Singapore Writers Festival

Writers festival introduces Classroom series of talks to broaden worldviews

Attend talks by American writer and journalist Atia Abawi (above), Icelandic poet Gerdur Kristny (far left) and British theatre critic Lyn Gardner (left) at the festival.
Attend talks by American writer and journalist Atia Abawi (above), Icelandic poet Gerdur Kristny and British theatre critic Lyn Gardner at the festival.PHOTOS: COURTESY OF GERDUR KRISTNY AND LYN GARDNER, ST FILE
Attend talks by American writer and journalist Atia Abawi (above), Icelandic poet Gerdur Kristny (far left) and British theatre critic Lyn Gardner (left) at the festival.
Attend talks by American writer and journalist Atia Abawi, Icelandic poet Gerdur Kristny (above) and British theatre critic Lyn Gardner at the festival.PHOTOS: COURTESY OF GERDUR KRISTNY AND LYN GARDNER, ST FILE
Attend talks by American writer and journalist Atia Abawi (above), Icelandic poet Gerdur Kristny (far left) and British theatre critic Lyn Gardner (left) at the festival.
Attend talks by American writer and journalist Atia Abawi, Icelandic poet Gerdur Kristny and British theatre critic Lyn Gardner (above) at the festival.PHOTOS: COURTESY OF GERDUR KRISTNY AND LYN GARDNER, ST FILE
Dutch historian Frank Dikotter
Dutch historian Frank Dikotter
Evan Puschak
Evan Puschak

Talks in the new Classroom Series will cover issues as diverse as refugees, politics and fishing

The burgeoning migrant crisis in Europe and the unease over the looming United States presidential election might seem like news headlines from far-flung continents.

But the Singapore Writers Festival, which opens tonight and runs till Nov 13, will bring these distant issues into sharp focus here with its new Classroom Series, which aims to broaden world views.

Festival director Yeow Kai Chai says this was started as "we sense there is hunger for new knowledge and new ways of thinking".

"We want a continuous exchange of ideas and conversations... We want festivalgoers to be engaged and surprised," he adds.

The $20 Festival Pass includes admission to the series.

The line-up of more than 10 seminars and talks tackles topics as diverse as fishing and politics.

American writer and journalist Atia Abawi's talk, Europe's Migrant Crisis, is one of the more sobering offerings.

"I hope I'm able to shed light on an important situation that is a continent away from those attending," says the 34-year-old, who spent more than a decade covering news in the turbulent Middle East.

  • BOOK IT / WRITING NEW POEMS USING ANCIENT MYTHS

  • WHERE: Living Room, The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane

    WHEN: Tomorrow, 11.30am

    ADMISSION: $20 Festival Pass from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)


    BOOK IT / EUROPE'S MIGRANT CRISIS

    WHERE: Ngee Ann Auditorium, Asian Civilisations Museum, 1 Empress Place WHEN: Tomorrow, 2.30pm

    ADMISSION: Festival Pass


    BOOK IT / THEATRE CASTING: DIVERSIFY OR DIE

    WHERE: Play Den, The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane

    WHEN: Tomorrow, 2.30pm

    ADMISSION: Festival Pass

  • Other sessions to check out

  • CHINA'S CULTURAL REVOLUTION

    Dutch historian Frank Dikotter, chair professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong, speaks about China's Cultural Revolution and the shadow it still casts on the country.

    Where: Blue Room, The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane When: Nov 11, 8.30pm Admission: $20 Festival Pass from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)


    UNRAVELLING THE U.S. PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION

    Just days after the Americans go to the polls, Evan Puschak - the man behind Web video series The Nerdwriter - weighs in on the election and what the results mean for Singapore and the rest of the world.

    Where: Play Den, The Arts House When: Nov 12, 7pm Admission: Festival Pass


    A POETIC PURSUIT CALLED FISHING

    Pulitzer Prize-winning Vijay Seshadri spent five years in the fishing and logging industries - a period that shaped some of his works. The India-born, United States-based poet will draw out links between fishing and poetry.

    Where: Blue Room, The Arts House When: Nov 13, 5.30pm Admission: Festival Pass

"If I can better inform even one person on the plight of the refugees and how it impacts our world, I'll be pleased and honoured."

In her talk tomorrow, she will home in on the human aspect of the crisis, which was sparked when more than a million refugees and migrants arrived in Europe. The majority of them, she points out, were forced to leave their homes in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere for their survival.

"I want to humanise them, as well as the fears of those in Europe as they arrive. I think one of the points missing in the conversation about refugees is how many are fleeing the very extremism that Europeans are fearful of," says Atia, who has worked as a foreign correspondent for CNN and NBC News.

It is a topic that her "mind and heart have been entrenched in" for some time now. She was, after all, born a refugee, her Afghan parents having fled their war-stricken homeland for Germany.

"My mother was eight months pregnant with me and my brother was two when my parents had to escape war to give us a chance to survive," says Atia, who was raised in the US.

"I'm proud of my parents for what they did and how hard they worked to give my brother and me what we have achieved today. I feel connected to today's refugees because they embody my parents' struggle more than 30 years ago."

The author of the 2014 book, The Secret Sky: A Novel Of Forbidden Love In Afghanistan, has a simple takeaway for her talk - humans are humans.

"No matter our race, religion, nationalities, ethnicities - at the core of it all, we're the same. The refugees are not trying to go to Europe to change people's cultures and religions. They don't want to change Europe. They're going to live in a place where they can be safe and have a chance at life," she says.

"So often, we forget that a person whom we think is so different from us is actually exactly like us. And when we see only the differences, it creates fear and hate, which exacerbate war and violence."

Not all the subject matter will be this weighty. Icelandic poet Gerdur Kristny, for instance, will tread the realms of Nordic mythology.

In her talk, also on tomorrow and titled Writing New Poems Using Ancient Myths, the 46-year-old will speak about Skirnir's Journey - a poem preserved in the Codex Regius, a manuscript from the 13th century - which she reimagines in her 2010 poetry book, Bloodhoof.

The poem had always been considered romantic: the fertility god falling in love with a giantess and whisking her away from her home.

But in Kristny's hand, the tale gets dark. "I tell it as a violent story about a woman being kidnapped from her home country. Unfortunately, this old story has a modern twist."

A point she would like to make in her talk is that it is worth listening to mythologies from eras past.

"They can tell us important things about the past, present and future," she says. "By reading mythologies, you can hear what was important to your ancestors, what they feared and what amused them. You might realise we haven't changed that much over the ages."

Meanwhile, acclaimed British theatre critic Lyn Gardner takes on the hot-button issue of representation in her session tomorrow, Theatre Casting: Diversify Or Die.

Gardner, who writes for The Guardian, says the theatre, television and film industries in Britain still have a long way to go when it comes to diversity in all areas - not just casting.

But she adds: "There is an increasing awareness that creativity and diversity are intrinsically linked and you can't have one without the other... Why wouldn't you want to choose from 100 per cent of the talent pool, rather than selecting actors from a much smaller pond?

"Often, it's about an unconscious racism, in which those running theatre and casting shows don't think about casting from racially diverse backgrounds."

She points out that University of Warwick's British Black and Asian Shakespeare project, which looks at the contribution of black and Asian performers in Shakespeare productions from 1930 to last year, shows that they may well be cast as "one of the three witches, but unlikely as Macbeth or Lady Macbeth".

"That limits the career possibilities of those from ethnic backgrounds and our theatre is the poorer for it."

She hopes people will leave her session thinking about how they themselves can drive diversity.

"Change is coming, but it will come all the faster if all those in positions of power in the arts - those who get to do the choosing - realise that every day, they need to work with people who don't look, sound and come from the same background as they do."

• The Straits Times is the official media partner of the Singapore Writers Festival. For more stories on the festival, go to http://str.sg/4x7R

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 04, 2016, with the headline 'Classroom of the world'. Print Edition | Subscribe