By Gargi Vachaknavi
The Singapore Writers’ Festival stretched to ten busy days with events glittering on the literature of Asian diaspora. The opening was by a Booker winner from Jamaica, Marlon James ; Pico Iyer was another major highlight as were local Singapore legends like Edwin Thumboo, Isa Kamari, Suchen Christine Lim and Meira Chand .
One of the attendees caught the excitement of the event. Upcoming writer Elaine Chiew, who just released her debut collection of short stories called The Heartsick Diaspora with Penguin, had a lot to say: “I caught Marlon James’ Festival Prologue and Roxanne Gay’s Lecture: ‘Understanding Identity Through Pop Culture’, and lots of programming in between, including catching the exhibition on Eurasian Singaporean writer Rex Shelley (which I loved, especially Brian Gothong Tan’s stunning multi-media display), ‘Literature and Pioneer Women’, ‘First Dates and So Many Feelings’, ‘What Being Brown In The World Means’, ‘Language and the Body’, ‘Writing in Dialect’, and ‘What’s the Most Versatile Singlish Word’.” Elaine Chiew has been attending the festival since 2016. This year she attended as an author and a panelist.
Aysha Baqir, writer and social activists explained: “This is my first time as a featured author in Singapore Writers Festival. My novel, Beyond the Fields, a fiction about a young village girl (in Pakistan) on a quest for justice, was published earlier this year by Marshall Cavendish. I have attended the last two Festivals and like the previous years I am delighted to listen to and meet the wide diversity of authors and panelists. This year I am particularly enjoying the relevance of the sessions to current life events and issues — migration, special needs, mental health, and diversity.”
Kitaab also launched three books during this festival: a translation of Isa Kamari’s Kiswah, Shilpa Dikshit Thapliyal’s Masala Chai, a collection of poems and the Best Asian Short Stories (2019).
Kiswah kicked off the start of the Kitaab launches with Isa Kamari explaining how he conceived the novel as a reaction to the needs of the times. Kamari said in answer to moderator Mitali Chakravarty’s query that he was getting the translations done to be read more widely. Earlier he had been translated even to Urdu by Kitaab. Zafar Anjum, the founder of Kitaab, explained: “Isa’s Intercession was translated into Urdu — the first work of Singaporean and Malay fiction to be translated into Urdu. The plan is also to get it translated into Hindi and we are working on it.”
Thapliyal’s Masala Chai came next. Thapliyal was accompanied by Singapore writer Robert Yeo on stage. Yeo had mentored her collection. Moderated by Dr Pallavi Narayan, the poetry launch was vibrant and interesting.
The Best Asian Short Stories, 2019, again moderated by Dr Pallavi Narayan, came as the grand finale of the Kitaab launches. Featuring five of the writers from the collection on stage — young Anitha Devi Pillai, Seema Punwani, Joel Donato Jacob, Jolin Kwok and Shuchi Govindrajan — the session gave voice to the different cultures as the writers summed up their work. Philipino writer Joel Donato Jacob has been declared the winner of Editor’s Award by the editor of this year’s collection, Hisham Bustani, an established writer from Jordan. Zafar Anjum the series editor was present and talked about why he started the series. “The intent is to create a platform where the best contemporary Asian voices could be gathered on an annual basis. Since no one was doing it, I thought Kitaab should take the initiative.”
He elucidated further: “The series was launched in 2017, and since then we have had good traction. We are receiving submissions from all across Asia, from China and Japan to Jordan and Palestine. As more readers and writers become aware of this series, it is finding wider acceptance, and it is being widely reviewed too. As far as editors are concerned, we are receiving serious interest from writers and editors to edit the series.”
“As of now, we want to focus on the Best Asian Anthologies. After years of experimentation, we have realised that we can best serve the Asian writers, especially the new and upcoming voices, through the Best Asian series. We don’t want to do what other publishers are already doing, and there are more in the market now than there ever were. We will look into translations through the Best Asian Series, following our mission of ‘Connecting Asian writers with readers globally’.”
Till last year, Kitaab had also launched books by their imprint, Simurg. This year books under the Simurg imprint were conspicuously absent. Zafar explained why: “We are constantly experimenting with our publishing model. Simurg is undergoing some changes and we will announce it later.”
Simurg was a publication where the author and publisher shared cost. When asked if self-publishing worked well, Zafar responded: “For starting out, self-publishing is not bad, and even Nietzsche and Joyce indulged in self-publishing for a while. My first novel, Of Seminal Fluids, was self-published and it gave me great courage if nothing else. The best-selling book, Fifty Shades of Grey, came from the self-publishing route. It is done for certain reasons. Today’s culture of instant communication through social media is all about self-expression and self-publishing. The gates by the gatekeepers have been crashed and for a good reason. Self-publishing allows you to publish your book even for the readership of one, and there is no stigma attached to it.”
Part of The best Asian Anthologies, Pillai, also the daughter of well-known doyenne of Tamil literature, Kamladevi Aravindan, gave a vivacious summing up of the event at the close of the Kitaab launches: “The Singapore Writers’ Festival (SWF) has been part of my life for several years as I have dutifully followed my mother around as she participated in the sessions as a Tamil author. My mum is like a child at a candy store at these events and, I must admit, that I am no different. In fact, the both of us would start planning our days and evenings around the sessions in advance.
This year, I am thrilled to have one of my short stories included in The Best Asian Short Stories (2019) and have it launched at the SWF 19! I am deeply grateful to the Jordanian writer Hisham Bustani for selecting the story and the publisher and series editor Zafar Anjum for the opportunity. It was a lovely launch and the insights by our moderator Pallavi Narayan certainly provided the readers with an additional lens to understand the stories. ”
Many established writers like Kamaladevi Arvindhan, Desmond Kon, Robert Yeo, Crispin Rodriguez were present at the Kitaab event. Baqir, who was also present for the Kitaab launches, summed up the SWF succinctly: “The Festival has been a brilliant download of insights and leanings about language and its power. I think I have become more cautious and sensitive as to how I choose to use or not use language — the written word, the spoken word, and actions and gestures.”
Gargi Vachaknavi wafts on a sunbeam through various realms and questions the essence of all existence with a dollop of humour.
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