Singapore Writers Festival: Get Intimate with literary stars

Writer Zadie Smith and poet Sharon Olds are part of the line-up for this year's festival, which is a fully digital affair

SINGAPORE WRITERS FESTIVAL HEADLINERS: (From left) British writer Zadie Smith, Chinese science-fiction writer Liu Cixin, American poets Sharon Olds and Tracy K. Smith.
SINGAPORE WRITERS FESTIVAL HEADLINERS: (From left) British writer Zadie Smith, Chinese science-fiction writer Liu Cixin, American poets Sharon Olds and Tracy K. Smith.PHOTOS: COURTESY OF LIU CIXIN, DOMINIQUE NABOKOV, ELIZA GRIFFITHS, HILLERY STONE

Award-winning writer Zadie Smith, seminal graphic novelist Art Spiegelman and science-fiction trailblazer Liu Cixin are among the literary stars headlining this year's Singapore Writers Festival (SWF).

It has also drawn not one but two Pulitzer Prize-winning poets from the United States - Sharon Olds and Tracy K. Smith.

Early-bird tickets went on sale yesterday for the 23rd edition of the annual festival, organised by the National Arts Council.

The festival will run from Oct 30 to Nov 8 in its first fully digital edition due to Covid-19. The digital festival pass will give access to more than 130 programmes, including headliners.

Its theme this year is Intimacy.

Festival director Pooja Nansi, 38, hopes that in its most socially distant edition ever, it will get people thinking about what it means to have human connection.

"We can't really experience arts and culture sitting in a room as bodies together," she says over Zoom. "How does that affect the intimacy of the experience between writers and readers, between performers and audiences?"

Ms Nansi, who is in her second year at the festival's helm, described it as "same same, but different".

When it became clear in March that the Covid-19 outbreak would make it nigh impossible to pull off a physical festival this year, she and her team began conceptualising what a digital festival might look like.

While they have had to rethink festival content and ensure audiences such as seniors are not left out in the shift online, Ms Nansi says new opportunities have unfolded in the digital sphere.

They were able to feature authors who might not otherwise have been able to travel here and explore new ways in which Singapore literature could exist online.

 (Above from left) British writer Zadie Smith, Chinese science-fiction writer Liu Cixin, American poets Sharon Olds and Tracy K. Smith and American graphic novelist Art Spiegelman (below).
American graphic novelist Art Spiegelman. PHOTO: ENNO KAPITZA

  • BOOK IT / SINGAPORE WRITERS FESTIVAL 2020

  • WHERE: Sistic Live

    WHEN: Oct 30 to Nov 8

    ADMISSION: $12 for digital festival pass (early-bird from now till Oct 9); regular price: $20 (from Oct 10); $12 (concessions) from swf2020-live.sistic.com. Separately ticketed programmes at $10 to be announced at a later date

    INFO: www.singaporewritersfestival.com

"There are play-your-own-adventure games, there are commissions that have delved into augmented reality and virtual reality, which I don't know that we would otherwise have urgently felt compelled to do."

She says the works of this year's headliners "really illuminate this strange tension between feeling isolated and wanting to be connected, and in some ways be more connected".

Smith, who is British, is acclaimed for novels such as her debut White Teeth (2000) and On Beauty (2005), with which she won the Orange Prize for Fiction.

She recently released a collection of essays, Intimations, reflecting on the pandemic.

American cartoonist Spiegelman is best known for his Holocaust narrative Maus (1980 to 1991), the first graphic novel to receive a Pulitzer Prize.

Liu propelled Chinese science fiction onto the world stage when Ken Liu's English translation of his novel, The Three-Body Problem, won the 2015 Hugo Award.

The SWF Youth Fringe for those aged 13 to 18 returns for a second year, with American author Cassandra Clare, who wrote young adult fantasy series The Mortal Instruments (2007 to 2014), as one of the headliners.

This year's Youth Fringe, curated by a student panel in partnership with the Singapore Book Council, will look at how people relate to the Internet, from the power of influencers to social justice movements.

The Arts House, where the festival is typically headquartered, will transform this year into a radio station with Night Spin 182.7, a series of podcasts and vodcasts.

Festivalgoers will get a chance to enter the strange universe of speculative fiction author Victor Fernando R. Ocampo in Play This Story: The Book Of Red Shadows, an interactive psychological horror game that takes place over e-mail.

This year's festival will recognise three Tamil literary pioneers - P. Krishnan, Rama Kannabiran and Singai Ma Elangkannan - in a digital exhibition.

Ms Nansi says that while the team knows it cannot replicate the experience of past physical festivals, it still aims to create a sense of community for festivalgoers.

"So much of what we have grown to love about the festival is just being on festival grounds, bumping into each other and saying hi and eating tacos from the truck," she says.

"Which we can still do. You can order the tacos at home. But we want to still have that sense of community, even though it's in the digital sphere."


This article has been edited after clarifications from the National Arts Council.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 22, 2020, with the headline 'Get Intimate with literary stars'. Print Edition | Subscribe