ST executive editor Sumiko Tan meets readers at Singapore Writers Festival

The Straits Times executive editor Sumiko Tan spoke about her writing and writing style during the session. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN
Sumiko Tan signs books at the Singapore Writers Festival. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

SINGAPORE - Columnist Sumiko Tan said part of the reason her pieces have dealt so much with dying and death was due to her early days as a crime reporter, where she saw death up close.

Ms Tan, who is executive editor of The Straits Times, met readers at a meet-the-author session at The Arts House on Saturday (Nov 4), where she spoke about her writing, the challenges of writing and her writing style.

The event is part of the 20th edition of the on-going Singapore Writers Festival (SWF).

In the session moderated by author Phan Ming Yen, Ms Tan, 53, said some of the topics in her Sunday Times column included death, dogs, love, and being lonely.

These are subjects she feels for, she shared, and added: "And I am always thinking about death."

Part of this preoccupation, she acknowledged, comes from her early days as a crime reporter where she covered tragedies like the Hotel New World collapse.

Another reason is the death of her younger brother when she was about 26. In fact, she shared that as a political reporter covering parliamentary sessions, she had learnt of her brother's death in the very venue Saturday's meet-and-greet session took place.

She was working in the press gallery of Parliament's chamber when her editor came in to break the news to her. The old Parliament House is now known as The Arts House.

Living near a nursing home also contributed to her dwelling on the morbid subject.

Ms Tan, who has been a journalist since 1985, also read a column titled Birth, Life And Death which she wrote two years ago, about a close friend who died from brain cancer. The article has been included in her new book Sundays With Sumiko.

During the session, readers got a chance to ask her questions and one was concerned about the repercussions of writing about people who might not like being written about.

Ms Tan replied: "I would try not to write about anything personal that might hurt someone else."

After the session, she said she enjoyed meeting readers of her column. "It was very gratifying that people remember things that I wrote about many years ago," she said.

"I used to think more of my readers were women, but I've been quite surprised over the last few months. Sometimes when a couple comes to my signings, it is the husband who is more a fan than the wife."

One of the readers who attended Saturday's event was freelance designer Aisha Naya, 24. She said: "I've grown up reading Sumiko's articles and I respect her as a writer. There is a kind of candour and honesty to her columns, especially those on singlehood and everyday life.

"I was very excited to see her in person for the first time. Listening to her, I feel inspired me to write myself."

The SWF is organised by the National Arts Council. This year's festival theme is Aram, a Tamil word meaning "goodness" or "doing good". The word makes a notable appearance in Thirukkural, an ancient text about ethics and everyday virtue that is widely revered as the most influential literary work in the language.

The 10-day festival, which opened on Nov 3, features more than 300 programmes, and is meant to question ethical quandaries and moral conundrums as writers and artists ask what it truly means to be good.

Among those speaking are acclaimed names such as Pulitzer Prize-winners novelist Junot Diaz, poet Rae Armantrout and journalist Ian Johnson.

On Saturday, Ms Armantrout conducted a poetry masterclass, and British anthropologist Benjamin Dix spoke about his trilogy of comics about asylum seekers.

On Nov 10, Ms Tan, together with Singapore-based author Frog Michaels and writer Adibah Isa, will be part of a panel discussion on writing personal columns.


Writing A Personal Column: The Dos and Don'ts

Where: The Arts House, Blue Room

When: Nov 10, 8.30 to 9.30pm

Admission: SWF Festival Pass ($25) required

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