Singapore Writers Festival 2015 (Part 2)

For part 1, click here.

Unravelling Haruki Murakami. History has a big part to help create a shared identity among people. There is a common rhythm across Haruki’s books but each book still retains a unique ‘voice’. Haruki is an extremely prolific translator and author. He is truly one of literature’s greats. Essentially, he writes solely in Japanese and gets translators to translate his works to English. When asked by a young student how would one go about writing about oneself, Haruki suggested that he write about a particular object. One will then be able to see how one interacts with the object. This is what differentiates one person from another. Despite translating contemporary American novels into Japanese, it is difficult to draw direct references of American works to his works. Haruki’s work has generated mass appeal and global outreach. In Japan, he is a private guy who shuns excessive publicity. As someone who shuns excessively publicity, Haruki might appear to not be interested in literary prizes etc. However, when overseas, he takes on another persona and promotes both his works and also the Japanese culture. Due to his fame and recognition, he is essentially like a Japanese cultural ambassador. One either loves or hates his books. One explanation as to why he often delves on themes like nostalgia/recollection of the past is because Buddhists believe that life is about constant change. Therefore, one has to learn to deal with loss or even losses like the ‘loss of adolescence’ and emergence into adulthood. Another explanation could be that Japan, after undergoing the WWII and with America’s presence, had lost its ‘inner self’. Therefore, in terms of culture, it was still trying to find itself and how it can be positioned in the world. Likewise, most of the characters in his books are lost and can’t imagine a hopeful future. They have lost their place in this world and need to find a way out of it. Haruki, although not a real political activist, was concerned about the 1995 Kobe Earthquake etc. That tragedy had a great impact on his life. Haruki doesn’t intentionally seek to promote Japanese culture and values through his writing. One of the main reasons why his characters are so relatable is because they are emotionally deep and mature.

Invisible: The allure of the unseen. Philip Ball is a famous science writer who has a PhD in Physics. In the past, since the Greek era, people dreamt about invisibility. In reality, it isn’t so easy to achieve though. Famous authors who wrote Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings have also used the concept of invisibility in their stories. Plato, in his work, The Republic, also warned others of the dangers of invisibility. Will man commit evil acts if he cannot be seen? There are many variants of invisibility that scientists are working on. Some form of cloaking etc is already present. Some types of squids/flatfish can camouflage extremely well with the surroundings, rendering them almost invisible to the naked eye. Likewise, scientists have tried to create a garment which can change colour, depending on your surroundings. Modern technology still has a long way to go. H.G. Wells wrote about the Invisible Man. Other modern forms of technology include the use of meta-materials, refraction etc. Most of the ideas stem from being able to bend light. There are also psychological aspects to invisibility. For instance, is it useful if it can make someone less shy? There is much debates in terms of psychology at the moment. What if people turn invisible so that they can escape reality and its responsibilities? Can invisibility have applications, apart from military, that are good for society? Do know there are ethical and code issues which need to be thoroughly examined with the advent of such technology. Ralph Ellison wrote about ‘The Invisible Man’. In his case, it was about being ‘socially invisible’ and being repressed etc. As humans, we consciously choose to see what we want to see, hear what we want to hear. Therefore, some things are also rendered ‘invisible’ to us in that sense. Invisibility is still associated with myths, danger, supernatural etc. As a result, there is still this fear about invisibility which needs to be overcome once the technology is in place.

SG50 anthologies – What Makes Singapore Singapore. ‘Living the Singapore Story’ is a collection of interviews from 58 ordinary Singaporeans. The objective of this book was to get the best possible story from each of them. Everyone is extraordinary in their own way and has contributed to Singapore. The Institute of Policy Studies’ Singapore Chronicles is an ambitious 50 book project on various key topics in Singapore. For instance, the first book is on the Singapore Constitution. Some of the other topics are like sports, arts, food etc. Each book is about a 100 pages long and delve fairly deeply into each topic. The next book on SG50 is ‘50+ things to love about Singapore’. This book embraces the quirks about Singapore and what makes us unique. It also debunking myths and misconceptions about Singapore. Some of them might be a little new even for Singaporeans. The last work is ‘Singathology’, which feature 50 new works of Cultural Medallion and Young Artist Award recipients. This will examine the narratives of the nation. It will feature diverse bodies of works in the 4 national languages, each with their own unique literary tradition. It was difficult to bring together so many diverse writers to collaborate on a massive project like this. There will be 2 volumes of works, the first titled ‘Life’ and the second titled ‘Art’. Issues which are thought provoking will be surfaced. For instance, what is the role of art in Singaporean society and what is its relevance? Another example is the role of political discourse/dissent in society. The people involved in the above projects all admitted that even they were all familiar to Singapore, there is still much to earn. In general, the objective of these anthologies is to make people admire Singapore and for Singaporeans to fall in love with the country all over again. The above body of works are of historical significance. Future generations will be able to learn and appreciate what was life like, what people’s aspirations were during SG50. Where does Singapore go from here?

A Clockwork Orange. The book is largely based on government control, censorship and violence. Is society a mechanical creation? The book has achieved a cult status and the protagonist, Alex, is your everyday man. Everything is written from Alex’s perspective. It claimed international acclaim when Stanley Kubrick produced the film in 1971. Essentially, the first half of the book is about the crime and the latter half about punishment. It is also about the battle between State vs Men. The author, Anthony Burgess, invented a new language which incorporated English with Russian, French etc. Some of the young men in the film turned psychopathic and hated the way youth were blamed for everything in society. The book is largely a battle between ‘Forced Good’ vs ‘Chosen Evil’. Which is better? Personally, Anthony sided with Alex. However, he hated the plot and initially did not want it to be produced into a film. Due to its scenes of violence, the book was banned in certain countries, including Singapore. However, can literature and movies be blamed for original sin? Did this novel led to be increased number of rape scenes and crimes? The soundtrack of the play by ABA production features music from the 1960s, and certainly pieces from Beethoven. For the Singapore version of the play, slight modifications to the play in relation to homosexuality and religion had to be made. However, the essence of the storyline remains intact. One of the reason why this book is universally popular is because of the fact that some people always feel the need to act out against authority. Subconsciously, the book will trigger the audience to think of their current government and its level of control on its people. Even though films might be banned, there is always a group of people who crave censored films and will take the extra effort to try and watch it. The crew admitted that their close bonding really helped when having to deliver such a physically demanding play.

The Adopted: Writing Creatively Within Restrictions. This was a collaborative project with 5 different Singaporean writers. Should writers not talk about their work and let the work speak for themselves? In generally, writers like pain and suffering as they see it as a form to make the soul grow. The 5 writers went on a trip to Siam Reap, Cambodia in order to embark on this project. They had set a certain structure on how to go about writing the stories. For instance, there was a fixed theme for each day. They were supposed to draw inspiration from their environment for the stories. Every story had to have this common character. The traits of the common character were that he was passive aggressive, indecisive, introverted in nature etc. Themes like the subconscious, ‘reality vs dreams’ emerged in the stories. Other themes include the meaning of fate, self-will, the idea of loss and how to deal with grieve, what it means to be human etc. It is important to be observant on your surroundings. When you travel with someone, you will find out more about their quirks and behaviors. The stories were arranged in an order that mimicked a western symphony in the sense that there were 4 movements. There are also elements of surrealism in the book. The stories were written in an ambivalent nature so that the reader can interpret the plot in different ways. In this way, it gets the reader thinking. Some of the stories are left unresolved because life is essentially open-ended and you have to make your own ending. Nothing on earth is truly resolved and similar to the Singapore Identity, it is an act of ‘becoming’. There is certainly truth and wisdom to be learnt from reading fiction.