IF: This year’s Singapore Writers Festival imagines what could be and what is yet to come

Published November 20, 2022, 10:04 PM

by Yvette Tan

The Singapore Writers Festival 2022 was spread across different locations, including the Arts House. (Photo courtesy of Arts House Limited)

The Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) is an annual event that celebrates literature and its adjacent disciplines. Started in 1986, aside from being one of the region’s premiere literary events, it is also one of the few multi-linguistic events of its kind.

2022 is extra special because not only does it mark SWF’s 25th edition, it also celebrates the Festival’s return to a face to face event after two years of being held online due to the pandemic. “I think we’re also excited to be back but then given the reality and the horror of the last two years and everything that it’s done globally, there’s also a real sense of how precious this is, just for us to meet people in a global community face to face, I don’t take that for granted anymore,” says festival director Pooja Nansi.

Still, the last two years were not without its lessons. “…it was kind of a learning curve in that how come we never thought that some people could Zoom into a panel if they can’t fly in, right?” Nansi shares. “The thing that was really missing in the digital editions is just really the sense of community or joy, because even though you’re meeting in a Zoom room, it’s just not the same as meeting in the corridors, and so I think this year, when we came back, the grounds were really important to us as a space…”

This year’s theme, If, was taken from the poem “If…Else” by Cyril Wong, an examination of the current edition’s quarter life crisis amid its emergence from a two-year online format. Nansi explained that the Festival committee takes great pains to ensure that the SWF’s themes are related to the times. 

Young Adult writer Chole Gong spoke about her experience publishing and reaching global success during the pandemic and what she plans to do next. (Photo courtesy of Arts House Limited)

2020’s theme was “Intimacy,” “It was thinking about closeness when we couldn’t hold each other or say hi or see our friends, like how important intimacy was to all of us and how much it was missing…”

2021’s theme was “Guilty Pleasures,” where “we had dealt with a year of the pandemic and we were also cognizant as a programs team that a lot of what had gotten people through was comfort, like what they found in watching things or reading things. We’re all going back to things that brought us a bit of joy… We really just wanted to say whatever you’re reading, whatever you’re watching, celebrate it,” Nansi says. 

“[This] year, it would have been very simple to be just like, “Oh, we’re back, everything’s great, we’re done,” but it really still feels very tentative, and so the ‘What If?’”

This year’s SWF featured interesting panels such as “This House Believes That The Remake is Better Than The Original,” a debate between eight festival speakers on whether the original is always better than its adaptations. The semi-serious comedic debate drew a full house, with the audience howling with laughter and one very passionate woman speaking up from the crowd. There was also “If I Love You Was a Promise: Our Relationship with Cities,” where four writers shared their experiences navigating their feelings between the cities of their youth versus the cities they currently reside in.

Multi award-winning writer Jeanette Winterson posits in her new book 12 Bytes: How We Got Here. Where We Might Go Next that a technological future need not be the cold, soulless one envisioned by many, and that it is within our actions to ensure that it is a compassionate one. (Photo courtesy of Sam Churchill)

A big part of the SWF’s draw is its international guests, which in the past have included Margaret Atwood and Neil Gaiman. This year’s roster included Jeanette Winterson, Yong Adult writer Chloe Gong, and science fiction writer Ted Chiang, all of whose talks were packed either with fans, or people who became fans after they heard them speak.

One of the many programmes the SWF is proudest of is its SEA Focus, which highlights writers from the Southeast Asian region. “…it is a programming direction that we take quite seriously. 60 to 80 percent of our authors are Singporean and regional… We have a programming track that’s Southeast Asian focused, as you (Yvette Tan) know, you’ve been a part of it. We work with the Singapore Book Council [to] ensure that 20 percent of our writers really come from the region,” Nansi explains. 

This year’s SWF featured Filipino writers Lawrence Ypil, Noelle Q. de Jesus, Criselda Yabes, Mark Fillon, Merlinda Bobis, Miguel Syjuco, Joaquin Saavedra, Eliza Victoria, Bhing Navato, Eric Tinsay Valles, and filmmaker Marilou Diaz-Abaya. Of special note are Cristina Belingon, Julie Ann Tabigne, and Nelie Bautista, members of the Migrant Writers of Singapore who will be presenting the Migrant Writers of Singapore Slam Poetry Festival: If We Could Dream on the closing day of the Festival.

Science fiction writer Ted Chiang premised that seeing the future (such as Scrooge’s case in A Christmas Carol) is a form of time travel of ideas. (Photo courtesy of Arturo Villarrubia)

The Singapore Writers Festival is an event that encourages and inspires writers and readers, not just in Singapore, but all over the region. It’s a festival that is not afraid to move with the times, embracing diversity, inclusivity, and just really good wordplay.

“…I just hope that it grows in terms of audiences and in terms of putting its stamp on everyone regardless of who you are, what kind of class you come from, what kind of education background you come from,” Nansi says. “The final goal is to make stories and literature relevant to everybody, because they are.”

The Singapore Writers Festival runs from Nov. 4 to 20, 2022.