It was another busy Friday evening in Singapore. Rush hour had commenced, and others were out for a night in the city. In The Arts House (the Old Parliament House), the line snaked and the crowd buzzed. Young and young at heart anxiously gathered for the launch of the annual Singapore Writers Festival (SWF). This year, with the theme Plot Twist, SWF sought different approaches and unexpected outcomes.
Spanning 10 days, the festival aimed to celebrate people who have impacted the Singapore literary scene and create events for writers, readers and fans of the written and spoken word. There were debates and discussions, workshops, talks, book launches, and performances.
The festival started with a bang on Nov 17, 2023, with the Festival Opening Debate: This House Believes AI is the Better Writer. The resplendent Victoria Theatre was packed to the rafters with the kind of audience performers dream of. There was pin-drop silence as people leaned in to catch every word, nuance, hair flick and cheeky smile.
Moderator Shamini Flint (Malaysian author of the famous Inspector Singh series) had the crowd in stitches with her wit and charm. Her banter with the speakers was candid and natural and you would almost think they had been buddies from schooldays.
The proposition team decided to have ChatGPT as one of the speakers in the form of a laptop PC. Offstage typing in the prompts for ChatGPT was writer and poet Joshua Ip.
The debate was titillating because of the eloquence of the speakers, their genius, creativity and wit. Who won the debate? In a theatre full of writers, editors, publishers and readers, it was always going to be the opposition. Voted the best speaker of the night was Melizarani T. Selva with her swagger, punctuated points and mesmerising performance, which no AI would ever be able to replicate.
The festival had interesting workshops like Tools for Writing Fiction – From a Journalist’s Perspective by CNBC International multimedia journalist, and playwright Nessa Anwar. She shared her research experiences for video and text stories. The session was short and simplified for non-journalists to appreciate the importance of research and fact-checking to make fiction more believable and plausible.
Another good workshop was Vintage Vignettes: Writing Your Story which was conducted by writer and editor Sim Ee Waun. Although she said it was for unpublished seniors, her workshop attracted published authors and young writers, too, who learnt how to write vignettes by including details that paint a picture.
Unexpected Pairings was an interesting item on the schedule because you never knew who or what you were going to get when you lined up to get in. Who is “Truly Asia”? was the surprise that awaited me on the first Sunday of the festival. If it sounds familiar, there is good reason. The Malaysian speakers – Melizarani and director, playwright and educator Fasyali Fadzly, explored Tourism Malaysia’s tagline. They discussed whether their homeland is truly Asia and how else the country could be marketed.
There were good conversations such as How Did I Not Notice That?!, which was held on the Youth Fringe and moderated by Sarah Mustaffa, an 18-year-old poet and Communications and Media Management student.
The session was about writing murder stories and featured Shamini; columnist/podcaster Neil Humphreys; and Jocelyn Suarez, who went from the world of nursing to become a writer, poet and editor.
They spoke about red herrings and murder mysteries. Shamini even admitted that when she starts writing, she doesn’t always know who the murderer is, preferring to let the story unfold on its own.
Bisha K. Ali, co-writer of the Black Mirror episode “Demon 79” and creator of the Disney+ series Ms. Marvel, talked about going from stand-up comedy to screenwriting in her session titled Laugh in the Face of Absurdity. She shared the hardships she endured going into stand-up, and how things took a turn for the better. While the room laughed with her, there was also the dose of reality that resonated with many writers there. She also touched on the authentic voice of characters and staying true to the characters rather than forcing their backgrounds on them.
While the topic seemed serious, the Women So Overt, They’re Covert discussion also highlighted the amount of research that goes into writing as well as characterisation. If there was a takeaway for the people in the room, it was not just woman empowerment, but also that women authors have a good sense of humour.
How was a discussion among four women authors about murder mysteries and women detectives not going to be funny when it was moderated by Shamini with her asides and quick wit?
Indonesian author Jesse Q. Sutanto (Dial A For Aunties, Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers) talked about asking her husband to lie on the floor so she could test if it were possible for her protagonist to drag a body to another location. She discovered the hard way that the answer is an emphatic “no.” Balli Kaur Jaswal (author of the internationally bestselling Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows and the recent Now You See Us) shared how she wrote her story about the foreign worker community and gave them faces and identities. Ovidia Yu talked about her mysteries set in historical Singapore and that sometimes characters are an amalgam of various people she has met. The room learnt about their creative process and pondered the differences between mysteries with male and female protagonists.
Write #LikeAGirl! held promise with filmmakers and directors Jaya Rathakrishnan and Priscilla Goh joined by South Korean film director Won-Pyung Sohn and moderated by producer/director/writer Lim Jen Nee. The speakers talked about not focusing on gender when writing because the story was their priority. Sadly, the session lost some momentum because a translator was needed for Sohn.
One letdown was the discussion titled Do We Need Memoirs in the Age of Social Media? It featured authors who had published memoirs and poetry. Unfortunately, they all advocated memoirs and didn’t seem to have enough experience with the use of social media for storytelling. The topic sounded like a very good one and kudos to the organisers for coming up with it. However, the panel selection could have been improved with younger voices who could have given a better view of the social media scene and quashed the perception that it’s only used to share food photos and gain likes. There was hardly any debate in this session because there were no social media advocates.
The festival was held in a few venues including The Arts House, Asian Civilisations Museum, National Library, and Victoria Theatre. The atmosphere at The Arts House was lively on weekends, till late at night, what with performances going on and food and beverages available. There was even a lawn area where visitors sat and relaxed.
All effort was made to include the four main languages and foreigners. Hip-hop featured prominently, as did translation work and youth events. There were book launches and signings and of course, many books for sale. However, not everything was listed on the festival’s website. For example, Meihan Boey’s book, The Enigmatic Madam Ingram, was launched at the National Library. The room should have been packed and would have been if the festival had highlighted it. There were probably other book launches that not many were aware of.
I would have liked to see a serious discussion about the role of AI in writing, as well as trends within the publishing industry.
Apart from Shamini, Melizarani and Fasyali, other Malaysian speakers included much-loved cartoonist Datuk Mohd Nor Khalid (better known as Lat), Saras Manickam, K. Balamurugan, Fabian Fom, Lee Su Kim, Shamaine Othman, Lauren Ho and Huzir Sulaiman.
The festival had a lot to offer. Some events were packed, and volunteers even had to turn latecomers away. Kudos to the organisers for a well-organised festival with a range of activities to attract writers, readers and people involved in the industry.
Cover images by Brigitte Rozario.