Casting the literary net wide

Migrating online, the Singapore Writers Festival can now be accessed from anywhere in the world.

Helmi Yusof
Published Thu, Oct 8, 2020 · 09:50 PM

FOR the first time in its history, the Singapore Writers Festival is not bound by its geographical namesake. At a low ticket price of S$20, you can access most of its virtual events from anywhere in the world.

These include live talks by Booker Prize nominee Zadie Smith, science fiction superstar Liu Cixin, acclaimed cartoonist Art Spiegelman, Pulitzer-winning poets Sharon Olds and Tracy K Smith, and other accomplished writers.

Talks aside, there are also stories and poems that are leaping off the page and into the virtual firmament: The speculative fiction of Victor Fernando R Ocampo is recast as a choose-your-own-adventure experience taking place entirely over email. A mystery tale by Hassan Hasaa'ree Ali is imagined as an Augmented Reality show on your mobile phone. A festival radio station will broadcast literary readings every night.

Running from Oct 30 to Nov 8, the Singapore Writers Festival 2020 has become a fully virtual affair.

Festival director Pooja Nansi says: "Social distancing is the antithesis of what a festival is - which is coming together. And technology was really the best solution for the problem. Sure, there is a lot of groaning about this being digitised and that being digitised. But technology is the only thing that's allowing us to be close to the people we love but can't be with. So we've harnessed it to reconceptualise the festival."

Ms Nansi is an acclaimed poet who last year took over the festival reins from another poet Yeow Kai Chai. She has centred this year's festival around the theme of "intimacy", which she thinks has never been more pertinent.

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"There was so much conversation about social distancing, isolation and mental health that, to me, the big question is, how do we experience human connection or intimacy when social distancing and quarantines are the norm? And, as with any good festival theme, there's always the flip side of that too."

Ms Nansi, her team and the National Arts Council decided on a single festival pass that gives access to most of the events. In the past, talks by marquee writers would be ticketed separately. This time round, the single festival pass allows entry into every virtual room on Sistic Live.

"We were all just mindful that it's a difficult year for everyone, not just socially and psychologically, but financially as well. So we wanted to keep the festival accessible and reach out to everyone."

Under Ms Nansi, the festival has been especially effective in addressing so-called contentious topics. Last year's festival tackled sensitive but relevant issues, such as #MeToo, LGBT rights, racial discrimination and fat-shaming, which previous festival directors mostly stayed away from.

Ms Nansi told The Business Times then: "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."

This year's festival has its share of au courant topics such as climate change and social justice, as well as esoteric ones such as feminism in ancient Tamil literature, eroticism in Malay stories and the art of writing Korean horror.

A substantial portion of the programme also focuses on the impact on the coronavirus on our lives today. The festival slate is peppered with titles such Travel Writing In The Time Of Quarantine, The Pandemic & Singaporean Chinese Literature and A Strange Time To Be Alive, a reflection by writers on the year of crises and chaos that is 2020.

But though Ms Nansi and her team have successfully overcome the current challenges by pivoting online, Ms Nansi hopes - as all of us do - that the pandemic will go away soon.

She says in half-jest: "I'm so sick of thinking about the coronavirus, aren't you? Everything is just Covid, Covid, Covid. I think 2020 is one of those years that we will always be talking about. It's definitively changed the way we interact . . ."

"But I wish it would go away so we can have a physical festival again, meet in the festival tent, grab a drink, browse books at the bookstore, and discuss with each other whose opinions we agreed with or didn't."


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