Facing uncertainty head on

Facing uncertainty head on

The 25th edition of the Singapore Writers Festival elicits discussion about the past, present and future

Facing uncertainty head on
The Arts House At The Old Parliament. (Photo: Thana Boonlert)

What do you feel at 25? Many young adults are struggling to navigate through a muddle of insecurities, whether it be jobs, relationships or something in between. Similarly, so does the 25th edition of the Singapore Writers Festival. After two years of being digital, the annual literary event is back full scale. Despite grappling with a quarter-life crisis, she is laughing out loud, celebrating the time of her life.

"Just as anyone else turning 25, we are presented with the opportunity to think hard about who we are, where we have come from and where we want to go," said Pooja Nansi, festival director, at the opening ceremony.

"It is also not lost on me that we are presenting this edition at a very specific moment in history. A time where the world is cautiously making its way out of a global pandemic and into a world that is forever changed. The last two years have shown us how fragile any kind of certainty can be. And what does a writer like me do when faced with uncertainty but turn to poetry?"

Held by the Arts House Limited, the multilingual literary festival is running under the theme of "If" until Nov 20. Inspired by Cyril Wong's poem, the much-anticipated cultural event provides a platform for thinking about the past, present and future. Located in the heart of Singapore's Civic District, this year's three-week edition features more than 200 programmes and 280 authors from home and abroad covering key venues, especially the Arts House At The Old Parliament.

Given its colonial past and multicultural society, the question of national identity is no stranger to Singapore and its literary community. Once a British trading post and colony, the island attained self-governance in 1959 and declared independence from Malaysia in 1965. Since then, the city-state has grown into a global financial centre. It is home to diverse ethnic groups including Chinese, Malays and Indians.

In the festival gala, speakers debated whether Singapore can have its own canon. Assoc Prof Angelia Poon, lecturer in English Literature at Nanyang Technological University, provided a much-needed overview for the interested layman. She said decolonisation and the canon wars in the 1980s undermine, but do not eradicate, the literary colossus. Despite the decline of humanities, literary studies still entail canonisation. Besides, no one reads and writes in a vacuum, even those who break with tradition. Still, the canon can be expanded and diversified.

"We have a tradition of writing in English which continues to grow, but one thing that might be worth thinking about in relation to Singapore because we have four official languages and four literatures, is the need to translate from other languages into English so that we can think about what might grow into the canon.

The Singapore Writers Festival's outdoor village. Photo courtesy of The Arts House Limited

"In short, it is more about how we might mitigate inequality and unfairness of the marginalisation of certain writers," she said.

On the other hand, Marc Nair, a poet and photographer, gave a very lyrical, unstructured lecture. Its form and content seemed to undermine the sanctity of the literary tome. His reference to cannon, a pun on the word canon, set the playful tone for the rest of his talk. He floated endless possibilities for canonisation, for example adaptations, Singlish, a chilli factor (how spicy literary works are when it comes to sex, violence or deviance) and even do-it-yourself.

"Make your own canon. DIY your list of books and authors that speak to you. Your canon should be a collection that has changed your life," he said.

Meanwhile, Gwee Li Sui, a poet, graphic artist and literary critic, explained how the canon brings into existence literature and cultural identity. Despite his knowledge in critical theory (reference to Jacques Derrida's idea of the centre) and literary history, he went on to the point that I felt stranded in the middle of his lecture. Canonisation can be traced to Samuel Johnson's The Lives Of The Most Eminent English Poets (1779–81), which coincided with the rise of the book industry and British imperialism. Given how problematic the idea is, he said Singapore can have a canon, but questioned why the country needs to have the literary colossus now.

"I am, in a sense, post-literature. But if you decide on a Singaporean canon, remember at least that a canon is a glass house. You get beauty and validity, but you have to accept living under a relentless shower of stone," he said.

But the festive vibe reached fever pitch in the most hilarious debate over whether the remake is better than the original. It is usually held at the end of the literary festival, but the organiser decided to move it up this year. No sooner did Jo Tan, an actress and playwright, begin to outline the structure of her presentation and define key terms for the purpose of the debate than it became clear that she parodied a trial (she once pursued a career in law before deciding to follow her passion for theatre).

A bookstore at the Arts House. (Photo: Thana Boonlert)

"When was the last time you shared your first draft with other people and did not want to change anything? Can you imagine the version I first shared with my team three days ago?" she said.

The main thrust of her argument is that the remake gets closer to the original purpose. For example, technology allowed the 10th film adaptation of The Wizard Of Oz (1939) to have colour. When time changes, it provides more freedom for film producers to tell stories. For instance, the remake of the classic film Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978) delivered its horror more effectively because it was no longer constrained by the code that prohibited profanity and violence.

Amanda Chong, a lawyer, poet and playwright, took up the baton, pointing out that because the original is made for those in power, the remake challenges default ideas in society, such as sexism and racism. She used her favourite movie 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) to demonstrate how the remake subverted William Shakespeare's comedy The Taming Of The Shrew (1623), which is full of domestic violence.

"It redresses damage done by patriarchy and gives our fierce heroine a man who is worth her," she said.

On the other hand, Petrina Kow, a voice and public speaking coach, said the original is always better than the remake, otherwise there would be no desire to make it again. Nostalgia poured thick in her talk when she made references to inimitable classics, such as Infernal Affairs (2002), and cultural touchstones, for example ET, Indiana Jones and Star Wars. An audience cheered when she picked on the remake of Mulan (2020).

"I brought my kid to my living room to watch it on Disney+. Everything is starting to fit in. Reconciliation with your identity. Making your Chinese family proud. My little self in the 1990s. I wanted my kid to like it. But why? Because, yes, is it relevant 30 years on?" she said. "We want new stories and ideas. We don't depend on the remake and reheat a microwave version of frozen meals."

While rain pours outside, poets read their works under the theme of 'Refuge'. (Photo: Thana Boonlert)

An audience member made an insightful point that the original-remake boundary can get blurred. The term remake is not properly defined. Even the original can be the remake of its antecedent. But it was his question that brought chaos on stage. At which point does the remake become the original? Jo Tan came out to define the term again because she was the first person to start the debate. Still, her explanation did not shed any light because she frivolously based it on a dictionary, where definitions point to others endlessly. It was Kow who gave the answer once and for all.

"Is it your first time? That's why. You thought it is like a real debate!" she said.

Other programmes include historical fiction, parallel universes and even worldbuilding in games. There are poetry readings and interactive workshops where participants can get their hands dirty making art. Joining are pioneers and rising stars like young adult headliner Chloe Gong.

This year, Tears Of The Black Tiger (2000) was screened as part of Singapore Writers Festival's S.E.A Focus. Prapt, an award-winning Thai writer of the new generation, will be featured in "The Big And Bad: Who Rules The SEA?" on Nov 20.

The 25th edition of the Singapore Writers Festival evokes Derrida's bricolage, a French term for describing the activity of using materials at hand for creation regardless of whether they conform to their original purpose. In doing so, it is a breeding ground for creative experimentation in times of uncertainty. Despite its own existential angst, the premier literary event is roaring with laughter.

As Wong put in his poem: "If my self is a shadow, at least I made a dent in the light."

 Singapore Writers Festival runs until Nov 20. Visit singaporewritersfestival.com.

If We Paused In Mid Thought invites participants to envision their own worlds. (Photo: Thana Boonlert)

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