The current state of literary arts in Singapore

The Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) has become much bigger since it was first conceived back in 1986. Just last year, it saw roughly 19,700 people checking out the festival, the most in its history, proving that Singaporeans do care for literature. SWF continues to grow, with this year’s edition seeing more than 140 programs ranging from talks and workshops to live performances and film screenings.

Poet and Straits Times contributor Yeow Kai Chai is currently at the helm of SWF. He has also authored widely published poetry collections like Secret Manta (2001) and Pretend I’m Not Here (2006), and also serves as the editor of Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. With the festival starting today, we speak to him to hear his thoughts on Singapore’s literary scene, challenges he’s faced in curating the line-up and Bob Dylan’s big Nobel Prize win.

How did you go about selecting writers and artists for year’s edition of SWF?
We look for a sense of mission, a fresh perspective, a new way of approaching. We feel that the Festival needs to connect to the issues of the day, and that’s why we have invited speakers who have a different take on them.These include the German journalist who broke the news on the Panama Papers, Frederik Obermaier; the broadcast journalist who has covered the Middle East, Atia Abawi; as well as video essayist The Nerdwriter aka Evan Puschak who produces very watchable and perceptive clips critiquing film, poetry and even the speech patterns of the Donald Trump.

What were the special challenges this year?
Naturally, the main challenge was to clinch the established writers, whom everyone wants. Good word-of-mouth, via international authors, has helped convinced some of them to come to our festival. Another challenge is to re-wire Singaporeans’ mindset about what a writers’ festival could be—it’s not just a bunch of writers sitting together and shooting the breeze. We look at other art forms such as theater, music, visual arts and dance, and see how they can inspire our writers to think outside the box.

As the director of a major state-sponsored writers festival, and as a writer yourself, what’s your take on the relationship between the government and artists/writers in Singapore?
I’m all for dialogue and communication. When I write, I write for myself, and for people who are willing to listen. As the director of the SWF, I understand this is not a zero-sum situation, and there has to be constant negotiation. I’m an optimist, or maybe a masochist. I tend to look at the bright side of things, believe in the goodness of people, and hope that the scene would become more inclusive and embracing. 

How has the local literature scene evolved over the past few decades?
It’s become more vibrant, even if, strangely, fewer people are taking up literature in school. Where before you had to be anointed by a few academics in the ivory tower to be considered a worthy writer, now the Internet has liberated and empowered many. There are so many grounds-up efforts, with young people holding sessions in cafes, spouting lyrical lines on the MRT, or having their words appear on rain-washed pavements. Perversely, it’s easier now to get published. But I think criticism has yet to catch up, and that’s why at the Festival this year, we are inviting Professor Marjorie Perloff, the doyenne of literary criticism, and hopefully, more people here would want to be literary critics after listening to her.

Lee Kuan Yew once said, “Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford”. What do you think the function of poetry is in Singapore today, as compared to before?
Poetry doesn’t have to have a “function”. It’s the same as before. It soothes the soul, it energizes, it questions. 

What are your thoughts on Bob Dylan winning this year’s Nobel Prize for literature?
I was surprised at first that he won, but he certainly deserves it, 100 per cent. If you look at his oeuvre, album by album, and how each spoke to a particular generation, his impact is indisputable and universal, and far exceeds that of some past winners who are only really known within a particular linguistic milieu. As someone who feels there shouldn’t be any division between art forms, and that quality should be the only barometer, literature is essentially a body of words, no matter its vessel.

One of the featured writers at this year’s SWF is American author Lionel Shriver. Her speech about cultural appropriation at the Brisbane Writers Festival last September has caused quite the controversy. What’s your own rulebook like when it comes to cultural appropriation?
Honestly, concepts of “rulebook” and “cultural appropriation” were alien to me, and I had to Google a lot to figure out what the fuss is about. Perhaps, we may all be guilty of it at one point or another. I just wish to do justice to whatever character I invoke, and hope that it’s rendered fairly and believably.

There are many big international names on the bill this year, but do you feel that Singaporean writers can also command the same kind of respect at other festivals around the world?
Yes, Singaporean writers can command the same kind of respect at other festivals, and some of them already do. The more one travels to other literary festivals, the more one realizes it’s a matter of exposure and seasoning. Of course, they have yet to win a Man Booker Prize or a major international literary prize, but it’s a matter of time.

Lasalle College of the Arts will be rolling out Singapore and Southeast Asia’s first master’s degree in Creative Writing. What are your thoughts, and how do you think this might this change the game for the literature scene, both locally and in the region?
Overall, it’s good to have more avenues for writers to hone their skills. Still, it is early days to say whether it’s a game-changer. There are those who benefit from a more structured learning experience, and then there are those writers who are better left alone, marinating ideas without external influence. To each his or her own, really.