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Singapore Writers Festival 2019: On the Nature of Language with Marlon James’ SWF Prologue and Pico Iyer’s Beyond Borders, Beyond Words

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Opening weekend of the 2019 Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) has kicked off to a great start – helmed by some key anchor events and highlights, it’s no surprise to see various venues filled and buzzing with activity as the Civic District came awash with literary activity and a swarm of local and international writers gathering in Singapore. Perhaps one of the most anticipated authors of this edition was Marlon James, author of, amongst others, Man Booker Prize 2015-winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings.

Photo credit: Mark Seliger

Having just completed an intimate session with the sold out In A Tiny Room at The Old Man bar on Keong Saik the night before, James was set to deliver the brand new SWF Prologue on Sunday morning, a new initiative from new Festival Director Pooja Nansi that would encapsulate the Festival’s theme of A Language of Our Own, deconstructing it and unpacking all it comprises as a means to introduce the SWF proper. And if it’s anyone who’s more than appropriate to approach this year’s theme, it’s the man who wrote a hefty book that effectively contained and represented over 70 different voices and characters in a single tome.

Fiercely intelligent yet always accessible, it was clear that James had put plenty of thought into the Festival theme, with a lecture that broke down the theme into concepts such as the pedestrian nature of ‘proper’ English and the resulting need to decolonise language; the importance of freedom of literary criticism and how there is a distinct difference between appropriating and representing; and perhaps above all, is there such a thing as whether one is even allowed to write certain stories (answer: yes, so long as you do your due research and write these characters well.)

James is a fascinating speaker, never once missing a beat as he makes each of these concepts and terms understandable for the lay audience, perhaps stemming in part from his current profession as a literature teacher at in Minnesota. He is entertaining, convincing, and empowering as he questions the outdated adage to ‘write what you know’. He champions writers of fantasy and science fiction, of X-men and the human imagination, calls out the literary elitists who only consider social realims as ‘real literature’, and speaks of the power of stories, speaking of the violence colonisation has done to ‘pagan’ creation myths of each civilisation, to erase and to forget.

Moderated by writer Mrigaa Sethi, the dialogue that follows only opens up even more avenues of discussion, as he talks about the all-important research process leading up to his being able to create the languages and slang spoken in both A Brief History of Seven Killings (was it appropriate to use the word ‘spaz’ in the 70s or 80s, for example) and his newest novel, Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first in a planned trilogy, and how reading Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting opened his eyes to how patois could be used, and still be considered literature, outside of the confines and rules of the Queen’s English. In answering the many questions the audience posed, he is warm, inviting, and answers each one with a rare poise, armed with knowledge over the great literary canon that cements his mastery over the craft. In short, the Prologue, thanks to James, resulted in a successful opening event for SWF 2019, celebrating and championing literature in all its forms, fiercely relevant with its concerns and topic, and above all, makes the Festival’s theme feel like more than just a catchy title, and gives it depth and meaning.

Pico Iyer (Custom)

Also over opening weekend, the so-called ‘poet laureate of wanderlust’ Pico Iyer has returned to the SWF after his last outing here 7 years ago, delivering a lecture titled Beyond Borders, Beyond Words centred around not one but three new books published this year: Autumn Light, A Beginner’s Guide to Japan, and (about Singapore) This Could be Home.

Pico Iyer is a man of many backgrounds, almost constantly on the move and drifting from one timezone to another. It’s rather amazing how this intrepid traveller manages to do all this and still find time to write books. Yet, Iyer has somehow managed to find it in him to find an unlikely home in the land of the rising sun, having spent the last three decades based there, along with his Japanese wife Hiroko. Iyer, outwardly, appears like a fish out of water in Japan, a country known for its closed-door nature towards foreigners and fierce nationalism, with one of the weakest graps of the English language in Asia (tied, apparently, with Laos). Iyer speaks about how the Japanese are uncomfortable if a foreigner is too fluent in Japanese, as if one has somehow trespassed upon something sacred and private to them – instead, they would rather have you speak smatterings of the language, and praise you for being ‘so good’ at Japanese.

He instead suggests then, the power of silence in Japan, where it is not uncommon for two people to sit through an entire movie together, and then commute home, speaking next to nothing the entire time. He claims that it is language and words that separate us, and silences that have the power to bring us together instead, something the Japanese are particularly comfortable with, while the rest of the world feels uncomfortable in the silence. He goes on to speak about his life in Japan, often deeply respectful of Japanese customs, such as how his wife ensures to pay respects to her late father each and every morning. Yet he also knows how to tell a tale as effectively as David Sedaris, wildly entertaining as he describes himself as a ‘Justin Bieber’ type figure at the newly opened health club and ping pong group, where he stands at least 10 years younger, 10 centimetres taller, a source of fascination for the elderly Japanese who have joined it.

He points out the quirks of the Japanese respectfully, intriguing with how unique the culture is, and adds a hint of poeticism to it all. In particular, Iyer should be noted for how attentive he is to his surroundings and to the subtler details of the environment a tourist might miss (a good question from the audience during the Q&A notes that he pays particular attention to the amount of light each city he visits emits). He speaks of how the religion of Japan is in fact, not Shinto Buddhism, but the seasons themselves, suggesting elements of both changelessness and change, as we shift according to the weather and temperature, committing ourselves to the calendar year and all its happenings. He speaks of the difference between the private self and public self, where it is not the sakura blossoms that represent Japan, but the hardy maplewood instead, that in Japanese auteur Ozu’s films, even in the moments where we see a woman crying or grieving, the sound of a festival outside can be heard faintly.

Travel, for Iyer, is a means of fleeing and pursuing, of seeing the contradictions in each culture, of noticing, observing, of exploring and letting one’s self simply absorb the world one has chosen to visit. This is the man who, jetlagged and living in timezones from across the world, once found himself wandering the streets of Singapore at night, choosing to have his ‘lunch’ at 6am and ‘dinner’ at 12pm, taking in the sights, sounds and life of a city to know it. It is evident from his words that this is a man never seeks to combat or colonise with his way of life, but to acclimatise and adapt accordingly as he learns with each new experience. A man of mixed cultures, upbringings and with eyes wide open to see the world, Iyer truly is a man of nowhere, and yet, someone who could probably learn to love almost anywhere.

Beyond Borders, Beyond Words ran at The Arts House on 2nd November 2019 as part of the Singapore Writers Festival. 

Marlon James delivered the Singapore Writers Festival Prologue on 3rd November 2019 at the Victoria Theatre. 

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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