Singapore has a thriving community of creatives that have been vanguards of our local culture since our independence. So in lieu of National Day and the jubilant August atmosphere, we are shining the spotlight on personalities this month in a series of celebratory profiles called The Singapore Spotlight.
When Pooja Nansi first came into the literary scene in Singapore 17 years ago, there was probably one event a month for her to attend. Today, the festival director of the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) regularly sees panels with lines snaking out of the room, a sign that the community here has been growing steadily.
“It has always surprised me that the scene is so bustling for a city so small,” Nansi said on Singapore’s literature scene. Besides events like SWF that’s set to take place in early-November later this year, Singapore literature (affectionately called SingLit) is also showing signs of a revival that reach beyond our shores.
Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye was awarded three Eisner awards and listed as a New York Times bestseller. Balli Kaur Jaswal’s third novel, Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows, was published in multiple countries in 2017, and had its film rights bought by Ridley Scott’s production house (the book was also Reese Witherspoon’s featured pick for her book club last year).
But Nansi also mused about how more work has to be done to bridge the gap between our own literary community and the wider, Singaporean audience. “I don’t think Singaporeans are not reading. I just don’t think that we’re reading SingLit per se, or that the perception that the work that comes out of Singapore is not as good as international works,” she added.
Ahead of the first SWF to be helmed by Nansi, we had a chance to chat with her on a plethora of topics ranging from the representation of minority artists in Singapore to whether or not Singlish has a place on the global stage.
Lifestyle Asia: What have you been working on recently?
Pooja Nansi: I’ve been working on a manuscript of poems centred around thinking about Mustafa Center as a metaphor for the immigrant experience in Singapore. A lot of it is also just about navigating the city as a child of immigrants. I have no idea what state it’s in, or when it’ll be ready, but that’s just something I’ve been working on. Aside from that, I also run a small festival called Other Tongues. It’s a play on mother tongues but without the ‘M’. We ran our first edition in December 2018, and we’re looking to run a second edition next year in 2020. It’s a small community-run festival for minority artists. The previous edition had about 48 artists, and it’s just conversations around what it means to be functioning as a minority artist in Singapore, and what are the conversations that we feel we need to have that we haven’t had enough of. It came out of a desire to just gather and see what is it that we’ve been asking ourselves about our own practice, or what is it that we as a community feel we can do to support each other. It’s really just a celebration of the minority voices and giving ourselves a space to explore all the things that feel urgent.
LSA: Can you help shed some insight as to how the minority art scene in Singapore is like?
PN: I don’t know if there’s one minority scene. There are just so many of us working in such diverse ways and doing very exciting things. I tend to find, as with any other scene, it’s not particular to Singapore what happens in minority representation. It just never feels quite sufficient. Even if you look at the recent brownface debacle that happened, I think we just don’t have enough conversations about what real diversity entails. Often times I think our notion of diversity is token representation, and that in itself is problematic. There’s a bunch of us who are interested in having conversations about what it means to be a minority artist in Singapore. Does it always entail the burden of representation? Because that can also be very exhausting when you are the Malay person on the panel who has to speak to the experience of all Malay people, which obviously you can’t. It’s also these nuanced questions that I think we don’t have enough conversations about.
LSA: How is our local literary scene like?
PN: It has always surprised me that the scene is so bustling for a city so small. And yet, I always feel like the reach of SingLit isn’t as large as it ought to be, which is very strange to me. I do think that the scene is healthy as we have a good level of output coming out. Everything from playwrights to novelists to poets, there’s a great spoken word scene happening. Support for writers is growing, and you have places like the Book Council and Sing Lit Station that create platforms for many young writers. When I was coming up in the scene in 2002, 2003, you might find an event a month that you can go to. Now in any given week, you can find multiple events, and sometimes multiple events on a day you have to pick from. So it’s really growing and it’s a really great scene for the city so far. I just wish it had more reach and more awareness, and I hope we were more of a reading nation.
LSA: Do you think Singaporeans appreciate the Sing Lit scene?
PN: When I go to literary events, we get really healthy audiences now. Even in previous SWF editions, I’ve been to events where I see a line coming out of the room and people going to multiple things. So it’s not like we’re struggling for audiences, but what I do notice is that you kind of see the same faces at all the events. Of course, occasionally you’ll see new faces which is always a great sign that new audiences are coming, but I think the growth is still quite slow but steady, and I’m always wondering about how SingLit can reach out to larger audiences.
LSA: How do you think Singapore can help improve the SingLit scene?
PN: I think the Arts Council has a lot of initiatives in place. The Writers Festival is one, for example. It’s considered the pinnacle literary event in Singapore, and it does reach out year-long to audiences of about 46,000. I do think the NAC is doing a bunch of things to help grow writers in the hopes that it would grow audiences. There’s another initiative called the #BuySingLit movement which encourages people to learn about what’s out there in Singaporean literature. Other smaller independent spaces are also working towards this. I know Sing Lit Station has the Sing Lit Cloud, which is a little electronic machine that prints out receipt-sized flash fiction for Singaporeans that you can read on the train. I think little cool initiatives like that kind of tell Singaporeans that “Hey, people amongst you are writing, read us!”
LSA: How can budding writers find their footing here in Singapore?
PN: It’s about finding the community that works for you, and the good news is that there is a bunch of different communities happening here like SingPoWriMo that takes place every April. They also do a manuscript boot camp, where if you have a manuscript that is ready and you don’t know where to submit it, or you want more feedback, you can submit it to them. If it gets shortlisted, you get a whole weekend of feedback from writers and publishers in the scene. There’s the Golden Point Award run by the NAC for unpublished writers to submit their work. I also always tell people to just go to events and talk to people, and as you meet people, you’ll inevitably find a community of like-minded people who are also writing.
Writing is a very lonely pursuit. If you’re trying to get a sense of how your work fits in with everything else that is happening with the scene, or if you are looking for opportunities, it’s always good to talk to people and know what’s out there, because there is a lot out there that sometimes people don’t know about. I think it’s always good to have a few people you can bounce things off and go to events with, and it always feels a little less lonely.
LSA: What can we expect to see at this coming Singapore Writers Festival?
PN: I can’t tell you too much yet, but there are a few things that I’m quite excited about. I guess with the theme, A Language of Our Own, I am very excited to present a festival that interrogates what community means, and how language affects how we see community. I’m interested in exploring language in its many varied forms. Often times when we think about reading or writing, we’re always thinking about verbal language or text, but I’m also really aware that in 2019, people are using things like emojis. We also don’t talk enough about braille and sign language and all the different ways in which we access the world and stories. I’m just trying to put together the most inclusive festival I can, so I’m quite excited about programmes that kind of interrogate that.
The other aspect of the festival that is quite close to my heart is the Youth Fringe, a first for SWF. I used to be a teacher for a long time, so I’m quite passionate about working with young people. With the youth fringe, we have about six to eight youth curators between the age of 14 to 18, and they put together a bunch of programmes for us. I’m very excited about seeing more young people at the festival engaging in issues that matter to them that were put forward by their peers. So those are just two highlights that I’m very excited about.
LSA: Speaking about language, do you think Singlish has a stage on the global stage?
PN: Oh that’s a great question, because people always ask if Singlish has a place in Singapore. I think Singlish has a huge part to play in giving us a sense of identity. I think if we could find a way to be proud of it, I absolutely think it could have a space on the global stage. One of our festival headliners is Marlon James, who won the Booker Prize in 2015. Half of his novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, is written in Jamaican patois. It really created a voice of Jamaica, and I always think about how cool it would be for a novel to hit it that way, that really uses Singlish well. So I absolutely think Singlish has a ton of potential.
The Singapore Writers Festival is set to take place from November 1 to 10.