Language Takes Center Stage At Singapore Writers Festival
Some of the world’s brightest literary talents will feature at this year’s Singapore Writers Festival.
The event, which opened last Friday and runs until Sunday, has this year put its focus on storytelling, biographies and historical fiction, all gathered under a theme of “Origins.”
Singapore’s acting minister for culture, community and youth, Lawrence Wong, said it was important to learn about the past and the beginnings of language, stories, people and heritage.
“Words are easy to use in terms of their functional purposes, but in festivals like this, it is a chance to reflect on the beauty of words and savor their meanings,” Wong said during the opening ceremony.
Indonesian writers speaking at the event include Seno Gumira Ajidarma, Ahmad Tohari and Ahmad Fuadi.
Philip Jeyaretnam of Singapore said that for the past 10 to 15 years, Singaporean writers had developed a sense of “elsewhere” as a result of working abroad. He added that their work had begun to reflect on and contemplate the meaning of home.
Che Husna Azhari of Malaysia said a particular theme for writers in her home country is nusantara literature. Nusantara for Malaysians refers to the original Malay people across present-day Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. “I am the creature of tenggara [the southeast] and I am at ease in tenggara,” Che Husna said.
Malaysian writer and blogger Marina Mahathir talks about writing for freedom. She believes she will see a change in Malaysia in her lifetime. Yet she still finds many people who wish for her to speak for them. “I speak for myself and so they have to speak for themselves,” she said.
As a gathering that welcomes writers from varied backgrounds, language becomes an issue in most discussions.
Indonesia’s Seno talked about the politicization of language and the problems of using English in writings. Colonialism has resulted in the existence of Western languages in Indonesian culture, while globalization has forced writers to use English.
“We all live in newly independent countries,” Seno said, referring to Southeast Asian nations. “We speak English even if we cannot use it properly because the local and global situations tend to overlap.”
Ahmad Tohari, who wrote the trilogy “Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk,” recently adapted into the film “Sang Penari” (“The Dancer,” 2011), said Indonesians turned to modern literature during the Dutch occupation. In prior centuries, it was oral literature that influenced culture.
As a Javanese person, Ahmad felt a little late in absorbing modern literature, with previous literary figures in Indonesia hailing from Sumatra.
“For the 21st century, not only do I have to support my mother language and national language, but inevitably, also English,” he said.
Ahmad, who appeared at the event on Saturday and Sunday, launched the English version of his books during the festival, which he said completes his contribution to modern literature.
“I think this is my task as a writer; to write something that is truly local and deliver for the global context,” he said.
Writer and poet Alvin Pang reflected on how being a Singaporean shapes his work. Pang said the biggest issue for Singaporeans is that the city-state is small and lacks role models.
“In Indonesia, you have some towering literary figures that are in many ways well known, such as Goenawan Mohamad and Pramoedya Ananta Toer, and a huge market as well.”
Pang said Singaporeans must overcome these problems by publishing cheaply, going abroad to build international readerships and working in English.
The writer added that there was a notion that the young Singaporean generation was beginning to see their multicultural side as an advantage.
“We used to see it as a weakness, you know, we are diverse and don’t have a single direction,” he said. “In terms of religion, politics, culture or language, we take it for granted that there is more than one answer or perspective.”
Other than cultural and regional matters, the festival also offers general discussions on topics as diverse as publishing, erotica literature and book awards.
American writer Michael Cunningham shared his experiences regarding the Pulitzer Prize that he received in 1998 for his novel “The Hours,” and later as a Pulitzer judge. Cunningham and the rest of the jury were given 330 books to narrow down to the three that they liked best. He said jurors often picked books based on personal preference.
“I am a sucker for language,” he said. “It may not be the plot, but look at those sentences.”
Cunningham said it was important for a book to not try too hard to please everyone. He himself previously made his books for five of his best friends, each with very different tastes.
Being an English writer, Cunningham said that like other authors who write in their mother language, he also dealt with translation issues, only slightly joking that he was still looking for a Turkish reader who could check as to whether his books in Turkish were correctly translated.
“The original book itself is a disappointing translation of what you have in mind,” he said. “Translation is just another process, give it up, it’s just a book.”