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"It's important to me that the festival is inclusive, empowered and socially-conscious. If people are calling this festival ‘woke’, then it’s doing its job." - Pooja Nansi

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Roxane Gay

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Min Jin Lee

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Rex Shelley

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Kaite O’Reilly

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Marlon James

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Petrina Kow

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Perang Spontan (Spontaneous Battle): A Dikir Barat x Rap Battle

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Danez Smith

SWF: Writing a new chapter 

This year's Singapore Writers Festival is the ‘wokest’ it’s ever been
Oct 18, 2019 5:50 AM

WHEN THE OUTGOING festival director of the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) introduced his successor to the media last year, he described her as “woke” – a contemporary term suggesting a cultural awareness of issues such as racism, sexism, ageism, classism and homophobia.

One year later, the new festival director Pooja Nansi has upheld the very adjective Yeow Kai Chai chose for her. The festival programmed by Ms Nansi and her team is perhaps the “wokest”, most progressive and politically-conscious edition in years. 

It’s not that previous directors didn’t do great jobs curating strong line-ups of writers. But Ms Nansi’s vision is so distinctly bold, current and personal, the festival feels like it’s been rehauled. And her selection of marquee names headlining the festival, among the hundreds of attending artists, speaks volumes about where she wants its discourse to go.

One of the festival’s biggest draws is the popular and controversial American author Roxane Gay. Ms Gay identifies as a “black queer woman”. And her bestselling books such as Bad Feminist and Hunger: A Memoir Of (My) Body examine womanhood, race, body weight, #MeToo and other issues in ways that polarise readers. Her latest book, Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, comprises first-person essays by women who have been sexually harassed, assaulted or raped. 

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Ms Nansi says: “It’s important to listen to people who have difficult things to say, even if we think we’re not ready for it, because their truths will open the door to greater understanding and respect… Through her books, Ms Gay has demonstrated a way of discussing difficult things in accessible and relatable ways.”

Another headliner is Marlon James who won the 2015 Booker Prize for his extraordinary novel A Brief History Of Seven Killings. Like Ms Gay, Mr James also identifies as black and queer, and has spoken openly about being persecuted in Jamaica for his sexuality.  

There is also the award-winning playwright Kaite O’Reilly who has a visual impairment and a degenerative spinal condition. As a disability activist, Ms O’Reilly is giving talks and workshops on how to create work that includes the presence or perspectives of the disabled.

Ms Nansi, who is an acclaimed poet and playwright in her own right, says: “It’s important to me that the festival is inclusive, empowered and socially-conscious. If people are calling this festival ‘woke’” – as people are – “then it’s doing its job.”

Writers aside, the festival also boasts several edgy performances such as Epic Spoken Word Night featuring award-winning poetry performance artist Danez Smith, Shivram Gopinath and others; as well as Perang Spontan (Spontaneous Battle): A Dikir Barat x Rap Battle which sees Malay rappers and dikir barat groups vie poetically for the last word. 

Ms Nansi, 37, says: “I guess at the end of the day, you can’t divorce the festival from the festival director. I’m an artist who didn’t come from the traditional route of creative writing programmes. I came from the poetry slam scene which was gritty and authentic. So I want this festival to have a similar vibe – a festival that is communal, alive and relevant to the ways we’re living and breathing.”

The Singapore Writers Festival 2019 runs from Nov 1 to 10 at the Civic District. For details, visit singaporewritersfestival.com. Tickets from Sistic. 


Festival highlights

1. Roxane Gay

Have you heard Roxane Gay speak yet? The quintessential American feminist and cultural critic is by turns humorous, compassionate, insightful and entertaining. She will deliver a lecture titled  Understanding Identity Through Pop Culture. She will also spend an evening chatting with fans about self-respect, womanhood, movies and other topics.

2. Min Jin Lee

In 2017, Min Jin Lee published her second novel Pachinko centred on four generations of a Korean immigrant family. It became a global bestseller and is now set to be adapted for a TV series. The Korean-American author will speak about the connection between loneliness and creativity, and the power of fiction in bridging cultures.  

3. Rex Shelley

In his novels, the late Rex Shelley (1930 - 2009) beautifully chronicled the lives of local Eurasian characters in the 1900s. On the 10th anniversary of his death, SWF is commemorating his works with a lecture, readings and panel discussions. There is also A Bigger Party Than Expected, an evening of festivities resembling a Eurasian wedding celebration in his novel.  

4. Kaite O’Reilly

What is it like to be a disabled person? And how can able-bodied people be more sensitive to the needs and emotions of the disabled? Kaite O’Reilly spent 15 years interviewing disabled people across the world to create the lecture-performance The ‘d’ Monologues. She will also conduct a workshop for writers on how to include disabled perspectives in their works. 

5. Marlon James

Man Booker Prize 2015 winner Marlon James is back in the spotlight with his series of books titled The Dark Star Trilogy, hyped as an “African Game Of Thrones”. James will deliver the festival’s opening lecture on diversity and representation in literature. He will also meet fans to talk about various issues, from classic literature to contemporary politics.

6. Festival debate

Some of Singapore’s most outspoken women including Petrina Kow, Oniatta Effendi and Ovidia Yu come together on Nov 6 to debate the motion: This house believes that men are ruining feminism. Moderated by drag queen Ashley Fifty, this is set to be a no-holds-barred debate with lots of snark and side-eye.

7. Perang Spontan (Spontaneous Battle): A Dikir Barat x Rap Battle

Tradition meets contemporary, as dikir barat (Malay-style choral singing) artists compete with hip-hop rappers in a freestyle arena on Nov 3. To win, one has to spontaneously come up with the best traditional Malay quatrain that is wittier than that of one’s rival.

8. Epic Spoken Word Night

Some of the biggest names in spoken word poetry such as Danez Smith, Theresa Lola and Shivram Gopinath assemble for Epic Spoken Word Night on Nov 9, an evening of raw and honest confessions told through rhythm and (possibly) rhyme.