Singapore Writers Festival: Feature Singapore's unique language in literature, says poet

From left: Singapore Literature Prize recipient Hee Wai Siam, who was the moderator, Chinese author Liu Zhenyun, Cultural Medallion recipient Yeng Pway Ngon and Singapore novelist Soon Ai Ling.
From left: Singapore Literature Prize recipient Hee Wai Siam, who was the moderator, Chinese author Liu Zhenyun, Cultural Medallion recipient Yeng Pway Ngon and Singapore novelist Soon Ai Ling.PHOTO: SINGAPORE WRITERS FESTIVAL

Singapore literature should have its own unique features and this should go beyond content.

Home-grown poet Yeng Pway Ngon, who was speaking at the Singapore Writers Festival last Saturday, said that words and the "language" also play a part in being unique.

"You should be able to recognise it at a glance," the 71-year-old said in Mandarin.

Yeng, a Cultural Medallion recipient and one of Singapore's most prolific authors, has published more than 25 volumes of poetry, essays, fiction, plays and literary criticism in Chinese.

His works are being celebrated at this year's festival, with events such as talks, an exhibition and an evening party.

His comments on Singapore literature came during an event titled Social Upheavals In Modern Chinese Fiction held at The Arts House. The event also featured Singapore novelist Soon Ai Ling and Liu Zhenyun, one of China's best-selling contemporary novelists.

Yeng said the Singaporean brand of Mandarin, which is influenced by Chinese dialects, Malay and English, features expressions that are different from how the language is spoken in other countries.

Singaporeans have the tendency to use the classifier "yi li" when referring to an apple, rather than "yi ge", the accepted version in standard Mandarin.

"I don't believe this means we are wrong," he said.

An audience member asked the panel of speakers if they were concerned that fewer people now have the patience to plough through a novel, preferring instead to watch the movie adaptations.

Yeng joked that Singapore writers do not have this problem because their works are rarely adapted for the big screen.

"Something that's quite saddening is that writing in Chinese in Singapore is a rather lonely job," he added.

Soon acknowledged that film adaptations, as well as translations, are a good way for more people to access the works.

Liu, whose books have been made into films, responded: "Why do we need to read literature? A big reason is that in our everyday lives, we might not approach emotions and life with a lot of depth.

"Literature can intricately and, in minute detail, depict what we have overlooked in our lives.

"Why did these films win all those awards? The answer is simple - because the books were well-written," he said to applause from the crowd.

Freelance writer Liu Chang, 36, who was at the event, said she was there to "meet her idols" and enjoyed the talk because of the high calibre of the speakers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 05, 2018, with the headline 'Poet: Feature Singapore's unique language in literature'. Subscribe