For part 2, click here.
What is the point of reading literature? Is Singapore at a crisis point in terms of number of students studying literature. The numbers of students studying is declining. Is this concerning at all? Does the rousing turnout at the Singapore Writers Festival mean something? It is important to build a literary eco-system and change the way literature is taught in schools. Literature trains critical thinking and builds a core of critical readers. It also hones critical thinking. There is still this perception that literature is for the elite and for those who have done well in the English language. It is important that more students take literature, believe in it, and convince the future generations to take it as well. The speakers suggested incorporating literature in the study of humanities and the English language in school. In the early days, literature was too associated with the British and the ‘high’ culture. As a result, English literature was separated from the study of the English language. Many in Singapore see language as a form and tool of communication. Reading a book can give you insights which may not be present when you watch a movie made of the same book. It would be good to start students from young, even at the pre-school level. Parental influence and emphasis on reading is also very important for the child. Teachers could be taught how to select rich text for the children. There is currently little data on reading habits in Singapore. One could argue that the arts is not necessary as it does not help to build material wealth. However, the fact is that there are many benefits associated with reading. For instance, it hones your imagination, makes you more human, builds empathy etc. There are segments of society who are very dismissive of the arts as it doesn’t allow one to make a lot of money. Reading must be seen as something that is pleasurable and should be looked forward to even after one leaves school. It also is a great way to hone language ability. In Murakami’s book ‘The Elephant Vanishes’, one of the themes is that of the power of reading and how it can hone philosophical thinking. One way to encourage more to read is to make reading more social (for example: book clubs, SWF etc). Ultimately, literature can be seen as a great equalizer. The poor should read even more as it enables them to dream of a better future and make their life more ‘rich’. The more society reads, the more the chances of writers emerging. Reading is a great way to expand one’s knowledge and imagination. Back in the 1960s, Singapore was more about survival and people had to work hard to make a living. As a result, there was less emphasis on reading and on building an arts culture.
Our Lives, Our Stories. This book is a collection of memoir writing exercises which are all autobiographical in nature. There were a total of 7 authors who each wrote about 3000 words each. The book was published by the National Library Board, Singapore. It all started with a writing workshop at the library. The workshop taught skills like guided autobiography writing. One story was about an author recalling her past as a child helping out in the kitchen in Malacca. Back then, people cooked dishes like salted vegetable and soup. There is still value in traditional cooking in modern society. Recalling the past helps recollect and bring back nostalgic memories. Another story was about the author’s late father. It recalled the moments of how he set foot in Singapore. Her father had a great influence on her life. The third story of how an author recounted the years before her mother’s passing. A major theme of the stories are that of traditional culture, like the Peranakan culture. In the past, families or neighbors traded food with one another so that each family could try different types of food. In general, most grandparents were strict and children grown up to be exact and disciplined. Life is essentially a long journey and it is all about a stream of consciousness. By default, many people live their lives on auto-pilot and do not reflect very much on the past. Writing helps to aid the reflection process and can be therapeutic in nature. After the workshop, many of the authors were pushed and motivated to continue writing. The workshop had the effect of kick starting the habit of writing. Even if your work is not published, writing is a good form of healing and can aid one to overcome grief or grow to accept difficult situations. One can always keep a journal. Knowing your past helps you understand your present situation better. Writers who often write about memoirs usually feel obligated to share with the world something important to them.
Wanderlust and the Promise of the Other. People love travelling for a myriad of reasons. One of which could be to escape the pain after a divorce, for instance. Travelling to a new world brings about new beginnings for all. The featured authors all write from direct experiences. It is always possible to find something new about yourself while travelling. While on the road, keep walking till you get lost. There is inherent beauty in taking the less-trodden path and taking a detour. Even if you take a detour, good things might happen. While travelling, most will realize that not everything goes according to plan. For instance, one of the authors wrote about his experience when he missed his flight. Sometimes, it is helpful to do things that are common to the natives. For instance, one could take a train in the peak hour traffic. It might be difficult to structure a coherent plot when travel experiences are so scattered. At times, experiences help shape your plot. It can all come together. One can worry about the form of the story later, after the first draft. It is also common to add spice to the character’s lives so as to make the plot seem more interesting. When you feel bored overseas, it can also add flavor to the story you are crafting. Language is essentially only one form of communication. When you don’t speak a common language with a native, you will perform hand gestures or body language in order to get your message across. If you can’t fully comprehend what the person is saying, you can interpret his body language and guess what is he trying to say. There is beauty in silence too. Because you can’t speak a common language, you tend to be aware of non-verbal cues and be naturally more aware of your surroundings. Researching on the place before you travel can only do so much. It certainly won’t expose you to the soul of the country and the heart of the city. Often, the books only feature touristy places. Also, sometimes, your travel plans might be disrupted for various reasons. As a result, you might feel frustrated that your plans are not coming to fruition. However, it is important to appreciate the detour. When travelling, one can just plan the essentials like accommodation and transport. It helps to stay with the locals as that represents a more unique culture of the place. Try to write from your own travel experiences.
Critical Stage: Literary Reviews. Is criticism and book reviews important in the literary world in Singapore? Currently, there is a limited number of book reviewers out there. The Straits Times’ Life section did cover book reviews for a few years before ceasing to continue. Currently, there is only a book column in the ST on the weekends. However, it usually covers only foreign books which the general public finds popular or appealing. With the advent of the Internet, reviewers can review books on blogs, social media or good reads etc. Social media has definitely changed the book reviewing landscape. It is natural for authors to want to find out what readers think. There are opportunities for writers to get feedback. The literary scene in Singapore is booming and writers need to get the word out that they are published. It is common for writers to review each others’ work. There is certainly an art to reviewing books and a reviewers’ role should be taken seriously. The Straits Times still has a big part to play in promoting Singaporean literature. There are many publishers out there. The Quarterly Literary Review Singapore (QLRS) is a book platform to review Singaporean literature and for writers’ to get feedback. There might be issues of conflict of interest if authors’ review fellow author’s work and if they are close friends etc. It is important to stay objective when reviewing books. When reviewing, it is important to try to stay neutral and objective. The truth will allow authors’ to learn and improve on their literary style. There are basically two types of reviews. The first is more about ‘rating’ a book. The second type is more of a critical essay. This form is definitely more value-adding. Critical essays enable the author to understand how their other works may have affected their current works, or even how their writing styles might be similar to other authors. In general, it is important to have critics. Do reviewers have such a large viewership that they can influence what others read? Everyone is entitled to voice their opinion online. Authors shouldn’t argue with reviewers who have given them a bad review. Readers are discerning and intelligent people who know how to differentiate a good review from a bad one. Authors are certainly not entitled to receive reviews. Is writing its own reward? Should you even care about reviewers at all? Writers need to market their books because of the booming publishing scene in Singapore. Therefore, reviewers serve an important function of raising awareness for author’s works. Naturally, there is always an element of subjectivity to book reviews. The fact is that Singaporean books are not being reviewed much overseas. Reviewers need to ‘have mercy’ in their reviews as issuing a nasty review might kill an author’s confidence to publish more works.
The Fluid Identities of South East Asia. SEA has a rich colonial history. SEA in the past has been associated with port cities and trade routes. Is the colonial mindset weighing heavily on our culture? Were we exploited by the colonials? When there was still the Malayan Archipelago, people moved about because of trade routes and wind direction. The Portuguese, Spanish and the Dutch came to SEA. Nation-states only emerged after colonialism. Many SEA nations tried to dissociate themselves from their colonial past. However, Singapore embraced it and even now, many roads still have British names. We sort of incorporated what the colonials had and integrated into our culture. Have we lost our roots with our ancestors in China? Indonesia is separated within districts and each has its own unique culture. Each district has its own strange rituals and dances. Is this politically motivated? In Indonesia at least, their identity is very much tied to politics. Even in HCMC, you will see colonial buildings being restored. However, is this just to attract tourists to Vietnam? Some SEA cities have European quarters and ethnic quarters as well. In Singapore, there are many remnants of the colonial past. In an increasingly globalized world, will there be a homogenization of cultures/ethnicities? In general, the people with mixed heritages generally do well and thrive in society. For instance, the Peranakans are doing well in Indonesia. They have found their place in society. In the past, Islam spread in SEA mainly because of trade. However, is the movement getting too radicalized and fundamental in recent times? How can SEA stay relevant with the rise of China? China is practicing what is called ‘covert’ colonialism by exerting soft power. The fact, however, is that China has been around in SEA before colonial powers. There is always still debate between ethnic and national identity. Malaysia and Indonesia occasionally debate over where did certain food/culture originate from? Each of them want to lay claim to it. There might be an element of truth when some Indonesians say that they prefer to be colonized by the British as compared to the Dutch. The British, hypothetically, would have been able to introduce the rule of law and bring order. The Dutch, it could be argued, that they did not introduce anything new to Indonesia.