SINGAPORE – Full houses. Book signings. Big-name authors in town. After two years of online and hybrid programming, the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) returned with a vengeance in November.
The annual event, spanning three weekends for the first time, drew more than 46,000 visitors, up from the 25,600 festivalgoers in 2019, the last full-scale edition. Arts House Limited, which organises the event, said the number includes ticketed figures, but numbers were not available for ticket sales.
Tickets to the In A Tiny Room sessions with headliners such as Jeanette Winterson and Ted Chiang sold out before the festival had begun. Talks by these authors, as well as panel sessions with topics ranging from women writers to decolonisation, drew packed houses.
The Singapore Writers Festival, helmed by poet Pooja Nansi since 2019, ran from Nov 4 to 20 with the theme “If” and had more than 300 programmes. It was commissioned by the National Arts Council.
Here is the Life arts team’s pick of what worked and what flopped at this year’s festival.
1. Headline hits
English author Jeanette Winterson and American writer Ted Chiang were the hits of the festival. They drew packed houses, not just for their keynote lectures, each ticketed at $32, but also for the In A Tiny Room sessions, which cost $60 a pop.
Winterson was an engaging speaker, approaching complex issues of gender, ethics and science with a down-to-earth practicality, while Chiang lived up to his brainiac reputation with an intense lecture that addressed time-travel story tropes.
Both also endeared themselves to fans by spending long hours signing books, and attracted long queues in the hundreds after their keynote lectures. Winterson was signing books till 9.20pm on Nov 13 after an evening panel discussion.
2. Young guns score bullseye
New Zealand author Chloe Gong, Vietnamese-American author Dustin Thao and American author Kass Morgan all saw packed rooms for their respective sessions.
The collective enthusiasm for Gong and Thao was notable, as many of the same faces appeared for their solo and joint sessions. Each managed to balance topics of race and growth with light-hearted moments in well-rounded discussions.
Morgan offered thoughtful industry insight amid easy conversations with the audience. She happily took photos with a group of students after a session and thanked them for asking good questions.
3. Comic relief
Parents found easy entertainment for young children during the festival with a comic scavenger hunt.
In collaboration with Singapore-based independent comic publisher Difference Engine, 18 small comic panels were hidden and scattered throughout The Arts House. The adults followed excited children as they scoured the building for these.
The event spanned the entire festival and offered attendees the chance to win a comic bundle if they posted a creative photo on social media and tagged Difference Engine.
4. Other highlights
Having the popular debate kick off the festival rather than round it off was a sound idea. This House Believes That The Remake Is Better Than The Original set an energetic tone for the three weekends of programmes.
Festival headliners aside, there were memorable highlights: a talk by artist-writer Shubigi Rao, packed with insights on the destruction of books and the gatekeeping of knowledge; Celebrating Kuo Pao Kun, a moving look at the late theatre doyen’s legacy; and You’re Up Next: Voices Of The Future From Sing Lit, which suggested that poetry might now be the most accessible form of literature in Singapore.
The closing event – a poetry event at The Arts House – was a delight from start to finish, with robust performances by Claudia Rankine, Lawrence Lacambra Ypil, Zeha, Bani Haykal and Nate Marshall. Joelle Taylor, a T. S. Eliot Prize winner and poetry slam champion from Britain, blew the audience away with C+nto, an intense, searing poem inspired by butch counterculture. It ended defiantly thus: “My whole life is a protest.”
At the Festival Village after sunset, poet Cyril Wong, bathed in light, performed a drawn-out version of his poem If... Else, which inspired the festival theme. After 15 minutes of this, one might start feeling a bit restless, although the verse had a catchy rhythm that lingered in the mind: “If now, if ever, if you, if I, if not, if never...”
A fitting end to a festival that pondered questions of literature, life and their endless possibilities.
1. Paper programme, please
We understand the need to save trees, but the lack of a printed programme, coupled with an unwieldy website, made navigating the festival’s packed calendar a major pain.
The speed with which the daily printed A3 calendar sheets were snapped up proved this is no mere Luddite complaint.
The online calendar was clunky, and it was impossible to see at a glance the day’s events, even on a laptop. The search function was inadequate, to say the least.
If the festival wants to do away with printed programmes, the least organisers can do is redesign the online calendar to be easy to navigate and reliably searchable.
2. Immoderate moderators
Good moderators are hard to find, but that is all the more reason for organisers to be more stringent in their choices. Two of the most egregious offences happened with headlining writers, too.
Some audience members who paid $60 for In A Tiny Room with Ted Chiang were irate when moderator Ken Tan droned on interminably about cryptocurrency, despite having discovered at the beginning of the session that no one – including Chiang – was interested in the topic.
At another session with Jeanette Winterson, organisers made the incomprehensible decision to have two moderators when one was perfectly adequate.
Co-moderator Zeha committed the ultimate sin of taking time to read their own work and asked a question so garbled that even the amiable Winterson stated bluntly, “I don’t understand that question” – going so far as to repeat the statement with an expletive when Zeha rephrased it with no improvement to clarity.
3. Ticketing woes
Sistic needs to overhaul its system, which makes customers jump through inconvenient hoops. Festivalgoers shopping for an SWF pass had to return to Sistic’s website 24 hours later to get a discount for other ticketed events.
E-ticket scanners also failed at one of the Tiny Room sessions.
4. Venue logistics
The Arts House is an old building, which means logistics need to be thought through carefully– which they evidently were not, to the detriment of foot traffic.
In previous years, the festival bookshop was located in the rooms now taken up by the Cultural Medallion showcase. The bookshop this year was split into three sections and shoehorned awkwardly into corners.
One section occupied the corridor leading to the ground-floor toilets, which meant festivalgoers had to dodge browsers every time they needed to answer the call of nature.
Tight spaces on the second floor also led to congestion, especially when queues formed outside rooms for popular sessions. Some queueing festivalgoers were inadvertently hit by opening doors.
Venue allocation was a headscratcher, as some low-key events were given big spaces while other manifestly popular panels were scheduled at small venues.
Inadequate signage at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) and National Gallery Singapore (NGS) meant that some panellists got lost. It did not help that both institutions had similarly named spaces – a Ngee Ann Auditorium at the ACM and a Ngee Ann Kongsi Auditorium at NGS.
At least these venues were within walking distance of The Arts House. The Mandala Club, which hosted the Tiny Room sessions, was at least 15 minutes away by bus.
In previous editions, food trucks were set up just in front of The Arts House, allowing attendees to grab coffee and a snack on the go between sessions.
This year’s inaugural festival village, however, was located beyond the Empress Lawn near Anderson Bridge – so far from the heart of the action that some festivalgoers were unaware of its presence, and complained about the lack of food and beverage options.
Again, we humbly beg for good signage.
Festivalgoers have their say
Fiona Pay, 32, UX researcher: “I have a lot of friends who were participating and moderating in the festival, so I decided to select a few panels and go for them. I really enjoyed Jeanette Winterson at If We Can Imagine It – she could totally make a podcast. It was quite thought-provoking.”
Dorine Wu, 15, student: “I curated If Opposites Attract: When Experimental Poets Meet Instapoets. Curating an event and finally being able to go for it was really enjoyable. Going to different events and watching other writers talk about their experiences in writing is really cool to me, as I am interested in writing. I hope I can be a published author in the future.”
Angela Leow, 62, tutor: “I have been attending the Writers Festival for more than 10 years. At the beginning it was very exciting, we were rushing from one place to another and all that. Recently – I do not know if it is to save costs – it has come to a point where it says, ‘You can look for the programme online.’ Even for the young people I asked, it was infuriating. The programmes are catered more to the younger ones. What is left for people like us?”
Ms Tarifah Althaf, 25, student: “I really like this year’s theme of ‘If’. It helps us imagine a post-Covid-19 and post-colonial future, and I liked the message that speculative fiction and fantasy can also be literature. My family went for many talks over the three weekends and bought 18 to 19 books, because we were just so inspired by everyone we heard from.”
Zhang Shimiao, 15, student: “We were introduced to this festival by our English teacher. The talk by (political scientist and author) Jon Alexander was my favourite. There was another one I went to, a physics one by (science-fiction writer) Ted Chiang. His presentation had a lot of animation and it was fascinating. I hated literature in my lower-secondary years. After attending all these talks and conversations, I learnt that the beauty of literature is that some people have different interpretations of the same work.”
Harika Gayam, 15, student: “I honestly had so much fun. I didn’t enjoy writing when I was a kid. It was very boring to me and I’m more of a speaker than a writer – sometimes I can’t pen down all my thoughts. Then I came here and saw how the writers deal with the difficulties of writing. In (the panel discussion) Like A Version, they talked about their drafts and how even though they originally hated their work, they pushed through. I was very inspired.”
Ms M B Madhumathi, 25, public relations officer: “I attended this panel, The Human Obsession With Exploration, which I really liked. Usually travel is about an explorer going to new worlds, but in this panel they also talked about people, such as migrants and refugees, who were travelling for work or to escape a bad situation. One of the speakers mentioned that travelling is a privilege.
“I preferred it when they had bean bags (near the entrance of The Arts House). I’d like it if they had more seating space there. I would also prefer if they had an Excel spreadsheet with the location and time of the events. I prefer that format of viewing the programme – I mark out what I want to go to and see if there is a clash. One good thing about this year’s festival is that it lasted three weeks – there was more time to catch the events.”
Mr Andy Koh, 31, administrative assistant: “I went for Past, Present, Future, a music event in Mandarin comprising recitals, dance, xinyao music and more. I looked for free events and was particularly attracted to this one. It seemed like a very well-structured event, with many performances in one and a half hours. If I may give a suggestion: The festival might want to record and put its conversations, lectures and performances online. Viewership would be higher and people could watch them from the comfort of their homes.”
Mrs S. Banu, 52, housewife: “It’s a magical experience going from one room to another, listening to authors from different parts of the world – especially for a lot of aspiring authors, as this gives them lots of advice and inspiration. What I really liked is that they come from faraway lands and talk about their insights, and we also get a sense of their culture. Jeanette Winterson: If We Can Imagine It was excellent. She’s brilliant – we’d otherwise have to go to London to hear all of this, but she’s come to us.”
Mr Lawrence Pang, 42, a father of two who works in investments: “I was pleasantly surprised that there was a bookstore at the festival which had storytelling events. I didn’t know there were so many Singapore authors. It would be great for more kids, Singaporean or not, to know about them.”
Ms Shuwei, 22, fourth-year student at the National University of Singapore: “I really liked the line-up of headline authors this year. I’ve been a big fan of Jeanette Winterson and Ted Chiang for the longest time, and I thought there was a good mix of both established and new authors.”
Ms Lea Saint-Jevin, 26, account manager in advertising: “I thought the moderator for Ted Chiang did not prepare enough and asked questions that were too vague, like ‘So what is the meaning of life?’ I don’t read as much as I like to because I’m always on YouTube, so I like to be here to discover new genres.”