SINGAPORE – Award-winning writer Zadie Smith, seminal graphic novelist Art Spiegelman and science fiction trailblazer Liu Cixin are among the literary stars headlining this year’s Singapore Writers Festival (SWF).
It has also drawn not one but two Pulitzer Prize-winning poets from the United States, Sharon Olds and Tracy K. Smith.
Early-bird tickets go on sale on Monday (Sept 21) for the 23rd edition of the annual festival, organised by the National Arts Council (NAC), which will run from Oct 30 to Nov 8 in its first fully digital edition due to Covid-19. The digital festival pass will give access to more than 130 programmes, including headliners.
The festival’s theme this year is “Intimacy”. Festival director Pooja Nansi, 38, hopes that in its most socially distant edition ever, it will get people thinking about what it means to have human connection.
“We can’t really experience arts and culture sitting in a room as bodies together,” she said over Zoom. “How does that affect the intimacy of the experience between writers and readers, between performers and audiences?”
Ms Nansi, who is in her second year at the festival’s helm, described it as “same same but different”.
When it became clear in March that the Covid-19 outbreak would make it nigh impossible to pull off a physical festival this year, her team began conceptualising what a digital festival might look like. “We didn’t want to cancel the edition because we felt it was still important for people to have a space to talk about everything that was going on,” she said.
While they have had to rethink festival content and ensure audiences such as seniors are not left out in the shift online, Ms Nansi said new opportunities have unfolded in the digital sphere. They were able to feature authors that might not otherwise have been able to travel to Singapore and explore new ways in which Singapore literature could exist online.
“There are play-your-own-adventure games, there are commissions that have delved into augmented reality and virtual reality, which I don’t know that we would otherwise have urgently felt compelled to do.”
She said the works of this year’s headliners “really illuminate this strange tension between feeling isolated and wanting to be connected, and in some ways be more connected”.
Zadie Smith, who is British, is acclaimed for novels such as her debut White Teeth (2000) and On Beauty (2005), with which she won the Orange Prize for Fiction. She has recently released a collection of essays, Intimations, reflecting on the pandemic.
American cartoonist Spiegelman is best known for his Holocaust narrative Maus (1980 to 1991), the first graphic novel to receive a Pulitzer Prize.
Liu propelled Chinese science fiction onto the world stage when Ken Liu’s English translation of his novel The Three-Body Problem won the 2015 Hugo Award.
The SWF Youth Fringe for those aged 13 to 18 returns for a second year, with American author Cassandra Clare, who wrote young adult fantasy series The Mortal Instruments (2007 to 2014), as one of the headliners.
This year’s Youth Fringe, which is curated by a student panel in partnership with the Singapore Book Council, will look at how people relate to the Internet, from the power of influencers to social justice movements.
The Arts House, where the festival is typically headquartered, will transform this year into a radio station with Night Spin 182.7, a series of podcasts and vodcasts.
The broadcast will run every day of the festival from 8 to 11pm and include radio plays by Grace Kalaiselvi, Edith Podesta and Second Breakfast Company.
Festival-goers will also get a chance to enter the strange universe of speculative fiction author Victor Fernando R. Ocampo in Play This Story: The Book Of Red Shadows, an interactive psychological horror game that takes place over e-mail.
Players find themselves deceased, amnesiac and enrolled in the government’s secret Red Shadow Project. They may be able to rejoin the living if they do their assignments well, but are also threatened with erasure and revelations from their dark pasts.
This year’s festival will recognise three Tamil literary pioneers, P. Krishnan, Rama Kannabiran and Singai Ma Elangkannan, in a digital exhibition.
BOOK IT/SINGAPORE WRITERS FESTIVAL 2020
WHERE: Sistic Live
WHEN: Oct 30 to Nov 8
ADMISSION: $12 for digital festival pass (early-bird from Sept 21 to Oct 9), regular price $20 (Oct 10 onwards), $12 (concessions) from swf2020-live.sistic.com. Separately ticketed programmes at $10 to be announced at a later date
The exhibition recreates in the digital realm the rooms of each of these writers. Krishnan, for instance, was closely associated with radio playwriting and his digital room will resemble a broadcasting studio.
Ms Nansi said that while they knew they could not replicate the experience of past physical festivals, they still aim to create a sense of community for festival-goers.
“So much of what we have grown to love about the festival is just being on festival grounds, bumping into each other and saying hi and eating tacos from the truck,” she said.
“Which we can still do. You can order the tacos at home. But we want to still have that sense of community, even though it’s in the digital sphere.”
This article has been edited after clarifications from the National Arts Council.