Found in translation

Much like Indonesia itself, the vast Asian region is rich with culture and full of voices, all of which translate into a storytelling goldmine, be it through prose, poetry, comics or films.

Unfortunately, the region’s strengths are also its weaknesses — the linguistic and cultural differences added to relatively low literacy rates and lack of promotion for new authors, means that many intriguing voices are in danger of never being heard.

In recognition of this ongoing dilemma, this year’s 13th biennial Singapore Writers’ Festival (SWF 2009), which took place between Oct. 24 and Nov. 1, aimed to promote Asian literature, with a particular focus on Singapore and Malaysia, and stimulate reading and writing in Asia more generally.

“Our festival focuses on Asian writers, especially Asian writers who have just started writing, new writers and new translations, in order to provide a sense of discovery and help people to get to know more Asian writers,” said Khor Kok War, deputy CEO and director of Literary Arts at the National Arts Council.

SWF 2009 was co-organised by the National Arts Council and The Arts House with official sponsorship from Singapore Press Holdings Ltd and Singapore Press Holdings Foundation.

SWF 2009’s theme was “Undercovers”, which evoked a myriad of meanings, such as the notion of children reading a book under their covers with a flashlight or the discovery of new authors.

Accordingly, SWF 2009 featured more than 100 writers from 20-plus countries and aimed to explore the variety of genres that the Undercovers theme evoked, from horror and thriller through to children’s literature and up-and-coming writers.

The festival’s itinerary consisted of intimate Q&As with authors, writing workshops, film screenings and interactive galleries, most of which took place in The Arts House, an 182-year national monument that was once Singapore’s first court house, as well as parliament house, and is now dedicated to showcasing arts and heritage.

There were almost 70 Singaporean literary luminaries directly participating in events, including established writers like Catherine Lim (The Bondmaid, 1995), a self-described “incorrigible, unstoppable storyteller”, and de-facto poet laureate Edwin Thumboo (Ulysses by the Merlion, 1979) to emerging talents like Wena Poon, who won the Singapore Literature Prize for her debut novel Lions in Winter.

Poon, who also found time to enjoy other authors’ contributions, said her favorite event was Chinese writer Dai Sijie’s presentation of his film Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.

“In our post-show dialogue, he told us interesting behind-the-scenes details about this autobiographical film and novel of the same name, and I translated his Mandarin words into English for the international audience, laughing all the way because of his dry humor.”

Southeast Asian literature received strong representation, with Indonesia’s own Lily Yulianti Farid, author of Makkunrai (2008), showcasing her play The Kitchen and headlining a discussion on cultural and ethnic identity. Timor Leste’s Naldo Rei discussed his book Resistance: A Childhood Fighting for East Timor, while multi-Malaysia Literary Prize winner Anwar Ridhwan, prominent Thai writer Chart Korbjitti, 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize winner Miguel Sujuco from the Philippines, offered candid Q&As and participated in several provocative discussions on Asian literature.

One of the festival’s most pertinent discussions was “In Conversation with SEA Write award winners”, where past recipients of the award, which has been presented annually to poets and writers in the Southeast Asian region since 1979, Korbjitti, Rama Kannabiran and Wong Yoon Wah discussed the challenges facing writers in the region, citing local preference for foreign writers and the need for more translation in both English and other languages.

“As Southeast Asians, when it comes to the literary world, we are perhaps over-generous with our foreign guests… if we see two books, one by our own writer, and one by a foreign writer, who is a guest in our country, we would buy the foreign writer’s book,” said the event’s moderator Dr. Kirpal Singh, an associate professor at the Singapore Management University (SMU) and also a literary critic.

“Perhaps Southeast Asia should start to look at itself as more like the EU, as a real regional grouping so there will be Southeast Asian writers, rather than just Malaysian or Singaporean.”

Beyond Southeast Asia, many of wider Asia’s brightest literary stars were on show, including Mohammed Hanif, a Pakistani journalist whose first novel, the hilarious and politically astute A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008) rose to international prominence, attracted several award nominations, and Taichi Yamada, one of Japan’s most respected writers, and author of atmospheric ghost story Strangers (2004).

As part of SWF 2009’s aims to reach out to a wider audience and create a greater interest in the literary arts, several international writers were invited, such as John Ajvide Lindqvist from Sweden — a former magician and stand-up comedian whose first novel Let the Right One In became a global bestseller and garnered him comparisons to Stephen King — and John Boyne from Ireland, whose 2006 World War II tale The Boy in the Striped Pajamas sold more than 5 million copies worldwide before it was adapted into a Miramax feature film.

By far, the international participant attracting the most attention was English writer Neil Gaiman, who is regarded as a literary rock star, and is listed in the Dictionary of Literary Biography as one of the top 10 living post-modern writers. Accompanied by his musician girlfriend Amanda Palmer, best-known as one-half of the Dresden Dolls, a Brechtian punk-cabaret duo, the author of The Sandman comic book series and American Gods largely dominated the closing weekend of the festival.

The couple’s events, which included a joint presentation of their lavish coffee table book Who Killed Amanda Palmer, featuring faux death shots of Palmer accompanied by prose by Gaiman, and a special Graveyard Party gig for Halloween night, were fully packed, with many hardcore fans dressed up as the novelist’s characters or in tribute to Palmer’s gothic-punk style.

Gaiman generously subjected himself to several mammoth autograph signing sessions, with the final one lasting for more than five hours.

“I had to queue up really early [to get a ticket for the event] and wait an hour in advance on the very first day tickets were announced… I’ve come as Death, Sandgirl [from The Sandman comics],” said Yi Xuan, a 22-year-old SMU student, who was clad in black and pale make-up, and poised about halfway in the five-hour queue.

SWF 2009 came to a close with a “Dissecting the Merlion”, a light-hearted debate on Singapore’s definitive tourism symbol, a figure of both fun and adulation, which emphasized the talents of several silver-tongued Singaporean writers like Alfian Sa’at and Desmond Kon.

As guests finally filtered out of The Arts House, Phan Ming Yen, assistant general manager of the Arts House, was exhausted but satisfied with the outcome of the event.

“The best way to program any festival is to pick people you like… if you like the people, you can market them and you can get excited about them… but the main thing is that people were happy. Personally, I’m happy, the attendance was generally good, and so was the feedback. The challenge is doing it better the next time around.”

Dr Singh, who has been involved in the event from its inception in 1986, concurred that SWF 2009 had been a success.

“This year set a high watermark, as we’ve got lots of people from everywhere. Even though the international representation is not as diverse as it has been in other years, this time it’s very much focused and sustained… now we are concentrating on people nearer us… One suggestion I’d make, is that we could use more women participants next time,” Singh said.

“As well as the promotion of youth, this festival was about Southeast Asian legends. We would have had Mochtar Lubis here if he was still alive.”

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