Taking on the theme of ‘Guilty Pleasures’ this year, the 2021 Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) was set to tackle everything we love but are too embarrassed to share with the greater public, nursing our secret joys and finding the celebratory in the supposedly shameful. With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the festival continued its hybrid format previously established in 2020, with the majority of its programmes held online as a livestream, and limited seating for in-person events.
While for the most part, the majority of authors did not exactly correspond to the festival’s theme, highlights of this year’s festival still included the world’s top authors and writers sharing their thoughts on their writing process and reflections on how the written word and human imagination could be a solution to the world’s problems today, whether dreaming up ideal utopian worlds, taking pause to reflect on one’s life, or simply the beauty of escapism.
Amongst the most renowned guests were USA Poet Laureate Billy Collins, who reflect on ‘Small, Funny and Poignant’ things, in a conversation with local poet Samuel Lee. Known for his deceptively simple writing that cuts deep with its resonance, we were treated to a few choice readings of his poems, before diving deeper into his new collection Musical Tables, his pet peeves (he hates the word ‘cicada’ or ‘grandpa/grandma’), the idea that poets were simply writing from the perspective of a single character over and over again, or even the joy of writing ‘small’, simple poems.
In responding to a question about how most people were exposed to his work as students, under exam or classroom conditions, Collins explained how it was strange to become subject matter, and how his poems always felt too straightforward for deep analysis, and how the process of writing and composition was so private, yet the act of examining was so public, when his aim was to seduce the reader with his words. In all, a somewhat cerebral conversation that showed off the complexity of simplicity, and the need for poetry to do away with the pretence and simply indulge in the realness.
Comics writer and novelist G. Willow Wilson, best known as the creator of Kamala Khan (Ms Marvel) was also up for conversation. The conversation came to life when she began taking on audience questions, and addressed the idea of creating a modern day superhero for today’s generation. Commenting on how Kamala Khan was already 7 years old by this point, and a product of her own childhood and faith, she wondered if Kamala was more of a millennial superhero than one for Gen Z.
Still, Ms Marvel is set to arrive as a Disney+ original television programme soon, and Wilson, while involved in the writing, was coy about how the character would be portrayed on the show. While Kamala was certainly a game changer as Marvel’s first Muslim superhero with her own series, Wilson believed that her appeal went beyond her unique identity and background, and simply came about because of her relatability as a young fan who read fanfic and wrote it, and perhaps, the recognition in her that she was simply someone who answered the call to action, something we all have the potential to do and become superheroes in our own right.
Perhaps the most surprisingly insightful conversation amongst the featured writers was Tan France, one fifth of the Fab Five on Netflix’s Queer Eye reboot. Moderated by Vogue writer Maya Menon, the conversation between the two flowed easily as they shared their love for fashion, while Tan discussed his position as a stylist with a Pakistani background, and his own personal sense of imposter syndrome while working on the show, the only British person amongst the cast of mostly Americans. It’s no wonder Tan is known as the heart of the series, as his conversation reveals a genuine love for all that he does, beyond expertise in fashion.
From his secret Spotify playlist of guilty pleasure songs, to his devotion to baked goods, Tan and Maya segue easily into the elephant in the room, of Asian, specifically South Asian representation in fashion and Hollywood. Namedropping designers from Mohsin Naveed to Tarun Tahillani (who he wore on the red carpet, in a gorgeous Sherwani suit), he balked at how he was not on the best dressed list that year, compared to the dozens of men who simply wore a suit you might have rented down the street. Beyond that, Tan ends up speaking about how fashion itself was empowering in its own way, and by the end of it, you’re convinced that fashion do maketh the man, and we found ourselves checking out his new genderless clothing brand Was Him (named after his middle name ‘Washim’).
Vietnamese-American writer Ocean Vuong’s session, while delayed, provided much insight and joy when it was rescheduled for the following Sunday, and delivered an hour of intelligent conversation from the New York Times bestselling author of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Moderated by poet Tania de Rozario, Ocean began the session with a reading of poems ‘American Legend’ and ‘Nothing’, ahead of his new collection ‘Time Is A Mother’. Over the session, Tania and Ocean discussed the art and nature of writing, and how the market and capitalism has somewhat corrupted the form, be it this idea of gatekeeping topics, or the pressure of being unable to repeat themes or ideas again due to society’s hunger for newness.
There is an ease to which Vuong speaks that reveals an(pardon the pun) ocean of knowledge and thought that goes into his every word. He speaks of the need for the writer to curate their words, and how his position and writings have allowed him to think of the power dynamics that go into telling stories, and what a writer adds when they choose a specific topic to write about, and the unexpected lines of intersection. He brings up how the moment the atomic bomb fell, it is no longer American history but a Japanese one, as with the napalm that fell upon the villagers during the Vietnam war, and how there are times, good appropriation is important to reclaim and prevent cultural erasure.
Elsewhere, Vuong also mentions some of his favourite authors, including V.S. Naipaul and his relation to colonialism and the colonial subject, particularly with his novel The Enigma of Arrival. Korean-American poet Myung Mi Kim and novelist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and specifically, the latter’s fascination and re-imagination of the novel structure. To conclude, Vuong commented on how painful it is to create when forced, and what a writer can possibly do is ultimately hope to come as close as possible, due to the limited nature of his form – language.
Amongst the local authors featured, we got a glimpse at the workings of Instagram comicker highnunchicken, local illustrator Anngee Neo and Kevin Kallaugher (KAL) as they discussed the art of political comics, and where to draw the line (metaphorically and literally).
Local playwright Nessa Anwar moderated a fun panel discussion with local female authors Yihan Sim, Meihan Boey and Nuraliah Norasid bantered about what makes a ‘good’ villain in Bad To The Bone, discussing everything from Thanos of Marvel’s Avengers, to Ex Machina, My Hero Academia, Peaky Blinders and even the attractiveness of the Predator. As moderator, Nessa even joined in the conversation, and the four ladies were able to take a deep dive into topics ranging from the ‘bad boy’, the lack of female villains, guilt over liking villains, and even the D&D alignment system for judging the morality of a character, making for a very fun discussion overall.
Amongst the local authors however, it was the conversation between Neon Yang (of the Tensorate series) and American author Becky Chambers (of the Hugo Award-winning Wayfarers series) that felt genuinely exciting and like it was breaking new ground. Trust two queer sci-fi writers to do the job, as they discussed utopian world-building in ‘To Hope Is To Resist’. While their work is sci-fi in genre, not everything about it has to do with tech, as the two authors considered how utopias truly are an ideal to achieve, where it is often only a utopia for one group in society, but not all (think about how we enjoy the convenience of Amazon’s fast deliveries, while workers in the warehouse are being exploited).
Equitable access was high on the list of priorities for what defined a utopia, and the idea of choice and representation of diversity of views, allowing anyone to enjoy the benefits of living in a society. Other discussion topics included the need for anything with the ‘punk’ label to be radical and transformative, beyond a convenient subgenre, while also considering how a truly utopian character could never exist, rather, the idea that the most interesting characters are relatable and aspirational, flawed but always trying to better themselves, and from there, naturally, the world.
Audiences also enjoyed storytelling sessions, such as the creepy Slender Man and Other Internet Legends in the dead of night, as Hafidz Rahman, Jean Seizure and Krupa Vinayagamoorthy shared terrifying tales of the supernatural they’ve either heard or personally experienced (with Hafidz in particular sharing about the mysterious men in white jubah who kept sowing up to Cerita Hantu at the Arts House earlier this year.
But it is of course the annual Festival Closing Debate that stirred up the most laughs. Taking place at The Projector, this year’s debate saw the two teams arguing over the statement ‘This House Believes You Should Always Upsize’. Moderated by lawyer and author Adrian Tan (The Teenage Textbook), speakers, as is traditional, mix both comedy and performance to convince audiences of their team’s stand, sometimes making absurd arguments that maintain a strange yet valid line of logic throughout, and almost always leading to laughter and applause.
The proposition began with actress Deonn Yang, explaining how an upsized meal simply makes financial sense for the minuscule amount we pay for. Making a fat joke at the expense of herself, it’s clear that over the years, Deonn has emerged as an immensely confident person onstage and with her brand of self-deprecating comedy. Deonn also makes a strong case for upsizing as part of the Singapore spirit, with everything from our multiple Merlion and Raffles statues reflecting our kiasuism and overcompensation, and even the idea that Twilight and Harry Potter’s serialisation is a form of upsizing. All in all, a convincing opening statement.
Countering her was poet David Wong on opposition, and criticised Deonn for finishing her speech earlier than expected. Attacking the statement’s use of ‘always’, David’s statement focused on how not everything should be upsized, especially when it comes to things like meetings. Meanwhile, Jo Tan on the proposition team came in guns ablaze, fully decked out and over-accesorised to prove her point, and using math to explain how much one can earn through having multiple babies, and the economics of long queues.
Coming up on the opposition was Gwee Li Sui, a festival favourite debater conspicuously absent for the past few editions, and using his beloved ‘uncle’ style of commentary to break down the ‘down-sai’ and ‘up-sai’ of it all. Proposition Djohan Abdul Rahman came in and counteracted Gwee’s irreverance, before opposition speaker Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai came in, and swept the floor with her eloquent argument about the benefits of having a small wardrobe, how much joy she experienced without a Netflix subscription, and how less can sometimes be more.
As both prop and opp battled out the questions from the floor, it was clear that both sides had relevant points and could effectively counter most of the doubt that was cast, no matter how ridiculous. Ending off with Mrigaa Sethi and Stephanie Dogfoot making their final closing remarks, and whoever won was honestly the least of anyone’s concerns, just that it was both exciting and hilarious to once again experience the joy of the festival debate, whether live or online.
Amidst the 160 over events, one cannot possibly experience everything that SWF 2021 offered. But based on those that we did see, there was plenty of good amidst the deluge of choice; it just takes some sleuthing and exploration to find an event that truly touches you and shows off the power of the written word. Whether your guilty pleasure is a good pile of fanfic on AO3 or rocking out to the latest K-Pop sensation, SWF 2021 is likely to offer something that will make you feel better about the world we live in, and curious about the stories and knowledge shared by these writers.
Select programmes will be accessible to Festival Pass / Festival Pass Plus holders from 12th to 28th November. VOD pass holders will be able to access VOD from 19–28 Nov.