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Literature Today: A Day at the Singapore Writers Festival

By Daryl Li

On 5 November 2016, I spent a day at this year’s edition of the Singapore Writers Festival. While the events that I attended could not be more different from one another, they all reflected a broader tone of self-reflection and contemplation about the state of literature today.

Definitions and Deliberations

The "Literature Now" Panel

The “Literature Now” panel featured local writers representing different eras of Singapore literature

Perhaps such concerns are best encapsulated by the theme of the first event that I attended, “Literature Now”. Organised by Lianhe Zaobao for the release of their new literary anthology, the panel featured writers Lin Gao, Wong Koi Tet, Neo Hai Bin, Toh Lam Huat and Chia Joo Ming. A number of fascinating topics were raised. For instance, Neo expressed a concern about the access of literature through visual media such as films or television. On the other hand, citing Bob Dylan’s recent Nobel Prize award, Wong asked if the definition of literature was changing. Overall, however, discussing these trends and changes, the panelists expressed optimism for the future of Singapore literature.


Singapore Writers Festival - “Rhyme and Reason” panel

(From left) Koh Buck Song, Eric Tinsay Valles, Meira Chand and Huzir Sulaiman at the “Rhyme and Reason” panel moderated by Akshita Nanda


A comparable panel had also been organised by The Straits Times, with writers from its “Rhyme and Reason” literary series, namely Eric Tinsay Valles, Meira Chand, Koh Buck Song and Huzir Sulaiman. While sharing broad concerns about the state of literature in the contemporary world, the tone at this event differed greatly. Panelists concentrated on discussing specifically Singapore literature – how the industry had changed, what it still lacks and attempts to define it. Among other topics, speakers cited the effects of cultural cringe, the lack of translators, and the role of the State in the development of literature.



Technology in Contemporary Literature

Singapore Writers Festival - Fujii Taiyo on Gene Mapper

Fujii Taiyo (right) composed his first book Gene Mapper on his smartphone

I also attended “The Standing of Japanese Fiction in the World”, which featured Wataya Risa and Fujii Taiyo. One of the key topics that was raised indirectly was the role of technology in contemporary literature. In particular, Fujii’s first book, Gene Mapper was composed on a smartphone. It was first self-published in 2012 for the Kindle, and met with great success partly due to excellent reviews on Amazon.

In contrast to the panels by Lianhe Zaobao and The Straits Times, which traced concerns specific to reading and writing from both local and global perspectives, this discussion’s focus was on the consumption of literature. The discussion reflected how it is not only the channels of access to literature that are changing, but also the means of composing and the ways in which we talk about literary works.


Between the Old and the New

Singapore Writers Festival - Can Xue 残雪

Can Xue discussed her work as a literature of emotion, and her unique blend of the East and the West

To round off the night, I attended a discussion about experimental literature. On the panel were Jung Young-Moon, Can Xue and Chihoi, who approached the subject from different points-of-view. Can Xue began the session by discussing her writing as a literature of emotion, and her unique blend of Chinese wisdom and Western literary techniques. In contrast, Jung described his winding path to literature after several failed attempts at other careers. Chihoi told his story through pictures, showcasing pieces by the inventive experimental comic artists who had inspired his own comics such as Lai Tat Tat Wing and François Ayroles.

The session revealed that even with new concerns and directions developing in literature today, even with continued invention and innovation, much of the motivations behind writing and the process of creation remains the same. Perhaps it is fair to say that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

As we contemplate the state of contemporary literature, as we enter an age of technological advancements and unprecedented media access, and as we study the old masters to craft new works, it becomes obvious that we look to the past to create the future.

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