In Review: Singapore Writers Festival 2018 Strips Language Barriers & Universal Boundaries

The eventful Singapore Writers Festival (SWF), organised by the National Arts Council to champion and cultivate an appreciation for literary arts and culture was held from 2 to 11 November 2018.

There is a concerted effort to expose the general public to global literature beyond those written originally in the English language. This is a welcome change as Singapore’s education system is often very centralized on English literature, limiting the perception of what literature can be and what different languages can offer. While I find the programs to be generally illuminating and enjoyable, I also see the potentialities in further development and improvement for future ones to come.

The Ghost In Your Head

SWF: The Ghost in Your Head
A Dramatic Encounter, with Cakes: Miss Havisham and the Mad Tea Party

A commissioned work produced by Global Cultural Alliance, the setting of The Ghost in Your Head was very different from what I imagined it to be. When the SWF program synopsis introduced me to a night with the personas of dead writers and characters from famous literature, I anticipated a series of plays performed on a physical stage. In reality, the portrayal of the different dead writers’ personalities and literary characters took place in separate rooms, with each lasting around 10 to 15 minutes. Most of these were concurrent acts that you could catch again at a later time.

SWF: Sharon Lim
Actor Sharon Lim as Eileen Chang, dishing out advice at “Your Darkest Secrets, Her Bare Answers”.

In some acts, such as the one featuring Chinese writer Eileen Chang and also the one with Great Expectations character Miss Havisham, the audience was encouraged to interact with the personas. However, particularly with the personas of dead writers, I feel that the acting can be more aligned with realistic personalities of the writers rather than relying on lazy caricature. In addition, for Eileen Chang’s act, her quotes were all spoken in English even though her original writings were in Mandarin. Though I understand the production’s attempt to cater to non-Mandarin speaking members in the audience, having at least some quotes in their original form can convey the meanings significantly better as much is lost in translation.

Overall, my favourite performance comes from German poet and performance artist Rike Scheffler’s dreamlike spoken word deliverance interlaced with writings from dead poets. The imagined conversation between Chinese ghost story writer Pu Song Ling and Gothic novelist Mary Shelley is also impressive in its novelty.

Live to Dream, or Dream to Live

SWF 2018: Live to Dream, or Dream to Live
Interpreter and Russian author, Vyacheslav Kupriyanov, speaking at a Singapore Writers Festival 2018 reading session, Live to Dream, or Dream to Live.

Local and international poets were invited to share their works based on the theme of dreams and reality. The diversity of the body of works resulting from different interpretations of the theme is astounding. The poetry in the form of a song performed by local Malay poet Noor Hasnah Adam struck a chord with the audience in its calling for strength in the face of cancer, even when the majority did not understand the language. The quirky poems from Russian poet Vyacheslav Kupriyanov reflected his creative imagination and sharp observations of society. Singaporean poet Theophilus Kwek spoke about the relatable subject of the stifling of dreams in Asian societies.

The event’s duration was a tad long, running for one and half hours, and it was observed that many attendees could not stay till the end. It would be nice to see more Chinese and Indian poets showcase their works in the future.

Liu Yichang: In the Mood for Love in Nanyang (1952-1957)

SWF 2018: Liu Yichang
Local scriptwriter and novelist Lim Fong Wei speaking at a Singapore Writers Festival 2018 classroom session, Liu Yichang: In the Mood for Love in Nanyang (1952-1957).

SWF was thoughtful in offering two sessions – one in English and one in Mandarin – to allow more people to learn about the legacy of Liu Yichang in relation to Singapore. Liu Yichang, a legendary Hong Kong novelist, inspired Wong Kar Wai’s iconic film character Zhou Muyun In the Mood for Love and 2046. However, few knew about his move to Singapore in 1952, and how his brief career with Ih Shih Pao and involvement with Singapore getai actresses inspired important scenes in the two films. The informative session by Lianhe Zaobao journalist Lim Fong Wei offered an interesting, often voyeuristic look into the personal life of Liu Yichang in the backdrop of old Singapore, with vintage songs playing in the background. On this note, it would be great if clips from the two films were showcased to better illustrate the parallels of fiction and reality.

The Gift and Spectre of Mortality

Mortality is not something that most people like to think about. In fact, you may be uncomfortable reading this right now. I find this panel oddly comforting, because three writers opened up about their perspectives in regards to the taboo topic that ultimately connects us all is freeing in a way. Each writer has differing concerns when it comes to confronting death, such that the audience can relate in one way or the other.

For instance, Charmaine Chan is a local writer with a strong Christian faith. For her, the real fear lies not in her own death but in having to witness the death of her loved ones. In fact, Chan stated in the panel that death was something she looked forward to, as a reunion with the Creator. Her personal experience of the early death of her sister, however, was harrowing.

Local poet Yong Shu Hoong however, is both anxious about the deaths of his loved ones and his own process of dying. During the panel, he commented wryly, “I try not to think too much of how I’m going to die, because then I can’t sleep at night.”

Poet David Wong Hsien Ming shared his fear of missing out on further experiences of life, be it the good or the bad, claiming he preferred the variety of experience on earth to the perpetual bliss in Heaven if it was real. Hearing their sharings made me realise that my own fears and concerns are more common than I assumed, and at least no one is alone in this predicament.

The panel ends with the “gift of mortality”, another way of looking at death, that is perhaps also a necessary reminder. It is because of the finite nature of our existence, that we cannot make excuses and wait around forever for life to straighten itself. It is because of mortality that our relationships and dreams have meaning, and we can only work with what we have been given.

For the full list of programmes, check out the official Singapore Writers Festival website.

Photos courtesy of Singapore Writers Festival.

Huang Yimin

Aiming to live passionately and not settle for a mundane life. Firm believer in the Oscar Wilde quote "You can never be overdressed or overeducated". I wish to publish a novel someday in the unknown future.

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