Singapore Writers Festival 2015 (Part 4)

For part 3, click here.

Bright Lights, Dark Cities. Most of the panelists write about dark and gory plots. Life is like an arcade. Is life meaningless without a plan? There is indeed a dark side to Tokyo. There are spates of crime and the problem of income inequality. That is what makes cities intriguing. There are commonalties between Tagalog and Malay. However, the Filipino movies appear to have better plots than the Malay ones. Is Singapore really a restrictive place? Things appear to have changed somehow. Troy Chin is a comic artist who likes to ask the question ‘Why we are what we are?’ He is curious about mankind and Singaporeans in particular. He writes in order to bring out the ‘rawness’ in human beings. Some of his books have such a theme. The problems with cities is that it is possible to feel lonely even though there are millions of people in the city. Human companionship is about connection and not the number of people around you. Some of the books have the theme of ‘searching for their own place in the city’. It might not so appealing to live in a city after all. Most foreigners are intrigued by life in Japan. There are two ways to express yourself in Japan. You can either be polite and respectful or brutally honest. Singapore is a large melting pot of cultures and establishing a true identity might take a little more time. Do books need to have a resolution? Or is a book just supposed to describe a stream of consciousness? Some authors feel that characters are an alter-ego. Prostitution and stealing things were humans’ first jobs on Earth. Hence, it is interesting to write about them. Can you escape your fate? Are people in KL all aggressive? Sometimes, ordinary people can be driven to do extraordinary bad things. There was a story of cannibals eating loan sharks. Technology is causing us to lose that human-to-human interaction and this could be a problem in future. Would people become even lonelier?

Tweet for Change. Egyptians used social media during the uprising of their current president. It was certainly powerful and moving. Does social media influence the narrative and what people think? How does social media and traditional media compete for people’s attention? The aim of social media might not to go viral, but it could be just to raise genuine attention for a cause. It is important to be engaged with your audience. There are so many platforms of social media that one can use nowadays. It is important to choose the right one. One of the authors used WordPress to write about mental illnesses. If you are a blogger, it is important to blog consistently and ensure that your posts have a good following. Timing of release of posts are also important. Can social media create real change? The amount of time that should be spent on the ground should not be neglected. Do not forget to do the real work as well. Even if you use social media, nothing beats face-to-face connections and developing genuine offline relationships. For the authors, creating a blog and then writing a book was an organic process. There is this argument that a # is not a movement and that it takes real action to create change. Should social media be measured based on whether it can be translated into action? Sometimes, even if direct action may not be created, it is still important to create awareness among the public. Some people criticize young people for being keyboard ‘activists’. Sustained social media interaction is necessary to create impact. Nowadays, it is possible to raise money via crowd-funding projects. The benefits of blogs is that it can reach out to more people in a swift manner. Also, the posts are more time sensitive and you can elicit feedback via the comments section instantly. There are actually some trolls that are paid to talk nonsense and flame bloggers. Such comments might actually have the effect of forcing the blogger to adjust their writing style etc. Different social media platforms should be used for different purposes. The whole idea of using social media is that it is more horizontal and decentralized in nature. Therefore, it is possible to reach out to more diverse groups of people as compared to traditional media. However, social media can become dangerous when what is popular becomes the new narrative. Also, the problem of cyber bullying and hiding using anonymity might become more prevalent. One should not spend too much time on social media or treat social media as their form of obtaining news. The modern generation of people have a short attention span and usually can’t read beyond 1000 words per article. As an author, you are only as good as your last article. Twitter is not popular at all in Hong Kong. Social media in good in the sense that it can offer alternative viewpoints that traditional media can’t

International Criminal Minds. Often, murderers try to be perfect, but they are not. Is it possible to plan a perfect murder and get away with it? It might be. However, humans are not infallible and people might accidentally reveal their plan to others, thus foiling it. The easiest way to get away with it is when you have no connection at all to the victim and leave no clues at the murder scene. Nowadays, in modern cities, CCTV and smartphones are prevalent. It is difficult to get away with crimes. One of the speakers was Japanese writer, Fuminori Nakamura. Murderers often act against the victims whom they already know. Some suffer from irreparable damage from people that they know or claim to know. There is always this debate about what is good, what is bad etc. At times, the divide can be very fine indeed. It is common for drunk people to act in more violent ways than usual. It is usually quite difficult to catch lone wolves. Crime novelists are usually interested to find out what people’s motivations are and what causes them to commit crimes. Sometimes, the trigger might not even be a very big or significant event. Should novels end off with a sense of hope? Crime fiction is all about trying to solve mysteries and puzzles. In this way, it parallels life as there are always problems to be solved. Often, we find those around us mysterious and want to get down to the root of the problem etc. Essentially, we are trying to solve the puzzles of other people. Crime is becoming a more popular genre in fiction. Crime could be also seen as a mirror to society. Some books try to ‘glorify’ or celebrate violence in order to get readers hooked onto the plot. There are many aspects to crime and murder is just one of them. ‘Gone Girl’ has sold really well and it is a psychological thriller. Not all crimes are of the stereotypical type where a young female victim gets raped. Japanese Manga tends to feature more violence, for instance, the ‘Dragonball’ series. However, the writers do that because they intend to bring the dead back to life. University murders are often a plot used by British crime fiction authors. The problem is that when people disagree, things start to happen. Countryside crimes are very common. For beginning authors, it is important to write what you already know and with what you are familiar with. Learn to emulate the best authors at the start of your writing career. To draw readers, hook them with the impossible. Learn to find the right person if you are trying to conduct research. If you observe others, you will realize that people like to talk about their own experiences and expertise. People like talking about themselves.

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. The panelist examined celebrities. What was fame like in the 19th century? Alfred Wallace was a biologist who competed with Charles Darwin. Apparently, they had similar research but only Darwin was renowned with the theory of evolution as he published first. Avi Sirlin wrote about Alfred Wallace in his book and how under-rated he was. During their time, if you revealed ground-breaking research which wasn’t accepted by religion, there would be an uproar. Therefore, scientists need to play their cards carefully. There was always this debate of Science vs Religion. Is life in the Science community about trying to become famous and claim credit/discredit your competitors? Some of the famous starts in the 1950s included Jim Morrison, David Bowie, Elvis Presley etc. They, unlike the scientific community, are good looking people. Looks matter greatly in the entertainment industry. The pop culture emerged because teenagers were empowered and there was this globalization of the entertainment industry. Therefore, popularity in the scientific vs music industry is completely different. Luck matters as well. The advent of the Internet and modern technology has certainly helped entertainers to flourish. However, does it also present too much competition? If anyone can sing and record themselves on YouTube, would there be too low barriers to entry? Do successful musicians still require a producer, director etc? Even politicians like Tony Blair and David Cameron were appealing in terms of their looks. Do looks matter in politics? The new Canadian PM certainly fits that category too. Modern society is becoming more visual and reliant on looks. Given the power of the press, it is essential to be on good terms with the media as any negative coverage might just kill off your career. There is an increasing shift of traditional Western dominance of pop culture to the East. People are becoming more exposed to music in Japan, China etc. China is a dominant market which cannot be overlooked at all. Will we see media personalities entering politics in future, given their good looks and popularity to begin with?

It’s Nature’s Way of Telling You. Rob Cowen wrote a book titled ‘The Common Ground’. It was about his experience living in a house in the hedge land in a countryside in England. Since young, he has been fascinated with nature and its relation with humans. Nature always brings new perspectives. One has to be observant and watch the details. There was a point in his life where he was repulsed by the human world, economic recessions and all. He felt that humans were living in their fake and virtual world which was surrounded by concrete structures. In the hedge land he was in, there was untapped natural beauty, with many bird and animal history. There is certainly a rich tapestry on disused land. Throughout his stay in the house, he took down field-notes, which eventually became material for his book. Being in touch with nature allows you to be in touch with the past and the future. It might even allow you to find answers for why are you placed on this Earth. One can find a profound sense of identity by living with nature. Humans did not have to evolve and grow to like nature. It is sad that some people in modern society have lost touch with nature and are simply too busy to even care. It is important for the human soul to be attached to a place/location which they can always return to. Hunting for your own food can be a therapeutic and out-of-body experience. While technology is useful, do not be over-reliant on it. In Japan, taking a bath in the forest can be a way to heal mental illnesses. One should learn to be mindful of their surroundings. Green spaces like ‘The Green Corridor’ offer much for people to admire. However, Singaporeans need to lobby and campaign for such places to be preserved. Man-made and curated beauty cannot compare with pure natural beauty. Nature is indifferent to humans and it can rear its ugly head too. Humans and nature are inter-wined into one common entity. We are inseparable.



Singapore Writers Festival 2015 (Part 3)

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.


Singapore Writers Festival 2015 (Part 1)

Humor as a mirror to society. Humor is all about seeing things from different perspectives and questioning the normal state of affairs. One should keep asking questions to push boundaries and to challenge assumptions. Learn to see how far one can push a joke till it becomes offensive or distasteful. Humor is in essence learning how to process what people say and then push it back to them. It should be relatable to the audience. The panelist felt that the humor that they produce and what is currently available in Singapore is generally indicative of Singapore society. It is a skill to laugh at yourself when you are stuck in a difficult situation. In Singapore, humor that people find attractive is usually of the slapstick sort, where puns and wordplay are being employed. For instance, ‘Tampines’ was mis-spelt as ‘Tampenis’ during the recent train breakdown incident. There are various forms of humor, one of which is observational humor. For stand-up humor, one needs to constantly re-invent new material. In Singapore, political humor shouldn’t be pushed over the line and direct references should not be made to the current set of leaders. Humor, is in essence, about saying things obliquely. One should stick to the ‘OB’ markers and stay clear of commenting unfavorably about someone else’s religion. It is important not to take a joke too far and cross the line. Sometimes, humor can be employed to bring to light certain important social issues. Although it may not pay well, one should believe in one’s work and be passionate about it.

The Future of Work. Technology disruptions like social media etc have changed the way people do business. They will continue to happen in the future. How should people react to this? Students should learn to think innovatively and solve problems in society. In modern times, there is an advent of digital work and the heavy reliance of software. Creativity is becoming something which is highly valued. There is increasing competition for talent in the global marketplace. One should read about Reid Hoffman’s LinkedIn. Is there a trend of ‘3 year tours’ instead of sticking to a single career role all your life? Skillsfuture emphasizes on the fact that there are multiple paths to success. Some types of menial jobs might be deemed unnecessary in future due to improving technology. However, work should be seen as solving the world’s ‘pain points’. There will always be problems in the world which need solving. As long as you can meet a need in society, you will be employed. It is crucial to practice self-reflection and ask questions like ‘What do you deeply care about?’; ‘Who are you?’; ‘What is your role on Earth?’ Learn to be a ‘fuller’ you. Do not externalize responsibility and claim all the credit when things go well. Simon Sinek realized that most people view work from ‘outside in’ and start with asking ‘what’ first, before the ‘why’ and ‘how’. He proposes that we should view work in reverse and go from ‘inside out’. It requires a great amount of time to master something. Technology cannot change who you are. In modern society, rigour and mastery can be generated from play too. Is technology making us less human? It is still important to study the humanities and understand what it takes for us to be more human. It is important for employees to recognize their job responsibilities (not just their work description) before they can demand their workers’ rights. Be proactive about your learning. Do not simply let your identity be inextricably linked to your job description. You are much more than that. Thinking about mortality can give you clarity and make you more aware of what is truly important in life.

Asian Speculative Fiction: Has our time arrived? SF was new in Asia in the 1970s and there weren’t many SF writers at that time. Asian writers have a tag over their heads which white writers do not have. Writers of Asian descent are supposedly to write a certain type of story, which should be set in a certain setting etc. It is difficult for an Asian writer to write completely with no Asian elements in the book. Should the characters in your book be imbued with Asian values etc. The author’s intent of how they intend their works to be read is irrelevant. What’s important is how readers unpack the work, view it through their own lenses and then re-package and interpret them. As a result, readers can often interpret the work differently from how the author set it out to be. All authors will have their influences from the past. Asian writers are valued if they write in autobiographical style. They are also lauded if they can insert certain Asian elements in the book. Translation of English works into Chinese and Japanese can be tricky. Translators play a huge role in not just translating, but sometimes, interpreting the works. Certain languages like Chinese have nuances which may not easily translated to English. Translators who are required to ‘re-interpret’ works are known as heroic translations. SF is basically not a new genre to the East as the Chinese often wrote about mythical creatures in the past. The view of the Chinese scholars could be that Chinese culture is backward etc. It remains a challenge for Asian writers to play two hats, how to write for the American audience and the post-colonial audience.

Power to the People. Philanthropy can create its own set of problems. Your background is important as it shapes your worldview. Sometimes, one needs not consciously of wanting to do good for the community. The feeling can be unconscious as well. How do we foster good? Instead of asking ‘what needs to be done?’; ask ‘who you are?’ If you are surer of your identity and what your purpose on Earth is, then more active citizenry will emerge. It is not advisable to put too much pressure on your current students. It is important for people to see themselves as part of the global solution. Do not see yourself as part of the elite group of countries and think that is beneath you to help others from developing countries. Children really need to laugh and celebrate more. It is unwise to have big dreams like changing the world etc. Learn to start small. Singapore is a capitalist country and there are too many social stereotypes and labelling that is going on. We value materialism and have we truly given up on the colonial mindset? It is worthwhile to think carefully of how much time you want to spend on a certain goal in life? Look at life in terms of ‘pockets of time’. Is giving purely altruistic? If you want to give, spend some time to understand the beneficiary well so that you will able to better contribute. It is true that people are busy but it is all about time management. Work should always aim to solve the world’s problems. If your work is about solving pain points already, then you are in essence already ‘volunteering your time’. Do not advocate this idea of working very hard to earn money and then to give it away when you retire. Giving should happen in the present. Social enterprises should have a social mission, while yet staying commercially viable. If you give people a cause, they will most likely volunteer and use their time to help others. Volunteering should be linked to a core purpose. If you want to influence people, it is important that you lead by example and do not remain cynical, contemptuous. Once you turn cynical, others will see that you have lost hope in them and that will be the end of social change which you tried fighting for. Political education should be emphasized as this will have an impact of youth volunteering in future.

Female Power, Deconstructed. Should the author’s persona be completely detached from their work? Is there a need to understand the author’s background to see how his/her background has shaped their writing? The author’s work should stand on their own. Is it important how an author finds their voice? An author should not lose their childhood wonder as creativity usually stems when you question long-held assumptions. You can draw inspirations from different mediums for your work. Do you require a purpose when you write? Or do you simply let the story flow? The modern world is arranged in a disadvantageous way for women and children. There has been a gradual shift of personal power. There is an issue of power vs fragility. Can they co-exist in a character? Is it okay to appear vulnerable and weak? Do fragile person receive more attention? All characters in a book should have compelling problems which require some form of solving. They should not simply be likeable.

Final Programme Booklet Cover