Between the Covers
Fans queued up to meet writers and artists at a festival aimed at stirring fuzzy feelings.
By TAN MAY LEE
NEIL GAIMAN was there. That made a legion of Coraline fans swarm the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) 2009. Many clutched Gaiman’s latest fantasy/horror novel and his famous Sandman graphic novels. They formed a queue that stretched all the way outside The Arts House, the luminous white colonial building by the picturesque Parliament House and Singapore River.
According to Phan Ming Yen, the Arts House assistant general manager, “We are still putting the numbers together but the feel, especially from the long queues for Neil Gaiman, is that we may achieve, or at least will be close to achieving, our target of 25,000 visitors (for the entire festival). However, a festival is not just about numbers but also the quality of the discussions and exchanges held,” Phan adds.
Sadly, I missed Gaiman’s event. The SWF was held from October 24 to November 1, but I had to leave Singapore before he appeared on Halloween.
Fortunately during the first weekend, I ran into three other big names who demonstrated the popularity of comics and graphic novels over the wordier books.
In the Chamber room, where parliamentary debates used to take place, a sizeable audience—some armed with camcorders—gathered to see Mark Waid of Kingdom Come and Superman: Birthright fame; Sonny Liew, the Malaysian-born artist who broke into DC Vertigo, Marvel, and Disney; and Lat, who spoke “on behalf of the older generation, as I was famous in the last century.”
After the event, aptly called “Comics: A Timeless Narrative,” fans formed a queue across the corridor. Singaporean author, Wena Poon (the author of Lions in Winter, who launched her second collection of stories, The Proper Care of Foxes, at the festival), was the first in line to meet Lat. As the renowned Malaysian artist effortlessly doodled his trademark grinning, mop-haired character beside his autograph, she exclaimed how she grew up reading his comics and how he looked exactly like his cartoon.
SWF commanded the attention of Lat, and Malaysia’s distinguished writers—Wong Phui Nam, K.S. Maniam, newly-named National Laureate Anwar Ridhwan, and Baha Zain. They are the generation of writers who worry that—in Wong’s words at a pre-festival press conference—“In 10, 20 years’ time, Malaysian writing in English will be an adjunct to Singapore writing.”
The theme of the 13th instalment of the festival was UNderCovers. In his speech at the opening ceremony, Lui Tuck Yew, Acting Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, explained: “It is about thrills and mystery, the warm and fuzzy feeling when you get under the covers and indulge in a good read, or when once forgotten or silent histories or narratives are uncovered.”
UNderCovers thus offered a diverse range of authors. In the first half alone, hip-hop poet Omar Musa (whose father is poet Musa Masran) performed from his poetry collection, The Clocks, with pieces exploring his Australian-Malaysian heritage.
The 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize winner Miguel Syjuco spoke about writing “liberating” fiction. The Filipino writer’s debut novel, Ilustrado, will be released in May 2010.
Singapore’s O Thiam Chin, who recently released his short-story collection, Never Been Better, made his first solo author appearance. Shamini Flint, a Malaysian who lives in Singapore, launched another title in her Inspector Singh Investigates series of crime fiction, A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul. At the full-house event held in the festival’s cafe, Earshot, Flint announced that her UK publisher, Little, Brown, has signed her for another two titles.
Aside from listening to soulful readings and admiring the festival bookstore’s collection of hard-to-find titles (the store, BooksActually, looks like a gallery of books instead of the usual rows of shelves), visitors were also treated to special performances and film screenings.
One of the most moving films was The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a movie adaptation of John Boyne’s best-selling novel on the Holocaust, which delved into the unlikely friendship between a German boy and a Jewish boy. The Irish author was also at the festival to talk about his latest novel, The House of Special Purpose, set against the landscape of Russia this time.
The SWF is held biennially. Although there is talk that the joy of reading literature is also dying among Singaporeans, the National Arts Council has been sustaining the literary arts scene since 1991.
“The festival strengthened its role as a platform for new Singapore and Asian writing and made Singaporeans more aware of our writing in the four languages (English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil), and our connections and place in Asia,” says Khor Kok Wah, deputy CEO of the Council.
Reproduced from The Sunday Star of November 8, 2009