Inaugurated in 1986, the Singapore Writers Festival celebrates South East Asian literary talent as well as bringing together writers, speakers, and delegates from all over the world. Artellus director Leslie Gardner made the trip across the globe to attend workshops on Science Fiction, hear talks by Roxane Gay and Marlon James, and buy more books than she should have...
The week-long writers festival was packed with great talks and vividly attentive participants. All was spread out among three venues: The Arts House at the Old Parliament Building, the National Gallery of Singapore (a staggeringly innovative architectural gem), and the basement of the Asian Cultures Museum – across the bay from colonial reminders of earlier times, Raffles Hotel and the Fullerton Hotel – formerly Post Office for the nation. The festival could not have been placed in a better spot in this tropical city-state replete with food stalls and shopping malls.
Before the festival however, a quick visit to the big Japanese owned bookstore Kinokuniya in the Takoshima Mall on Orchard Road, where I picked up all the brochures required. It’s also a great spot to buy and browse for books in Asian languages and English – they pushed and supported the festival with great promotional skill, and had extensive information on the festival and Singapore’s local writers.
Onto the Festival proper… My interest in Science and Speculative Fiction was evidently shared. Impressive numbers attended talks on things such as ‘The Future of Science Fiction’, ‘Chatbox and fiction’, or ‘Invisible Cities, Memory and Fiction’. There were workshops with enthusiastic participants such as ‘Postcolonial Criticism and Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction’. The big questions were tackled with gusto: how the future would look, the impact of video games on plot and character, and what’s science and technology got to do with fiction? All in the presence of such writers as Boey MeiHan who writes Science Fiction in all-women and all-Asian universes, and the veteran writer, Pang Hee Juon.
The dilemmas all science/speculative fiction writers wrangle with were reworked, and refreshed at the same time. These workshops and talks about Science Fiction – and the carefully distinguished ‘Speculative’ fiction – dominated the schedule and were rightfully jam-packed. The excellent attendance did not preclude fun individual encounters, including one memorable talk in the corridor with Malaysian Science Fiction writer Ahmad Patria Abdullah about his rather more traditional view of Science Fiction. A genre that, in his view, should be founded not only in the time the novel is written but also bounded by technology of the time. In vain I advocated for Science Fiction having actually contributed ideas to real-life scientists! Technology and aliens are what we make of them…
Of course the crime novel is my other personal passion. I walked away with bags of crime books by local Singaporeans. One author, Nick Humphreys, was sitting at the table signing his books. I purchased Marina Bay Sins, the first in a dark satirical detective series set in his native Singapore and published by Marshall Cavendish. And then, well, I purchased Daren Goh’s ‘The HDB Murders’ (also set in Singapore) published by the local branch of publishing house Math Paper Press. These texts are a great way to get to know the seedy sides of the place, which Singaporeans are eager to disclaim(!) In conclusion: my bags were much heavier on the return to London.
Back in the festival ‘Bad feminist’ Roxane Gay brought much laughter in her session, and Marlon James spoke – his speculative works are all on sale along with his Man Booker-winning novel, ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ – and essayist and travel writer Pico Iyer – both spoke to engaged audiences, admirers through and through.
As well as Singaporean branches of UK-based publishing, there are also those small local houses which for me are a great discovery. This is another indication of their seriousness in distributing into South-East Asia. There is a plethora of publishing houses in the city-state: Marshall Cavendish (SA branch), Penguin Random House (latest to the party in SA), and Math Paper Press, etc. There is still the ancient and noble tradition of publishing houses linking to bookstores, with the result of bookstores everywhere. Singapore dollars being reasonable value for my sterling-based budget, I bought a few more than planned (eek). The wonderful ‘Books Actually’ had a stand at the festival – we’d wandered its shelves already – and bought poetry published by their ‘ Math Paper Press’, which they run out of their backyard. The ‘Closetful of Books’ shop had a spread of local and international writers’ books that were irresistibly placed right at the entrance to the festival; Temptation was everywhere.
Organised and financed (alongside income from tickets) by the National Arts Council, the festival brings together multiple languages: English, Slinglish, Malay, Chinese, and Tamil among others. The mix of cultures is a core value in Singapore – and it is reflected in the literature. The festival was a celebration of global literary talent, billing the likes of home grown Singaporean writer and poet, Rex Shelley, (author of the classic The Shrimp People) alongside Canadian, Jamaican, British, and umpteen other nationality writers and speakers.
It was an atmospheric festival figuratively and literally: peppered with sporadic claps of thunder and lightning, the heavy tropical heat outside which meant hustling from one venue to another to be blissfully alleviated by air conditioning. I left with a head full of ideas, an armful of books and every intention of returning next year.