Singapore Writers Festival 2019: An Interview with Festival Director Pooja Nansi
Poet Pooja Nansi has some big shoes to fill after taking on the role as director of the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF). Following Yeow Kai Chai’s departure, the fiesty, spoken word poet has since taken over and brings her own brand and ideas of what the SWF should look like to this year’s edition. But speaking to her over coffee, Pooja is humble about this position, and clarifies that she isn’t here to make a revolutionary change exactly, but improve upon the places she believes need tweaking.
“I didn’t really come into this position with a set intention in mind, just the programming principle of making the literary space more democratic,” says Pooja. “We often think of it as very highbrow or intellectual, but I think I come from a place where I think reading and writing should be accessible to each and every one of us. Coming from a spoken word background, I realise that text isn’t limited to just being written, and there’s so many ways you can use it, whether seriously or in a fun way.
“I wanted people to come here, be able to breathe easy, and absorb and exchange ideas in a casual way,” she continues. “Often, my best ideas come along when I’m with friends over coffee or wine, and I wanted to just bring that to the festival, where you can still have an intimate experience even in a roomful of strangers. A lot of that comes down to the way we title panels as ‘conversations’, where it becomes a case of what we want to have, and how we end up filtering that into the look and feel of the festival. I want to bring joy to this festival, a Singapore Writers Festival for the 21st century.”
Speaking on the festival theme this year, Pooja elaborates on the idea behind it, and what she hopes festival goers think about during the programme. “The theme of A Language of Our Own wasn’t actually my idea, and was suggested by my programming theme.,” she explains. “At first, I thought ‘eeyer, very NDP’, but then, I asked myself what exactly my language was, and that was a loaded question. There’s so many assumptions there about who you are, where you belong, where you don’t belong, and a starting point to leapfrog off to think about all these issues that we struggle with as human beings.”
To help make the festival more accessible, Pooja has made several changes to the programme structure itself, for starters, streamlining the barrage of events by bookending it (pun intended) with the Festival Prologue and Epilogue to better help festival attendees understand and ease into the core themes and concerns that arise from this edition. Says Pooja: “So there was a mass of ideas we wanted to bring on board, and the Festival Prologue and Epilogue becomes this means to help get us thinking about the theme of the festival, and how when you attend and experience these issues, there’s people to help bring them to the fore in the Prologue, and someone to wrap it up and put it all into perspective during the Epilogue.”
Previously, under Kai Chai, the annual debate had served as the festival closing, where two teams of personalities in the arts scene would debate (often to comedic extents) over a chosen topic for the year. This year, the Closing Debate has now become the Festival Debate instead. Says Pooja: “I still wanted to keep the debate, but it’s now no longer the closing event, but the Festival Debate. I didn’t want a debate where people just ended up airing their viewpoints about issues, but for me, to reimagine the debate as a truly performative event.”
The debate this year is centred around the motion “this house believes that men are ruining feminism”, and will feature an all-female panel, along with drag queen Ashley Fifty (alter ego of writer Joel Tan) serving as host. Says Pooja: “I wanted to make my motion was as punchy as possible, something people really could argue over, and having an all-female panel talk about feminism, that felt like the right way to lead that conversation, because so many of them have actually been shaped by men! And for people who actually live through what it’s like to be a woman in this day and age, with eight women from diverse backgrounds, from a young writer to an ex AWARE President.”
“It’s such a privilege to bring these women together and talk about the topic intersectionally, intergenerationally, and to bring such a serious topic into an accessible space, where people really will just listen,” she adds. “Plus, I love that Ashley Fifty is coming on board. How often do you get a literary drag queen? Ashley Fifty is gonna be so much fun, precisely because it breaks new ground on how we can approach literature and brings in an audience you might not otherwise see at these festivals.”
With regards to the programming, Pooja explains her concerns with addressing the ‘Singapore’ in the festival’s title: “As a national festival, I’ve always felt like there’s a need to showcase a sense of community in the local writing scene, which is buzzing for a city so small. I want international participants and visitors to arrive and encounter SingLit and Singlish and all the things that make us who we are, and so I dedicated a portion of my programming to that.”
“My programming tries to be as inclusive as possible to reach as many groups as I can, such as showcasing artists who worked with texts across different mediums, like photography or spoken word, and as many different voices as possible to represent Singapore’s diversity,” she continues. “I want everyone to feel like what they like is valid. That it’s ok to like something, and that the Festival loves and respects that to showcase it. I don’t want any attendee to feel uncomfortable or afraid to come into the Festival, and really move the conversation around literature being for everyone into a reality.
“We’ve got programmes like the ‘d’ Monologues discussing the language of ableist bodies, Haresh Sharma speaking, and even the youth programme where our youth programmers are bringing in Nicola Yoon, and even linking K-drama to poetry, which really broadens our idea of what literature is. Who could have come up with that except for these kids?”
Pooja has also maintained the festival late-night programming, this time bringing together a host of artists to celebrate Eurasian literary pioneer Rex Shelley with A Bigger Party Than Expected, in collaboration with the Arts House. Says Pooja: “I wanted to think about the legacy he’s left behind today, not as an ‘in memoriam’, but to make it fun, from multimedia to performance. Who wants to just act out scenes? We’re asking artists to deal with actual text and tie it to their art that they’re making today! We’ve got Bani Haykal doing sound installations, to Edith Podesta choreographing dance, to Cyril Wong singing sad 80s songs, and the Eurasian association throwing a quintessentially Eurasian party complete with Eurasian food and band. There’s something in here for everyone, and maybe even something you didn’t know you’d enjoy waiting to be discovered. We need to expand our idea of what writing is, and recognise that it exists in film and song and theatre and not just poetry and prose, to be experience on screens and on podcasts.”
Going into the authors featured this year, Pooja expresses enthusiasm for the biggest highlights of this year’s edition: “I’m so excited about the authors we’re bringing in. Amanda Lee Koe is the rare Singaporean author published internationally, and this marks her coming home with her debut novel Delayed Rays of a Star. Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko is so specific, about this Korean family making sense of their life in Japan, relatable because it’s about identity but so special because it also pushes against viewing Asia from a Western point of view. And I could go on about Marlon James, with all his cool thoughts about post-colonialism and A Brief History of Seven Killings, and his clarity in writing with his own voice, and for him to open the festival with the Prologue speaking about our themes, from his perspective.”
Speaking on the amount of work she’s put in to planning this festival over the past year, Pooja adds: “This is my first time working on a project like this. I mean, I’ve organised events before like my spoken word nights, where it was literally pull up some chairs and let’s get it going. There’’s a lot of interest for me in how parameters force you to be creative in so many ways, whether it was in terms of venue or logistics. It makes you think harder about how to make it work, from crowdfunding to ensuring you work according to the venue’s limitations.”
“At the end of the day,” she adds, “This isn’t the Pooja Nansi Writers Festival. It’s the Singapore Writers Festival. As Festival Director, what I offer are my perspectives, but really, there’s a whole programming team of broadminded folks who’ve worked alongside me in curating this programme that reaches every genre, from graphic novels to non-fiction to romance. Everyone feels like they have a stake in this, that they want to put something of themselves into the fest that matter to them. All I can do is help further the conversation, broaden the playing field and hope that we see shifts over time.
“The real buzz comes once the festival begins and I see who are the people actually attending, and I really see how audiences come and respond to each event in person,” she concludes.”People pick a new Festival Director because you don’t want the same person and same perspectives doing the festival for 20 years. I’ve been spending this first year getting the hang of things and after this first edition, I already have a good idea of how I’d like to see the next year play out. I want to leave a mark and generate what I can in my capacity and time here, and I hope that people do see what I’ve brought to the table.”
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.