SWF 2018 : the experience of

Singapore Writers Festival : nine days of unplanned but full-on immersion.

Buy a Festival Pass, collect a Programme (150 pages or so) and go whither whim dictates.

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Singapore Writers Festival

Some events are free; the Pass gets you admission into others and a few are ticketed. This year’s theme, enfolding discourse, performance and exchange ?

The World(s) We Live In.

Also, in SWF this year : people you never see in the same space on a routine day in Singapore:

… writers, artists, doctors, poets and pilgrim poets, engineers, musicians, budding authors, Oxford professors, journalists, bankers, film makers, linguists and students, storytellers, cartoonists, illustrators, educators, curators of museums, rappers, composers and conductors, playwrights and the media, historians and translators, researchers, editors and television presenters, teachers, lyricists and songwriters, psychotherapists, movers and shakers, neophytes and wannabees, activists, performers and publishers, humourists and essayers, a proud dominatrix-wrestler-MMA coach-soapmaker, a Man Booker Prize winner and a satirist with global book sales of over 10 million, TEDx speakers, lawyers, architect-authors …

Perhaps the most significant, reassuring takeaway from this Festival – apart from a brain and heart abuzz with thoughts and possibilities – was the quotidian representation of people who look the same and yet are not. Specifically, gender representation in performers (and performances), moderators, writers and poets; in oral performances and readings.

Diversity and inclusion, gender parity, so apparently normal as to seem unremarkable.

Which, in today’s world, it most certainly is not.

Venues around the Arts House, co-opted for the Festival, opened up spaces both historically intriguing and architecturally compelling; soaring, transformative, gracious, lovingly restored, infused with crepuscular shadows of affairs past.

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Arts House at the Old Parliament
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Victoria Concert Hall

Love, Death and Family Life : Postcards from David Sedaris was a sold-out, ebullient hour of satire and sardonic wit; and for me personally, listening to an author read from books I have devoured for years – my exemplar of theatre-of-the-absurd – was a return to recollected moments of happy immersion in the pages of another’s absurd life.

Engendering Change explored the notion of a gender equal society. Poetry was read and poetry was performed; experiences were shared by a panel of artists, heterosexual, homosexual and trans – which challenged, shocked, amused and conjured. It was a obligation to listen without judgement, to accept that all voices have equal spaces, and to acknowledge that while you have the right to be offended (as some in the audience were) and/or question, you did not have the right of censure.

One poem (from a volume of trans-genre poetry exploring symbols in the occult and religion) re-interpreted, viscerally and vividly, the understanding of a certain tenet of Christianity, beloved and sacred to the Christians, and when a member of the audience demanded an answer to her (simply translated) question isn’t this offensive to God ? the poet had the perfect reply. Whose God ?

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Living in Chains

Living in Chains : Beyond Taboos was an impulse, a last-minute decision: the screening of a short documentary by student filmmakers from the Nanyang Technological University. Shot on location in Indonesia, it was a harrowing account of the continuing practice of pasung (though banned, officially) of physically restraining/confining people considered mentally ill.

An unbelievably simple, shocking film.

Of people in shackles, damned and forgotten for years, decades. In the most hellish of conditions.

Screenshot 2018-11-17 at 11.56.01 AM.pngThere are no government subsidies, policies, aid or guidelines for mental health care, and according to a Human Rights Watch report, about 18,000 people live in chains or cells across Indonesia. Families, especially the poorer inhabitants of towns and villages, who are unable to deal with or take care of their ‘mentally ill’, hand them over to traditional healers; ridding themselves of the problem and the responsibility. (Education and economic affluence do not seem to inform decisions to jettison humans into this hell on earth).

The filmmakers, in a Q & A session took no sides in their documentation of stigma and Screenshot 2018-11-17 at 11.57.56 AMcultural beliefs : We realized that we needed to give them (traditional healers who took in the mentally ill) a voice, and we believe that the problem doesn’t just lie with them, it’s the whole system, culture, infrastructure and economic situation.

Suffice to say, the film has won awards, changed the lives of the student filmmakers, attracted the attention of at least one organisation in Singapore and has gone beyond film-making into activism and change. Money has, and is being raised to build ONE facility with separate homes for men and women, offering basic sanitary conditions, food and care, in the belief that ONE example which proves that humane living conditions (instead of cells, chains and no sanitation) coupled with opportunities for the ‘patients’ to be productively engaged – gardening, painting, craft … can, in many cases, return them to their families and a life where they can live as human beings, with dignity and with themselves. This, it is hoped, will influence governments, investors, philanthropists and donors (especially banks in the Middle East) to consider supporting the needs of mental health care in Indonesia.

The film was deeply disturbing. I speak Bahasa Indonesia and could easily follow the dialogues on screen; no sub-titles required. I was transported decades back to the ethos and vernacular of a rural Indonesia which I experienced in my travels through Java, Surabaya, Bali, Lombok, Sumatra and Kalimantan.

On another, deeper and agonizing level, I understood something my father once said to me. He died of dementia, but we didn’t recognize the onset of the disease. At some level, he understood his erratic moods were tearing the family up and just once he confided, I am a sick man.

If you are, I asked, why won’t you let us take you to see a doctor ?

I don’t want to be locked up, he replied.

I didn’t understand then. I do now. This is how mental health patients were/are treated.

And not just in Indonesia.

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Why Stories Matter

Why Stories Matter was a relief after the film, a happy session with young kids who were taken through the process of writing a story where they created a hero, a villain, a plot, a climax and a satisfyingly savage narrative to warm the cockles of the most dastardly heart.

It helped me organise my thoughts for my upcoming workshops for a literary festival in India; it also made me wonder why kids, prone on beanbags, participated so much more enthusiastically and spontaneously than those upright in chairs.

Note to self : request beanbags and cushions. Lose the chairs.

Mid-Autumn Musings, a book launch by Aruna Shahani was a tender immersion into the soft-spoken world of a poet’s thoughts and inspirations; of how the practice of medicine (the poet is a researcher-pathologist) can be decoded into pastel word pictures.

Grit within the Pages was spoken words, poetry and memoir musings.

Interestingly, the American and the Australian were more candid – in language and detail – about their life experiences: homelessness, gender transition, mental illness, living in forts in the woods, cardboard boxes on the streets of Toronto, high-rise flats in London and gym sofas and penthouse suites in Singapore.

The Singaporean panelist was guarded, answered questions with questions and carefully articulated responses. A poet, said her bio. Took that at face value.

What does Literature teach us about Medicine ? promised more than it delivered (or perhaps I expected more ?) : how can art and culture contribute to our understanding of health and sickness ? Power point presentations for the large part, a cataloguing of medieval English charms, how to approach end-of-life conversations and how do/should doctors speak to patients.

This session, more than most, underlined the disjunction between left-brain right-brain approaches.

In a Festival suffused with words and ideas, interpretation trumps the conventional. Every time.

Do Words Heal, and are they Enough ? A fascinating hour listening to personal experiences; three authors articulating how they came to terms with illnesses and death in words, through the act of writing. Spanning a diagnosis of bi-polar disorder, death by cancer, schizophrenia, SARS.Screenshot 2018-11-17 at 11.49.28 AM.png

The verdict ? Writing does not heal, but it brings understanding. Time, process and the introduction of the work to families and the wider public brings the healing, in stages.

Mahita Vas, I salute your strength and humour in speaking from the heart, laying yourself bare.

The Power of Fonts and Type was a focused and not very exciting exposition of fonts, types and layout.

Naturally, it was targeted at a specific interest group … and perhaps a recently published author who worked with two of the designers on the panel, debating the very question for hours, months – even years.

Keeping her Bubble Up! was the launch of a 13 year old’s debut novel and I was impressed by her ideas, her articulation (written and spoken) and the ability to translate this into a book (the excerpts were impressive) which she illustrated as well.

I have not read the book, but continue to reflect on how young people today are socially conscious and motivated enough to express their beliefs through art (in addition to whatever else is going on in a thirteen-year-old’s life. One would imagine keeping up – peers, school work, social media et al – is time consuming enough).

But at thirteen though ?

Screenshot 2018-11-17 at 11.47.52 AMPlaying with Form and Genre Expectations in Fiction : Jonas Hassen Khemiri was a small group session conducted by a lean, lanky, long-haired Swede who kept the participants engrossed with his poker-faced wit and stream of consciousness narration of incidences in his life; happenings that impacted and influenced the course of his journey as a writer.

Interestingly, his article on immigrant identity An Open Letter to Beatrice Ask, the ‘most linked text in Swedish history’ is well worth the read. In it, he suggests to the Minister of Justice (at the time) that she swap bodies with him for a short while, to shift perspective and understand exactly what it was like to be a perceived  immigrant in Sweden.

A powerful essay.

Belonging Somewhere and Nowhere featured a dour Welsh poet-Oxford don with deadpan humour, a Singaporean author and a Man Booker Prize winner (Indian-American) discussing how one asserted one’s personal / national / artistic identity when influences and ideas transcend geography, and are so easily transmitted across social media and digital platforms.

Nothing compelling, but interesting viewpoints.

For Better or Worse ; the World in 2068 – was an unrestrained exchange of ideas, predictions, challenges, gloom and doom forecasts, cautionary exhortations, climate change, artificial intelligence and technological trends – and of course, politics.

It was battering and sometimes humorous; a rapid fire barter of challenges, responses and explications.

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SWF Performance

Fear and Trembling : 20 Years of the Bluest Silence featured singer-songwriter Kelvin Tan performing all 9 tracks of his cult classic album, inspired (but not exclusively) by T.S.Eliot, Samuel Beckett, W.B. Yeats, Nick Drake, Tim Buckley, Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

The performance was passionate, mawkish and lachrymose, and exhausting to listen to. The man was a treat, honest as they come, tersely brief or tersely detailed in his responses; what you see is what you get. An artist, true and fervent, with 143 albums to his credit.

Staying Relevant in the Age of Artificial Intelligence began with the concept of Singularity,

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Image borrowed from Steemit.com

the hypothesis that the invention of artificial superintelligence will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization (Wiki).

In the process one learned the differences between AGI, (artificial general intelligence), ASI (artificial superintelligence), ANI (artifical narrow intelligence) and HLAI (human level artificial intelligence) along with the sobering realisation that while algorithms will rule parts of our lives going forward, the ethics and extent of their mandate can be firmly constrained by governance and morality in application.

The very next day, I happened to come across an article explaining AI with a flow chart drawn on the back of an envelope. It made it all much easier to grasp.

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From the MIT Technology Review, by Karen Hao
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The Inheritance of Loss

Place and Displacement : Finding Oneself in 2018 : Kiran Desai : an evocative exploration of her role as a writer in the increasing polarisation of current affairs, global and national – not just in culture and identity – and the backlash faced by immigrants. This winner of the Man Booker Prize  explored – poignantly – the intersections of the personal and national and the past and the present.

The crowd was deeply appreciative and empathetic, notwithstanding one member who suggested she re-write her prize-winning book to be more inclusive of the minorities who inhabit some sections of her novel.

And last, but not least, an innovative way to connect. Landmark Books sought to publicise their effort Food Republic : A Literary Anthology through kacang and paper cones.

Seeking submissions on all things gastronomic – lore, preparation, consumption, sociology, politics and/or dreams of food in poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction and translations – they set up a little adda* on the lawn, beneath the tent, distributing varieties of kacang* – fried, roasted, spicy, coated with sugar; various nuts and bits of savoury – redolent of times past and recalling memories of school days and movie screenings.

Can’t wait for SWF 2019 !

*kacang – Malay for peanut, but colloquially used to refer to snacks made up of nuts of all kinds.

*The word adda was incorporated into the Oxford English Dictionary in 2004 and in Hindi refers to informal gatherings/conversation suggesting intellectual exchange among its members. It traces its origin to the Hindi word which refers to a perch for tame birds.

 

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