Stepping into a room full of people always makes me nervous. And one November day, that jittery feeling was intensified the instant I passed through the front door of the room hosting a panel discussion and came face-to-face with the seated crowd. Most mortifying, the moderator and the three speakers were already on the stage and there was no way to avoid those curious eyes checking out this latecomer.
Abandoning the choice seats in front, I promptly made my way to the back of the room, diffusing my unease as I sprinted to the rear. There were a few vacant seats in the last row and I chose one next to the aisle, relieved that I was finally out of the limelight.
I was back in Singapore for the Singapore Writers Festival. Inaugurated in 1986 by the National Arts Council as a biennial festival, this now annual 10-day literary festival promotes new and emerging Singaporean and Asian writing to an international audience, and presents foreign writers to Singaporeans. It is one of the few multi-lingual literary festivals in the world that showcases works and panel discussions in Singapore’s official languages: English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil.
Singapore Writers Festival
The first time I attended the festival was as a volunteer; directing people to the right rooms for the various talks, registering attendees and passing around a microphone to the audience during the Q&A sessions. It was an interesting experience and I had vowed to return to the festival as a participant. Since then, I have been to the festival three times and I made it a point to attend yearly.
As a book lover and Singaporean, I am always curious to check out and to read our local talents’ literature works. With its various workshops, lectures, panel discussions and performances, attending the Singapore Writers Festival was the best way for me to discover our home grown authors. Best of all, amidst these events, there was the bookstore – stocked with books by Singaporean writers: novels, short story collections, poetry, and graphics, local books that I couldn’t find in Paris. I was amazed to discover so many new authors and I didn’t know that we had a good number of published poets as well.
I remember the most popular Singaporean writer during my youth was Catherine Lim, for her short stories collections: Little Ironies: Stories of Singapore and Or Else, the Lightning God and other Stories. And my all time favourite Singaporean humour writer, Sylvia Toh Paik Choo, who wrote Eh Goodnu! and Lagi Goondu!, the first two books in Singlish. These were books that marked my childhood; they spoke about our Singaporean society and its ordinary people.
Forty years later, I am delighted to see that our local authors continued to write about our Singaporean society and its people, and that we have accomplished local publishers like, Epigram, Ethos and MathPress who strongly support our new writers.
Singapore is better known: for its economic success and efficiency; our qualities of living and infrastructure have consistently outperformed the other cities in Asia. For our famous Changi airport, recently rated the top airport in the world by Skytrax, a customer service reviewer, for the sixth year in a row. For being first place in all the PISA (The Programme for International Student Assessment, a worldwide triennial study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, OECD, which aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students) tests for Maths and Science.
However, the achievement that matters most to me, and especially filled me with pride, is whenever our Singaporean writers won accolades internationally and that their works gained worldwide recognition. Like Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, the first graphic novel to win the Singapore Literature Prize, where it climbed to the top of bestseller lists for Amazon and The New York Times.
Sonny Liew was also the first Singaporean to win an Eisner award, bagging three out of the six nominations he received for the prestigious awards, which are considered the Oscars of the comic world.
Then, there is this new emerging Singaporean talent.
Ponti by Sharlene Teo
Back in Paris the other day, a writer friend of mine who had just returned from the Frankfurt Book Fair mentioned Ponti to me. She said it was the most anticipated book from an up-and-coming Singaporean writer at the Fair. Have I heard of Ponti? Its author Sharlene Teo?
I had no idea then who was Sharlene Teo and what Ponti was about but I knew I had to read the book.
“Today marks my sixteenth year on this hot, horrible earth. I am stuck in school, standing with my palms pressed against a green wall. I am pressing so hard that my fingers ache. I am tethered to the wall by my own shame” - Opening lines of the novel, Ponti, by Sharlene Teo
In 2016, Singaporean writer Sharlene Teo won the inaugural Deborah Rogers Writers Award with an extract from her work-in-progress novel, Ponti. The £10,000 prize was set up to support authors as they finish their first book.
British writer and Man Booker Prize winner, Ian McEwan presented the award to Sharlene Teo after reading an extract of the unfinished novel, and he called it:
“A remarkable first novel in the making. With brilliant descriptive power and human warmth, Sharlene Wen-Ning Teo summons the darker currents of modernity – environmental degradation, the suffocating allure of the sparkling modern city and its cataracts of commodities and corrupted language. Against this, her characters glow with life and humour and minutely observed desperation. I read this extract longing for more.”
Ponti was selected from 885 entries. The finished novel is now published by Picador, after a seven-way auction.
“Ponti is an exquisite story of friendship and memory spanning decades, infusing both mythology and modernity.” - BooksActually
Stepping into a room full of people still makes me nervous. However I have no jittery feeling about the future of our local literary scene. I am optimistic, and believe that its vibrancy and creativity would propel our local writers onto the international stage and that their books would be read widely.