READING SPECIAL

Mind Your (Inter)Culture

What: A monthly, free book club hosted by civil society activist Constance Singam that aims to open up intercultural exchange via English books and translated works from Singapore and South-East Asia

Where: Grassroots Book Room, a bookstore at 25 Bukit Pasoh Road

When: Once a month at 3pm, on varying dates

Info: Go to www.selectcentre.org/

One of the newest book clubs here that started in February this year, Mind Your (Inter)Culture attracts 20 to 30 people to its monthly meeting.

Held at the Grassroots Book Room in Bukit Pasoh Road, the almost-90-minute-long sessions are lively, engaging dialogues about works from the region.

The free sessions are run by The Select Centre, a non-profit organisation that aims to put South-East Asia on the global intellectual and literary map.

Co-founder William Phuan, 44, managing director of The Select Centre which promotes translation and intercultural ideas, says there is a wealth of literature in Chinese, Malay and Tamil from Singapore's multicultural society that was not as readily accessible as it was before.

"We have not tapped on that strength of diversity in culture and languages in Singapore," he says. "Now that many works have been translated into English, it's a great opportunity to finally read them."

The group has so far discussed Chinese writer You Jin's Death By Perfume, Tamil writer Latha's The Goddess In The Living Room and, most recently, Malay writer Isa Kamari's The Tower.

The Tower is a 2002 work titled Menara. It was translated from Malay to English by playwright and poet Alfian Sa'at and published in 2013.

Having the sessions in a predominantly Chinese-language book store with a large selection of texts from Asia is also a deliberate move by the organisers.

"We want to position the whole series as intercultural not just in nature, but also in its execution, such as having a Tamil book translated into English and discussed in a Chinese bookstore," Mr Phuan says.

"We're trying to expand people's minds or at least provoke them to ask questions and to think about that whole mixing of cultures and languages via literature."

The authors have been part of the sessions so far, with author and civil society activist Constance Singam, 80, moderating, kicking off the question-and-answer session and encouraging audience participation.

When The Sunday Times sat in on the session with Isa, 56, on April 23, the group was a diverse mix of ages and races, and participants took full advantage of having the author present to ask questions that had been plaguing them.

The Cultural Medallion recipient admits that nuances are inevitably lost in translated works and that he treats translations of his texts as new works.

He adds: "I hope such works will become a bridge to help us understand one another better."

Mr Dan Ishak, who runs a training company, was one of the participants at the session and is a big fan of the author. He has read most of his works in Malay and English.

He describes the session as intriguing and "a chance to understand the way he thinks". While the 42-year-old considers himself a non-reader, he says that since he started going to book clubs and having discussions with writers four years ago, he has begun to read more.

Avid reader Ailin Mao, 31, values the "wide demographic" that such book clubs attract and how everyone's "strength of opinion comes through".

The travel consultant, who reads a book a week, says: "When it comes to local work, I'm very dependent on these book clubs to find out what I should be reading. There's so much choice that it helps to have something pre-selected for you."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 08, 2016, with the headline 'Mind Your (Inter)Culture'. Print Edition | Subscribe