The 22nd edition of the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) concluded on 10 November after a stellar 10-day line-up of literary events and programmes headlined by influential Singapore and international writers, speakers and thinkers. Organised by the National Arts Council (NAC) to champion and grow appreciation for literary arts and culture in Singapore, the theme “A Language of Our Own” explores the ways in which verbal, physical and visual languages reflect and affect our perceptions of the world. It invites authors and audience to reflect on languages as systems of communications that have the power to create a sense of belonging and also displacement.
SWF saw strong attendance and participation rate this year, with new event formats introduced such as the In A Tiny Room series, roundtable conversations and book club sessions to encourage closer interactions between festival-goers and participating authors. The In A Tiny Room series featuring festival headliners Marlon James (Jamaica) and Roxane Gay (US) fully subscribed before the Festival started.
The SWF remains an important platform for inspiring cross-genre and cross-generation exchanges and learning opportunities between communities. Audiences were drawn to sold-out panel discussions and lectures involving contemporary issues such as feminism, cultural diversity, inclusivity and representation. For example, programmes such as Understanding Identity through Pop Culture by author and cultural critic Roxane Gay, Beyond Border, Beyond Words by acclaimed travel writer Pico Iyer (UK) and Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (to Everyone) by Yemeni-Canadian journalist Kamal Al-Solaylee were a hit.
The crowd-favourite Festival Debate was another popular event that drew a huge turnout with an all-female line-up that saw former AWARE president Dana Lam and award- winning writer Ovidia Yu arguing the motion “This House Believes That Men Are Ruining Feminism” at The Arts House Chamber. Other popular programmes on the topic of feminism included panels on gender issues such as Issues in Men’s Writing, The Power of Female Friendships, and Women, Economy and Power.
This year’s Festival also explored the evolution of languages we use every day including digital languages such as texting. Panel discussions such as Chatbots and the Human Connection, Texting and the Englishing of World Languages and The Future of Language were fully packed even on weeknights.
In line with the Council’s efforts to nurture early engagement with the literary arts, the Festival has made a concerted effort to programme events for a variety of demographics, including youths and children. This year, it has introduced the SWF Youth Fringe to extend the Festival’s reach to youths aged 13 to 18. The Festival team collaborated with a group of Youth Curators to include topics and genres of interest to youths in the festival programming. In conjunction with the Youth Fringe, a Youth Pass was introduced for the first time, providing youths aged 18 and below access to more than 100 Festival Pass events at a subsidised price of $15. Programmes tackling a diverse range of topics such as In Celebration of Fanfiction, Songwriting 101, Memetic 101 – The Study of Memes and The Art of Zine-Making were well- received. The festival’s SWF Playground programming for younger audiences also saw full subscription of The Write Morning workshops, where Singaporean and international authors taught the craft of developing stories to children aged 7 through 12.
SWF remains a strong showcase for Singaporean literary talents and organisations, shining a spotlight on more than 230 home-grown writers and artists, affording them the platform to be presented alongside international counterparts. Singapore literature, or SingLit for short, is always featured prominently in SWF. This year, SWF celebrated the works of the late Eurasian author Rex Shelley as its Literary Pioneer, with the late-night programme A Bigger Party Than Expected taking inspiration from Shelley’s seminal work, The Shrimp People. Featuring interactive performances by local artists such as Edith Podesta and Cyril Wong, the Party opened the Festival on a celebratory note. In addition, the Literary Pioneer exhibition was presented as a digital exhibition with an online component, moving away from a physical exhibition in order to create more multi-faceted experiences for the audience.
Drawing from the experiences of the literary scene’s stalwarts, a new generation of homegrown writers and poets have also emerged each year, some of whom used SWF as a platform for sharing their creative writing and poetry. Up-and-coming writers and poets such as Shivram Gopinath, Suffian Hakim, Lee Xin Yi, Qamar Firdaus Saini, Ashwinii Selvaraj, Marylyn Tan, Anittha Thanabalan, Yeoh Jo-Ann and June Zaidi were just a handful of names at this year’s Festival. Year-on-year, new Singaporean writers join the line-up and inject a freshness where audiences learn from both the old guard and the new, drawing insights from and sharing views with a rich lineage of distinguished writers and the younger writers that are featured at the Festival each year.
Addressing this year’s edition of SWF, May Tan, Director of Sector Development (Literary Arts) at NAC shared: “With over 20 editions under its belt, SWF has played a pivotal role in inspiring generations of readers and writers. Under Pooja’s curatorial decision, the festival captured the cultural zeitgeist and delivered a compelling programme that addressed integral topics that matter to youths as well as festival-goers at large. The take-up of the inaugural SWF Youth Pass signals a healthy and warm reception from the younger generation, affirming NAC’s efforts to spark early interest in literary arts among the youths. It is heartening to see continued strong support by attendees and Singaporean authors. I would like to congratulate Pooja and her team for a successful edition.”
The 2019 edition of SWF marks Festival Director Pooja Nansi’s first year at the helm, after taking over the reins from previous Festival Director Yeow Kai Chai. Under her direction, Pooja has initiated several changes to the programme structure, including the introduction of the Youth Fringe, to make the Festival more accessible to festival-goers of all ages, languages and backgrounds.
“It was an incredible 10 days seeing how festival-goers and diverse speakers engage in meaningful conversations that traverse generations. I am confident we have created a festival that resonates with everyone and gave everyone an opportunity to reflect what it means to have a language of our own.” said Nansi. “We’d also like to thank all our partners, sponsors and volunteers that supported us in 2019. SWF always has been, and will be, a collective effort. We hope to sustain the momentum and success achieved by SWF over the last 22 editions and intend to keep the programming fresh and relevant in the years to come. We will continue to work on making the festival more inclusive and accessible to all, starting with the return of the Youth Fringe in next year’s edition.”
The Singapore Writers Festival 2019 took place from 1st to 10th November 2019, and returns in 2020 from 30th October to 8th November.