with Sherlock Sam
I was only able to actively attend this weekend’s festivities since it is marking period at the university right now. The pictures above show the treasure hunt with Sherlock Sam, Singapore’s intrepid and food-munching kid-detective with the well-developed powers of deduction.
The husband-and-wife tandem Adan Jimenez and Felicia Low-Jimenez who go under the pseudonym AJ Low can be seen in the photographs in matching Sherlock Sam black shirts. We also blogged about this treasure hunt here in GatheringBooks a few weeks back.
Poetry with Carol Ann Duffy
The poetry reading of Carol Ann Duffy last Saturday, 9 Nov, was standing-room-only. The queue is unbelievable and with good reason. I was fortunate enough to be allowed to go inside this packed tent when there were a few people who thankfully went out and left during the first few minutes of the read-aloud session.
This is the first time that I am led to Carol Ann’s poetry and I was positively smitten by it. I didn’t realize how much I missed poetry until I heard her read a few selections from The World’s Wife and Rapture. She also talked about the alchemy of form and content when creating poems as well as uncovering the silences of females in history, and those valuable female perspectives that were missing, hence The World’s Wife. Carol Ann was appointed Britain’s Poet Laureate in 2009, the first woman and the first Scot to hold the position.
I was so taken by this session that I bought all of Carol Ann Duffy’s remaining poetry books at the Pavilion right after (more on that during my book hunting expedition post this Sunday).
This panel is the reason why I traveled all the way to the city on a Saturday. While I confess to not having read my Dragonlance Chronicles books yet, I am slowly collecting them, plus I have a deep fascination for dragons.
Hearing Tracy and Laura Hickman talk about their passion for this series and how it came about was inspiring. They shared that they were students at the time they started conceptualizing the novels. They had no work for six months and couldn’t even bring their children to church because they could not afford to buy them shoes. This level of honesty, raw self-disclosure, and authenticity is very rare. I instantly felt connected to the couple.
Tracy is also said to craft maps of worlds. There is no detail that is superfluous for this man. He would map out everything in his head from road buildings to the fictional world’s topography – coastal plains, tectonic/river movements, prediction of rainfall – that hardcore. The Dragonlance book series was not expected to be as huge as it eventually became. Before they came up with the idea, there were no novel tie-ins to a game product, so the Hickmans are pioneers in this much-welcomed evolution of game characters. It came as a pleasant surprise that Dungeons and Dragons players are also avid and enthusiastic readers.
Tracy is a lover of languages, particularly the Indonesian language, some of which he would sneak in time and again to his writing. He acknowledged that there was so much love that went into the creation of the series and the collaborative effort of so many people sharing their ideas was simply amazing.
Tracy shared that fantasy has a universal element which appeals to readers from all over the world since much of it is drawn from mythology. He talked about the importance of distance among authors in their storytelling. He was cautious not to map out every last square inch of the Dragonlance fantastical world, otherwise “the compelling romance it once had would be lost.” After hearing the Hickmans talk about this fantasy novel, plus the fact that Dragonlance is celebrating its 30th anniversary next year, I believe it’s the time to crack these babies open which I’ve had for quite awhile now.
For those of you who have read the Dragonlance series, which collection do you propose I begin with?
Nature of Evil
And because I can not get enough of Tracy Hickman, I decided to attend this panel even though it was until 8 in the evening. I love the discussion that was generated in this panel. Jungersen noted that Hickman’s missionary background may be quite distinct from a Scandinavian/European view of good and evil, terms which according to Jungersen is hardly ever used any longer where he comes from. While people may talk about another person having a bad upbringing, it is not often used as a characterization of the person himself.
Hickman shares that he thinks evil is found in the self and that good is evident in the selfless and being outside of one’s self. He also cautioned that the most evil acts are committed by those whom we love and we trust, and that form of betrayal is the most cruel and can be perceived as the centre of evil, putting one’s self above all others.
Jungersen, however, argues that there are people who do things for something bigger than themselves and kill off a lot of people in the process such as in heinous acts of terrorism. Both these Europeans shared that in committing evil, there is often a real reason and the lie which is wrapped around an ideology or an acceptable rationale. All of them are in agreement that the villain has to be convinced of the rightness of what he’s doing (which reminded me a little bit of Walter White from Breaking Bad).
Hickman also shared what his problem is with sparkling vampires. Historically, these Dracula-inspired stories were meant to be cautionary tales for women against abusive males, the quintessential Bluebeard with his many wives. However, with the preponderance of sparkling vampires, the cautionary tale has been transformed to a retrograde tale with a seductive evil twist, and there is an approvance of evil because the monster is cute and glittery. There was a great deal of discussion about sympathetic villains and Loki being the coolest guy on the planet (which planet, he didn’t really specify – I know that Thor has nine worlds in total).
One thing that also struck me was what Hickman said: “Evil looks like everyone else. We are ill-served when we think that we can see evil when it’s coming.” This man is the best.
Science Takes Center Stage
Last Sunday, this was the first panel I attended. I was a few minutes late, but I managed to still snag a good seat, regardless. Hugh Mason as moderator knew his stuff and asked a great deal of incisive and thought-provoking questions. Lucy Hawking, daughter of the greatest living scientist of our generation, Stephen Hawking, shared that she tries to entertain while teaching through her fiction books also known in academic circles as “sneaky teaching.” She recalled that it was her father’s “spot-on” responses to children’s queries which inspired the creation of her book series. And that black holes, supernova, aliens, dinosaurs “what will happen to me if I fall in a black hole” are still the greatest draw for children.
Van Wyhe is a Historian of Science and works as an academic at the National University of Singapore and a Professorial Fellow of Charles Darwin University. He is the founder of award-winning online resources Darwin Online and Wallace Online. He noted that “the idea of cheated genius always sells” and that “Wallace’s beard rivals Darwin’s.” When asked what magical superpowers he would like to have if given the chance, he says that he would want to have the ability to scan through vast quantities of text and retain everything, with picture-perfect memory. These are my kind of people, really.
Carol Ann Duffy in Poetic Parry with Singapore’s Edwin Thumboo
And because I can not get enough of Carol Ann Duffy, I attended her poetry reading last Sunday, this time in poetic conversation with Singapore’s literary icon and pioneer and Cultural Medallion recipient, Edwin Thumboo.
Carol started with Standing Female Nude as she shared her feminist background and poetic beginnings. She talked a bit about her family lineage, with her mother being Irish, her father Scottish, and while she was born in Scotland, she grew up in the UK. And this is evident in one of the poems Carol read entitled Originally which ended with these lines:
Now, Where do you come from?
strangers ask. Originally? And I hesitate.
She spoke about how her mother was very important to her inner musicality as a writer and the music of being human from her childhood. She also read the poem Premonitions which she wrote for her mother.
I was blown away by Edwin Thumboo’s read-aloud. He spoke of an earlier time in Singapore when the parks still had a certain wildness, a certain disorder, before they were methodized; when nature was let alone, not trained. One of his poems ended with the lines: “I yearn sadly for the old old green.”
I felt my pulse racing as I listen to Thumboo’s impassioned reading, the words flowing like honeyed cadence in my soul. I felt unbidden tears creeping slowly as well. Poetry has always had a physical effect on me.
Both poets talked about a few of their favourite poets and their poetic influences. Carol shared her love for Keats, Dylan Thomas, Ginsberg and Whitman and noted that young poets develop their craft by imitating these giants in poetry. She also spoke of Shakespeare’s influence in her writing, with its dynamic confluence of hilarity and tragedy.
Thumboo spoke of Eliot and Yates and that while they were not taught the revolutionary Yates here in Singapore, he discovered it on his own which opened his sensibilities to a great many things about life. He also stated that “a poem is never finished, it exhausts you” and that “you write out of yourself – but what is yourself?”
These poetic meanderings are my favourites from the Singapore Writers Festival this year.
Calisthenics with Linguistics
The panel started off with a discussion of this quote about multiculturalism in Singapore from Kuo Pao Kun:
Biculturally or multiculturally… the higher you reach into the respective cultures, the more you see all the branches and leaves touching each other. But the stalk, the stem, the trunk are very separated. This is where our level of art is – they are very separated. But if you go deeper, the roots touch. You go higher, the branches touch, the leaves touch. And of course the cross-pollination is done up there. And you absorb the same nutrients, deep underneath. And this is the beauty of multiculturalism. – Kuo Pao Kun (1939-2002)
Multiculturalism is always a contentious issue, with a great deal of raging debate as to what it constitutes exactly. The panel members were very candid and heartfelt in sharing each of their experiences and reflections. Alfian stated that the “mother tongue holds the essence of culture” but that one’s mother tongue may not necessarily be similar to one’s mother’s tongue any longer with all its permutations and the many evolutions that Singapore as a country experiences quite rapidly as a city-state. He also noted that it is still possible to use the “colonizer’s language” without necessarily being “colonized” in the process.
Guo spoke of her journeys on going beyong the national identity and spoke about the strong sense of self-censorship among Chinese writers, and that there is a subtle existing second social landscape from political to personal freedom.
It was Gao Xingjian who really bowled me over with his beautiful thoughts which needed to be translated as he spoke in Chinese. He stated that this hybridization is essential in any country’s development and for that alone Singapore is very fortunate with the cross-pollination of various cultures and the dynamic exchange of different elements. He noted that this is a harbinger of times to come and that culture will eventually transcend politics. He spoke of culture not belonging to just anyone in particular but shared by everyone. Gao feels that Singapore leads the world in so many ways that one’s concept of identity now should include an identification with this grand mix and this hybridity.
There was also a lot of insightful questions about whether losing one’s facility in one’s mother tongue would signify a loss of national consciousness or identity. Guo shared that for her national identity is secondary with artistic expression taking precedence over it.
I also love the way that Gao responded to this. He claimed that first you have to want to say something, and if you say it, say it beautifully. As long as you say it well, nothing is untranslatable. He spoke about language needing to be reinvented and that language is the artist’s tool. First, you need to be clear about your message and worry about the translation later. He mentioned that when he writes in French, he would write strictly in French, and strip anything Chinese as much as he can about the linguistic nuances. This is because he believes that the modern writer has to have a keen respect for the internal rules of the language that he utilizes. He noted that he does not “translate” his French writing directly to Chinese. Instead, he recreates the work, rather than doing an actual translation. He believes that it would be beneficial for most Chinese writers to know even more languages because that would make one’s understanding of one’s own language even more nuanced.
Debate: Are Singaporeans Illiterate Robots?
This was the closing offering of the Festival. As the blurb noted, it was hands-down hilarious. I wasn’t able to take photographs as the room was densely packed and I had the misfortunate of coming a little bit late and so I couldn’t really see the panelists with all the people at the back standing up.
Clearly, this Festival was a huge success. Congratulations to the organizers for their unshackled vision, their obvious knowledge about the literary arts scene not just in Singapore but internationally, and the magnificent scope of ideas exchanged in such a compelling, passionate, and lively discourse during the Festival. There was little fear of the irreverent, which I personally found to be quite refreshing.
I came away loaded with so many books, filled with energy and inspiration, and my heart ringing with beautiful verse. How can one not fall in love with the Singapore Writers Festival?