By Marysia Juszczakiewicz
SINGAPORE: When one thinks of writing from Asia and Southeast Asia, one tends to think primarily of the big nations with long, established literary traditions, such as China and Japan. But there is just as much literary action elsewhere in the East. Singapore, for example, is on a mission to find, develop and nurture creative writing at home and establish an international platform for Singaporean voices.
This was on full display this past October and November during the annual Singapore Writers Festival. Set in the glorious neo-Palladian rooms of the Arts House in Singapore, originally a residence built for a Scottish merchant and formerly Parliament House, the nine-day event offered a varied mix of Asia and Western writers: over eighty Singaporean writers took part in the Festival including the acclaimed novelists Isa Kamari, Wena Poon and Suchen Christine Lin.
The array of Chinese writers and poets was also formidable and included the likes of Ma Jian, Yan Lianke whose controversial novel about AIDS in China, Dream of Ding Village, is due out next year in the UK, Qiu Xiaolong, writer of the award winning Inspector Chen series, Dai Sijie of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress and the poet Duo Duo who has just been awarded with the 2010 Neustadt International Prize (PDF download).
These were accompanied by numerous bold-faced names from the West, including Neil Gaiman—who proved so popular that security had to be increased at the airport to deal with his fans—as well as Swedish horror writer John Lindqvist, Booker Prize winner Mohammed Hanif, and the UK’s Courttia Newland.
“This year’s Festival reached out to a wider range of age groups with a new component for children’s literature,” said Mr Khor Kok Wah, Deputy CEO and Director of the Literary Arts of the National Arts Council, which organizes the event.
This was the first year the Festival had launched its Schools’ Programme and included a talk from Irishman John Boyne, author of the worldwide bestseller Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, on how to write a novel, and award-winning Australian children’s author Kate McCaffrey, who discussed her books.
The Festival also included an array of trade and publishing panels on topics ranging from marketing digital rights to the process of translation.
Some of the discussions were frank and revealing: Australian-based translator Mabel Lee, for example, who has translated the novels of 2000 Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian, confessed that she did not view herself as a professional translator as such, because she would not be able to translate a work that did not resonate with her aesthetically, intellectually and linguistically. She added that none of her translations had been commissioned by publishers.
Peter Gordon, Hong Kong publisher of Chameleon Press and the Inaugural Chair of the recently-awarded Man Asian Literary Prize, spoke about how Asian publishers can gain access to the US and UK market:
“Here technology, through print-on-demand and e-commerce, is increasingly helpful, allowing Asian publishers to bypass the problems of physical distance and inventory management, and allowing them to concentrate instead on product positioning and marketing.” He pointed out that although e-publishing has hardly come to this part of Asia, it “is awaited with a combination of anticipation of the possibilities and trepidation about the effects it may have on the traditional publishing industry, and as well as some bemusement about how non-English scripts will fit into technologies developed elsewhere.”
One came away from the festival feeling that Singapore is very much on a literary quest. During the week of the festival a new literary prize was launched, the Metropoli d’Asia-Catalyst Fiction Prize which will be awarded to an outstanding unpublished novel in English or English translation by a Singaporean. The winner receives €10,000, making it the largest English fiction prize in Asia.
In addition, the first ever week-long literary retreat took place alongside the Festival. Modeled on Britain’s Arvon creative writing courses, it had been set up in collaboration with the British Council and the National Arts Council to develop creative writing in Singapore.
Ultimately, whether all this activity will eventually lead to more attention for Singaporean voices remains to be seen. But the Festival has proven that the supply certainly exists, “As a literary agent selling Singaporean literary content in New York, I see great potential in these writers” said Paul Rosario of Paul Rosario Literary Agency. “It’s only a matter of time before more Western editors, publishers, and readers discover the unique voices coming out of Singapore’s literary scene.”
Marysia Juszczakiewicz is founder of the Peony Literary Agency in Hong Kong and Beijing. She attended the Singapore Book Festival at the invitation of the organizers.
VISIT: The Singapore Writers Festival Web site for archives and information
CONTACT: Ms. Mira Osman about next year’s event
BONUS: Is Asia Truly Ahead of the West in Digital Innovation and Adoption?