By Mitali Chakravarty

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The first ever ASEAN INDIA Pravasi Bharatiya Divas Writers Festival was held in Singapore with great success.

More than 30 writers from Singapore, Malaysia and India participated in the first ever ASEAN Indian Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) Writer’s Festival on 6-7 January in Singapore.

Many leading literary figures of ASEAN such as Edwin Thumboo, Suchen Christine Lim and Isa Kamari participated in the two-day event held at the posh Marina Bay Sands.

The ASEAN India Writers Festival, an initiative of the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, was organized by Kitaab International, Singapore, on behalf of the High Commission of India in Singapore, with the support of many partner organisations such as The Arts House, and La Salle College of the Arts. De Ideaz, Singapore, were the main event managers for the festival, which had more than 5,000 registered visitors.

Exploring ASEAN and India connections though literary and cultural roots

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Zafar Anjum, the Programme Director and Founder of literary and publishing platform Kitaab, gave the welcome address. He welcomed the participants and reflected on the attempt to bring together writers from diverse cultures and language backgrounds to create an environment of learning and growth.

Edwin Thumboo, a celebrated poet and academic of Singapore, traced how Sanskrit and Indian culture, religion and customs spread through South-east Asia from the start of history. He touched upon Hindu and Buddhist influences in Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia with graphic maps and slides in his talk, ‘A Sense of India in ASEAN’.

The panel discussions were broad-ranging in topic and included all kinds of voices and literary genres – from mythology to novels, and from short stories to children’s literature. There were sessions featuring literary performances too. Four new titles by ASEAN and Indian writers were launched at the festival: The Best Asian Short Stories 2017 edited by Monideepa Sahu and Zafar Anjum; Senserly, Amakoby Anita Thomas; The Sacred Sorrows of Sparrows by Siddharth Dasgupta, and Tawassul by award-winning Singaporean writer Isa Kamari, the first Urdu translation of a work of Singaporean literature.

India in the Imagination of ASEAN

The first panel discussion with prominent award winning ASEAN writers, Suchen Christine Lim and Isa Kamari, focused on “India in the Imagination of ASEAN”.

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The moderator, Nilanjana Sengupta, traced how Nalanda University played a non-confrontational role in spreading the ideas in the region and asked the panelists to talk of Indian influences in their writings. Suchen Christine Lim talked of how her Indian characters grew out of her experience of Indians that she met or read about and how Buddhism, which was born in India, influenced the Chinese and Asian characters she portrays in her books.

Isa Kamari said he realised that both Hinduism and Islam were monotheistic after visiting Bali, where Hinduism had travelled from India around 1st century. He added that Hinduism existed before Islam and spoke of his positive experience of traveling in India. All these experiences are to be found in his novels.

‘The River’s Song’ takes on many themes and it would be worth the reader’s while to step into this absorbing, engaging story, says Anuradha Kumar in this review of The River’s Song by Suchen Christine Lim (Aurora Metro Press, 2014, pp 363).

RIVER'S SONG In Singapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum, there is an entire section of photographs and wall displays that show how the Singapore River was transformed in the 1970s. The river was once famous for the hawker stalls along its banks that drew people from all over the city, the shanties that ran along, the vegetable plots sustained by those who lived by it and the fishing and other bumboats that plied at all hours. Yet all this was to change in the 1970s, soon after Singapore came into being as an independent republic. Now besides the museum, there is the lovely much sought after Clarke Quay area, where people hang around at riverside cafes, the only boats that ply are those that take tourists around, and down the many bridges that cross the river, while glass-fronted tall buildings stare down at all this. But the river changed around the 1970s and Suchen Lim’s book writes of this as a time crucial to Ping and Weng, the two characters whose intertwined story drives much of her book.

Ping’s story begins a decade or so before this. As a young girl she is subjected to routine humiliations by people who refer to her derogatorily; she also realizes that she must refer to her mother as Ah-ku and never acknowledge their relationship, neither openly nor to herself. Yet she also sees a fiery side to Ah-ku, who marches to the house of wealthy state official when he has chosen to insult her despite seeking her favours. Ah-ku, meaning aunt in Cantonese, is a popular songstress who performs in the city’s clubs, and has wealthy clients who she has to please. Ping, though, also knows the terrifying insecurity that haunts her, should her little success vanish.

SuchenOne of the best literary novels of this year, The River’s Song, by award-winning novelist Suchen Christine Lim (who is also one of Kitaab’s Advisory Board members) is in the running for this year’s Popular Bookstore’s Readers Choice Awards.

Cheryl TanThe other important work of fiction that is also vying for the same award is Singapore Noir, a collection of stories edited by Cheryl Tan (read the Kitaab interview with Tan).

Popular is Singapore’s largest bookstore chain, the Barnes & Noble of Singapore, if you will.

Here is the full list of nominated titles (adult category):

The National Library Board (NLB) should have held discussion before destroying books, says Suchen Christine Lim at the 7th annual gathering of AP Writers and Translators in Singapore: CNA

SuchenLocal writer Suchen Christine Lim on Thursday (July 17) spoke out against the National Library Board’s (NLB) recent decision to withdraw and pulp three children’s titles deemed as not pro-family.

No public institution should destroy books, especially on family, without discussion, she said, adding that she was “dismayed, disappointed and angry beyond words”.

SuchenBorn in Malaysia but educated in Singapore, Suchen Christine Lim was awarded the Southeast Asia Write Award 2012. In 1992, her novel, Fistful Of Colours, won the Inaugural Singapore Literature Prize. Critics have described her first novel, Rice Bowl, as “a landmark publication on post-independence Singapore”, and A Bit of Earth as “a literary masterwork as well as a historical document”. One of her short stories in The Lies That Build A Marriage was made into a film for national television.

Awarded a Fulbright grant, she is a Fellow of the International Writers’ Program in the University of Iowa, and its International Writer-in-Residence. In 2005, she was writer-in-residence in Scotland, and has returned to the UK several times as an Arvon Tutor to conduct writing workshops and read at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Her new novel, The River’s Song, will be launched in London and New York next spring.

Kitaab recently interviewed Suchen Christine Lim after her novel The River’s Song was released at this year’s Singapore Writers Festival.

You recently released a new novel, The River’s Song, at the Singapore Writers Festival. What inspired you to write this novel and how important it is for you?