Politics and business, sex and violence, wrestling and the Pulitzers–all of this and more at the Singapore Writers Festival
At the 2012 Singapore Writers Festival (SWF), politics and business, sex and violence, wrestling and the prize Pulitzer do mix.
A panel discussed the politics and business of book-selling and winning book prizes; while another featured Malaysia’s Marina Mahathir and Singapore’s Catherine Lim discussing whether efficiency was worth the sacrifice of political freedoms, traditionally a taboo subject in Southeast Asia with its history of regimes of tight political control.
Just as taboo was sex, which surprisingly had a whole series of panel discussions this year at SWF. Violence also reared its ugly but highly entertaining and profitable head: Semiretired professional wrestler Mick Foley drew adoring crowds who queued patiently to have best-selling copies of his memoirs about his fighting years and his action-packed fiction autographed.
Meanwhile, British Sinophile Paul French had revived the “nonfiction novel” of Truman Capote in “Midnight in Peking,” his powerful recreation of 1937 Peking and the murder of Pamela Werner, the daughter of a former British consul to China, as Japanese troops occupy Manchuria and prepare for the bloody conquest of Asia.
American novelist Michael Cunningham, harassed by super-hurricane Sandy, found a different sort of storm when he was questioned by festival audiences about the non-awarding of the Pulitzer Prize for the novel this year, in which as juror he had helped prepare the shortlist.
With the by-now familiar white tents of the Festival Pavilion set up again on the lawn of Singapore Management University (SMU), SWF once more built up its case on the need for creativity to complement business and management, the undisputed art of the 21st century.
The arts and culture regime in Singapore has been undergoing management transitions, too. A Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth has been created apparently with administrative supervisory powers over the National Arts Council (NAC), which organizes the festival.
Even NAC people were visibly anxious about the new arrangement, and festival patrons and old-timers met with a mixture of bemusement and concern the news that the opening address would be delivered by Acting Minister Lawrence Wong, who had barely been in office for two days.
To his credit, Wong made allusions to the anxious state of affairs and gave assurances the literary arts would continue to be nourished and nurtured under the new setup:
“The literary arts play a unique role in defining the cultural identity of a nation and connecting us to one another. As Kipling once said, words are ‘the most powerful drug used by mankind…’ That’s why the National Arts Council has been continually working to support the literary arts and grow the literary scene in Singapore. And it will continue to do so under the new Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.”
Young Singapore poet Alvin Pang, who’s familiar to Filipino poetry lovers, was this year’s festival poet laureate. He said he had been asked by festival organizers to read two poems from his first full-length United Kingdom publication, “When the Barbarians Arrive” (Arc Publications, 2012). The two poems are incidentally “about real estate, a Singaporean obsession,” Pang quipped, and one of them, “Upgrading,” has the speaker demanding a roomful of renovations:
“Give me more rooms, floor space, floors, dropped ceilings, cornices, extra bathrooms, a toilet wide enough for a Jacuzzi… I want a pad so massive I can go jogging in it and not get bored with the view, so vast I can’t see my neighbors without binoculars, so tall I scan continents with my naked eye.” Of course, such massive space is a displacement and an enclosure, a wishful thinking as well as a solitary confinement: “Rooms the size of night. Perfect quiet. Space at last to dream of islands without end.”
To be sure, like everything Singaporean, SWF is one of the best-managed writers’ festivals in the world. Writers being the angsty, messy folks they are, they’re not expected to be organized or, for that matter, lead the organizing team. But the chair of this year’s SWF steering committee is again leading fictionist Philip Jeyaretnam. (He’s also a topnotch lawyer, but that should not take the cake out of him being a writer.) And the festival director is poet Paul Tan, who seemed to have lost some weight since last year’s festival, but who was looking sprightly as ever.
Southeast Asian writing
But Jeyaretnam himself experienced a slight management kink when, featured in the first panel discussion on “The Ties that Bind,” about Southeast Asian writing, he found the doors of the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), where the discussion was to be held, closed. It was with some difficulty and delay that he and the other panel members, as well as the audience, were led by a security guard to the side door of the museum.
When he spoke in the panel, Jeyaretnam said the delay was a “lovely metaphor” for Southeast Asian writers. “We do tend to be marginalized,” he said jokingly. “We do tend to be made to take the side door and enter through the warehouse and the cargo room.”
But the fact that it was the first panel of the festival should be a credit to the SWF, which celebrates first and foremost the literatures of the region.
Still, Jeyaretnam said that for the Singaporean writer, “life is elsewhere.” While commenting that Southeast Asia has always turned toward the sea, “Singapore tends in the last 30 years to turn against the sea, to turn inland,” he said. “There’s the sense that life is elsewhere, that’s where the action is.”
Something of the same melancholia was shared by Filipino fictionist Charlson Ong, who wondered whether the Filipino had a “Southeast Asian sensibility contra-posed to his European Latin sensibility.”
More sanguine were Malaysian writer Che Husna Azhari and Indonesian fictionist Seno Gumira Ajidarma, who said new media should afford the writers of the region new possibilities. “Old words still exist with the power of the new media,” he said.
Still, Jeyaretnam said Southeast Asian writers are united by their struggles, and they have achieved quite a lot in their campaign for democracy and freedoms. “Political supremacy is a marked reality in Southeast Asia,” said Jeyaretnam, the son of a late opposition leader in Singapore. “Southeast Asian writers have worked hard to put forward political dialogue, we have achieved that. But how do we come out of the political space articulated in our stories?”
If Jeyaretnam was thoughtful, Tan was excited. “This year,” he said, “we bring another exciting element to the table, the SWF Fringe! Held at and curated by The Arts House, we are sure this late-night program will tantalize audiences in more ways than one.”
But of course, people would find the SWF Fringe tantalizing since it was a series of panel discussions by authors of erotica, soft porn and sex therapy! Fringe featured “Origins of Desire,” a series of discussions that sought to examine what the program called “the historical as well as socio-cultural significance of desire and sexuality in literature.”
In one panel, “Pleasure as Power-Sex, the Most Powerful Metaphor,” Australian erotica writer Linda Jaivin and Singaporean Verena Tay (who writes sexy ghost stories based on Malay and Singaporean folklore) tangled with Singapore-based British writer Neil Humphreys for his novel in which a woman uses sex to manipulate and hit back at men. When Humphreys defended himself by saying that “Sex and the City” likewise portrays sex as a weapon, Jaivin said she hates “Sex and the City”—“It’s about shopping and about women with incredibly thin bodies.”
Contrary to the impression given by her remarks, Jaivin is very nice, almost maternal in her friendliness, girlish and giggly, gifted with self-deprecating humor and an easy and infectious laughter. Although she looks at sex as “transgressive,” her erotic novels are really “a comedy of manners” and about the “awkwardness of sex.” She’s also celebrated for her memoirs of the 1989 Tiananmen incident and her Chinese translations. Festivals like SWF are useful because one can’t possibly know all the interesting authors of the world, and they provide occasions to discover a new voice. Jaivin is a new voice, a refreshing discovery.
Marina Mahathir, Catherine Lim
Also a refreshing discovery was Marina Mahathir, a newspaper columnist and blogger who writes about human rights, gender and Islam.
Although she’s known to Filipinos as the daughter of the feisty and loquacious former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed (who was in Manila earlier this year to deliver a lecture at the University of Santo Tomas, in which he typically inveighed against the excesses of western-style democracy and freedoms), and she regularly visits Manila (to watch English plays mounted by Repertory Philippines), Marina Mahathir is hardly known here as a writer of social commentary, a reputation particularly relished by Singapore and Malaysia. Perhaps because the Philippines has always tended to look to the direction of Hollywood, it has neglected Southeast Asia, and the SWF has become a corrective to this.
In her standing-room only forum at the National Museum of Singapore (NMS), Mahathir interacted with the irrepressible Catherine Lim, who’s known to Filipinos as a popular fictionist, but is also a political commentator who has criticized the ruling People’s Action Party and the alleged autocratic sway over it by Lee Kuan Yew. Last year’s election, in which the Opposition wrested a number of seats from PAP stalwarts, including then foreign minister George Yeo (well-known to Filipino artists and writers since he used to be “minister of information and the arts”), had been called a “sea change” by Lim, especially since it led to the resignation of Lee as “elder minister.” But at NMS, she said the reform momentum seemed to have stalled, and the burning question remained, “Can we have less of efficiency and more of happiness?”
Making a funny allusion to Malaysian politics and governance, Mahathir quipped, “Oh, I think I would be very happy to have more efficiency.” The audience in the hall laughed.
Earlier, Lim had profusely praised Mahathir for her courage and tenacity. Mahathir begged off, saying Lim was “far angrier” because “she actually names persons.” “Catherine has to be onstage with me or else she will be in jail,” she added.
“You give me more credit than I deserve, Marina” Lim replied. “I started writing political commentary when my children were already adults and safely abroad. So it wasn’t really about courage.”
Elsewhere, the SWF adumbrated the leadership transition in China with the launch of the English and simplified Chinese versions of the prison memoirs of former Straits Time China correspondent Ching Cheong. Published by the Straits Times Press, “My 1,000 Days Ordeal” details Ching’s detention from 2005 to 2008 by the Chinese government on charges of espionage. The ordeal was so depressing he contemplated suicide. “For the first time, I came to realize the meaning of yu, the Chinese word for prison . . . because in prison they reduce you to a dog that talks,” he said. (The Chinese character of yu has components which mean speech and dog.)
But Ching, 62, said the imprisonment also afforded him the chance to convert to Christianity, so that he harbors no ill will against the Chinese. He said he wrote the book to prevent miscarriages of justice in the future in China. (As he spoke, China’s Communist Party was set to hold its 18th Congress which was expected to elect Xi Jinping as president and Li Kequiang as premiere. While the former has a conservative track record, the latter is considered reform-minded.)
Cunningham and the Pulitzer
Cunningham almost did not make it because of hurricane Sandy. But a bigger hurricane was waiting for him in typhoon-free Singapore: In the panel “On Book Awards and Bestsellers” and later in the lecture, “In the Beginning There Was a Story,” he was asked by members of the audience what he felt about the Pulitzer Prize for fiction not given this year. “You know, I was on the jury,” he replied, eliciting laughter from the audience during his lecture at the School of the Arts (Sota).
At the panel discussion a day before at the Festival Pavilion in SMU, Cunningham had explained that he and the two other jurors (book critic Maureen Corrigan and book editor Susan Larson) had read more than 300 books of fiction and picked three novels to recommend to the Pulitzer board—David Foster Wallace’s “The Pale King,” Denis Johnson’s “Train Dreams” and Karen Russell’s first novel, “Swamplandia!” But the board decided not to award the prize. Board discussions are sealed and confidential, said the novelist, the reasons for the surprising decision cannot be known.
The 18-man board is composed “mainly” of journalists, Cunningham said at SMU. (The next day, at Sota, he said the board was also made up of “academics.”) When asked in the panel discussion by an Australian journalist if his remarks blamed the non-awarding of the prize to journalists on the board, Cunningham was quick to reply no. He explained he feels that the board should be “made up of more varied people.”
But at Sota, perhaps because he had recovered from his jet lag and felt refreshed, Cunningham was more combative and humorous. “Oh, f**k them,” he sighed, eliciting laughter from the hall. “I might have understood if it was a barren year in American letters that occurs sometimes… But we (three jurors) felt quite strongly about all three [of the books]. It was an injustice and insult to American writers, and a reminder, lest we forget, of how little prizes actually mean.”
Cunningham’s most famous novel, “The Hours,” whose movie adaptation won for Nicole Kidman the Oscar Best Actress in 2002, itself won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1999; but with self-deflating humor he led the audience in on to some secrets about its writing. Since one of the protagonists in the novel is modernist maven Virginia Woolf, a suicide, Cunningham said he had thought at first of not researching to save on money. But when plane fares went down, he went to England, “and I was so glad I did because I had gotten everything wrong.”
He said he went to see Woolf’s house in Rodnell to see the river where Woolf drowned herself. “There’s a lovely woman at the door, taking your twopence, and you can go in and see the house,” he said. “I said very nervously, ‘Uhm, I’m afraid this would sound ghoulish, but I would like to walk to the river.’ And clearly it was the most usual of requests [since she said], ‘Oh, straight ahead, straight ahead.’ And I passed 75 people coming back to the house.”
He had thought that the river where the great feminist writer jumped to her death was “like the Mississippi, and the act of going to the river was like Anna Karenina going under the train—one jump and you’re committed.” But what he found out was “there is essentially a river-shaped mud puddle called the Ouse.” “I stood beside this crappy little nothing of a river and I had a very different understanding of [Woolf’s] despair, of her determination to end her life,” the novelist said. “It changed my sense of her whole character.”
His 30-minute lecture was characterized by the same balance of depreciation and exaltation of writing. No matter how literature’s seriousness, he said the roots of the novel could be traced to the “cheap, lowly, a little bit vulgar” stories serialized in sensational newspapers and magazines at the turn of the 20th century. But it is also true that:
“Any storytelling is by definition a hopeful and, yes, even healing figure, even if the story he or she tells ends in ruin. By telling the story at all, the teller implies that the world goes on. These people and their fates are worth knowing about. That the past is worth recording because there will be a future of some kind or other, for which to record it.”
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