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Singapore Writers Festival 2019: A Greater Focus on Language with A Language of Our Own (Preview)

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The 22nd annual Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) returns this November with the theme “A Language of Our Own”. Now headed by new Festival Director Pooja Nansi, this edition seeks to examine the role of languages in the formation of identities and communities at a time when the world is becoming increasingly globalised, yet fractured, bringing together a host of influential writers from both Singapore and overseas.

This year’s theme pays tribute to those of the three preceding years – Sayang, Aram and 界 (jiè). With each of these three themes paying tribute to Singapore’s non-English official languages of Malay, Tamil and Chinese respectively, this year’s theme shines a spotlight on language itself, inviting authors and the audience to reflect on what they might consider when talking about different types of language, from Singlish to emojis, and how languages have both the power to create a sense of belonging while also causing displacement.

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界 (jiè), theme of the 2018 SWF

Says Festival Director Pooja Nansi: “Language allows us to navigate through an increasingly complex and multi-faceted world. This year’s theme invites audiences to reflect on how language can be used to rethink existing social models and evolve to accommodate the changing tides of our present. We hope to spark conversations around the importance of language in the formation of our sense of self and community, and in turn, how language can foster a more inclusive society in a culturally and linguistically diverse Singapore.”

Roxane Gay. Credit: Jay Grabiec/HarperCollins

This edition will see literary heavyweights from around the world, some of whom are featured for the first time in Asia, headlining the festival. These writers include Roxane Gay of The New York Times best-selling essay collection Bad Feminist (2014), who will be speaking at the Festival Gala about ‘Language and The Body’ alongside Singaporean playwright Joel Tan and Canadian novelist Kagiso Leseho Molope, along with a lecture on Identity and Pop Culture. Jamaica’s Marlon James, author of Man Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings, will also be present to deliver the Festival Prologue.

Min Jin Lee. Credit: Min Jin Lee

Korean author Min Jin Lee of bestselling and critically-acclaimed novels Free Food for Millionaires and Pachinko will be speaking at “An Hour With: Min Jin Lee” on the intricacies of being a perceived outsider and the power of fiction in bridging cultures. Meanwhile, British essayist and novelist Pico Iyer has made a name for himself by making the international airport itself as his subject, along with associated topics of jet lag, displacement and cross-culturalism. He will be speaking at talks such as “Beyond Borders, Beyond Words” and “Untold Stories of Places”.

Pico Iyer

This year’s festival sees more clear demarcation and navigation for visitors as they explore the festival’s offerings, allowing all to immerse in contemporary issues such as feminism, language and its evolution in the future, and the use of language in a multilingual society. The Festival Debate returns once again, and this year, will be moved to a weeknight, and features an all-female line-up chaired by Ashley Fifty (drag alter ego of playwright Joel Tan) to discuss if men’s involvement in feminism helps or hurts the cause.

Ashley Fifty

SWF 2019 will also present the SWF Roundtables – a series of conversations that connects audiences with writers in an informal setting to examine a variety of issues surrounding craft, process and all the burning questions audiences have. This programme will feature prominent names across genres, such as translator, Shelly Bryant, novelist Suchen Christine Lim, film critic John Lui and poet and former festival director Yeow Kai Chai.

Kagiso Lesego Molope. Credit: Mawenzi House

New to SWF 2019 will also be the Festival Gala, a new format that invites speakers to each speak on a topic for 15 sustained minutes, as opposed to the regular conversational model of a panel discussion. Featuring acclaimed writers and well-known figures such as Roxane Gay, Joel Tan and Kagiso Lesego Molope, the Gala seeks to bridge speakers and audiences together in topics relevant to our society today.

Nicola Yoon.

In addition, this year’s SWF will have an extended programme that reaches out to youths aged 13 – 18 with the SWF Youth Fringe. Organised in partnership with the Singapore Book Council, several events at the SWF Youth Fringe will be curated by a panel of Youth Curators from a number of schools including Temasek Junior College and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. The programme includes the discussion of topics and genres youth are interested in such as Young Adult (YA) fiction, K-drama, zine-making, memes and text-speak as a language. It will be headlined by Nicola Yoon (Jamaica – US), a New York Times-bestselling author whose YA novels, The Sun is Also a Star and Everything, Everything have been adapted into movies.

Ruby Jeyaseelan

Highlights of this year’s festival include moves to celebrate SingLit, with the aim to create an awareness of an existing Singaporean literary canon, the festival will be honouring Rex Shelley as its Literary Pioneer this year. Falling in line with the Eurasian Association’s 100th year anniversary, the life and work of the Eurasian author, winner of the prestigious S.E.A. Write Award in 2007, will be celebrated through festival programmes including a multi-media exhibition by Brian Gothong Tan titled “Rex Shelley: The Gentle Observer”, and a late-night event inspired by his seminal work, The Shrimp People. The Arts House will play host to a Eurasian wedding party while artists will be taking over rooms in the Arts House and reinterpreting lines from Shelley’s novels through their own work. Programmes include “Jinkli Nona Redux” by Edith Podesta and “Encrypting Kinships” by Bani Haykal.

Marlon James. Credit: Mark Seliger

The Festival will be bookended by the Festival Prologue and Epilogue, with Man Booker prize winner Marlon James delivering the Festival Prologue on the power of language and stories in exploring concepts of diversity and representation, and local playwright Haresh Sharma delivering the Festival Epilogue, on languages and literature, as well as the importance of multiculturalism in Singapore as also seen through his body of work.

Haresh Sharma

A greater focus on Southeast Asia will also happen during the festival, with a dedicated series of panels and talks that profile Southeast Asian writers and their works. Topics of discussion include postcolonial insights on Malay literature, art and visual culture in Southeast Asia, the challenges and triumphs faced while working in cross-cultural collaborations across Southeast Asia, and the indigenous language and culture of Sarawak, which will be showcased in a performance by Nading Rhapsody, an avant-garde ethnic Bornean ensemble.

Nading Rhapsody. Credit: Andy Phe

There will also be cross-cultural programming such as a Malay-English bilingual event that celebrates Malay literary masters in the Nusantara region, a bilingual wayang kulit performance by Unggun Creative where traditional Malay folklore is retold with a contemporary twist, and a performance and reading entitled “A Spotlight on Indigenous Voices”, which features some of the festival’s best international performers and spoken word poets from places such as Canada’s First Nations and Minang Kabau.

Expect to see new technology introduced during the festival as well, with more multi-faceted experiences for audience members, and reach out to new audiences. SWF will be collaborating with Kult Studio and Gallery on an immersive installation that will use analog and interactive digital elements to explore the evolution of texting as a language. In addition, the Literary Pioneer exhibition moves away from a physical exhibition and will be presented as a digital exhibition with an online component to extend the exhibition beyond the 10 days of SWF.

As one of the few multi-lingual literary festivals in the world, SWF will feature programmes across Singapore’s official languages – English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil, allowing attendees from the different language communities to participate in SWF. Singlish, a key part of Singaporean identity, and even digital language such as texting and our usage of emojis, will also be included in featured language tracks “Words We Love”, which celebrates the everyday vernacular of Singaporeans, and “TXT TLK <3”, an immersive installation that explores the evolution of texting as a language.

Chelene Knight. Greg Ehlers/cheleneknight.com

As with every year, a brand new country will take the spotlight at the SWF, with this year’s being Canada, hailed for its multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-racial inclusivity, much like Singapore. Issues of  immigration, and cultural and linguistic diversity will come to light as ten highly acclaimed Canadian writers are welcomed to the festival, including poet Chelene Knight, and journalist Kamal Al-Solaylee.

Kamal Al-Solaylee. Credit: Gary Gould

“We are thrilled that Canada is the Country of Focus for this year’s SWF and we look forward to having our Canadian writers engage with Singapore’s passionate literary audiences,” shares H.E. Lynn McDonald, High Commissioner of Canada in Singapore. “‘A Language of Our Own’ is a theme that resonates strongly with Canada: like Singapore, we celebrate our rich linguistic and cultural diversity as a source of strength and a fundamental part of our Canadian identity. The 10 Canadian writers who will participate in SWF this year are a true representation of our country’s literary talent and our unique multi-cultural mosaic. We look forward to deepening our mutual understanding and appreciation of the power of language to promote inclusion through the meaningful programmes offered at SWF this year.”

The Singapore Writers Festival 2019 takes place from 1st to 10th November 2019. Advance Sales Festival Passes and Youth Passes are available from now till 2nd September 2019 via SISTIC For more information, visit their website or Facebook. The SWF Festival Pass and Youth Pass allow audiences entry to more than 100 events at a discounted price of S$20 during advanced sales (regular price at S$25) and S$15 respectively.

Festival Pass and Youth Pass holders can also enjoy 20% discount for all other SWF events that are ticketed separately. Tickets for Marlon James and Min Jin Lee’s lectures will go on sale from 16 August while other individually ticketed events will be released in early September.

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