After a sumptuous lunch and an array of student performances, we return to listen to four immensely talented writers, Cyril Wong, Gwee Li Sui, Tse Hao Guang, and Patricia Karunungan, as they share about “Using Narrative Poetry to Develop Writing Skills”.
First off, what is narrative poetry? Simply put by the panellists, it is a type of poetry that tells a story — examples including ancient epics and local favourites Missing by Alfian Sa’at and After Fire by Boey Kim Cheng. Having regular rhythm and metre (and hence considered more musical), the genre emerged from the oral tradition and helped tell stories through word of mouth.
Next, we come to the reasons we write narrative poetry. For Patricia, poetry’s ambiguity helps one claim territory as one’s own, since it is more tethered to art than truth; while and precisely because it may not be factually accurate and is less governed by a fixed set of rules, it empowers people who fall through the cracks and validates their subjective realities. Yet, it is not an easy genre to write, Gwee notes, due to the tension between poetry (which relishes ambivalence and uncertainty) and narrative (which usually has a clearer trajectory); hence, writers have to strike a balance between
telling a comprehensible story while maintaining a poetic style.
We then discuss how we can develop writing skills through this form. On one hand, Patricia thinks a lot about the audience of her works to decide how best to convey a message. On the other hand, Hao Guang is more suspicious, believing that we should enjoy the writing process regardless of audience, a sentiment echoed by Cyril who urges youths to be less concerned with being a better writing, but rather strive to discover the form that allows one to best express one’s thoughts and emotions in a rich, authentic, and powerful manner. (As Hao Guang quips, prose is life in tension;
poetry is language in tension.)
As the Q&A session kicks off, some audience members bring up the issue of the pressure on young writers to publish manuscripts, especially in a competitive Singapore. On this, all the panellists unanimously believe that we should be ready before doing so. In addition, Cyril encourages young writers to confront profound questions regarding why we write about a subject matter, separating such introspection from addressing the more audience-oriented worries such as whether one’s pieces
cater to people’s tastes and preferences. Another related issue raised was on when we should publish, to which Hao Guang believes it is important to decide after filtering the external “noises” from the crowded field, seeking professional advice, and once again being personally ready. Moreover, Patricia reassures us that nobody else has the unique point of view that you do, while Cyril believes we all have a choice between seeking influence by being a ‘famous and shameless’ industry player or truly finding out who one is.
Ultimately, the panellists hope that young writers will continue to see creative writing as an exploratory journey, enjoy the poetic freedom and learn from mistakes, while training oneself to be more detached and objective when evaluating one’s works. Don’t be too stressed to showcase if you aren’t prepared, but keep all your drafts that may inspire future works and allow you to connect with your past self. In this journey of self discovery, believe not (just) in yourself but also the process! And if nothing else, coming to terms with one’s writing and oneself will be the most valuable takeaways.
I believe none of us are unfamiliar with SGAG, the uniquely Singaporean social media platform inspired by the reputed 9GAG. Having been cast into the limelight in recent years, gaining popularity and traction amongst Singaporeans, SGAG has managed to extend their reach to Malaysia as well as the Philippines, aiming to spread the joy of positivity to a larger crowd by engaging with local issues close to their hearts.
As a young organisation, it is more than impressive to watch them grow and flourish in their industry in such a short span of time making us all wonder, what is the driving force behind this organisation?
All in! Writer’s Festival has given us an opportunity to get a tiny glimpse into the brilliant minds of the people behind the brand, allowing us to answer the question a little better.
Established in 2012, SGAG started at the back of a university lecture hall -- amidst the flurry and worries of grades and deadlines -- acting as an antidote to dispel the general dreariness that lingers in the minds of all students. What was a simple idea then grew into a full fledged company we see today, dedicated to making all Singaporeans’ day a little better.
The road to reaching this seemingly impossible and lofty ideal has not been an easy one. From the keynote address given by two members of the SGAG team, Yu Xuan and Annette Lee, it can be seen that behind the light-hearted and comical on screen appearances of members are passionate and dedicated people who are serious about furthering the cause that SGAG embodies.
They went on to reveal the various ways they have managed to hone their craft over the years, hoping it will be able to provide aspiring youths the skills and takeaways needed to be a successful trailblazer. As they’ve shared, it is all about focus, being able to trace the root cause of their ambitions before refining their aim and consequently, identifying a niche to work on. For SGAG, they have naturally evolved to tap onto comedy and heartwarming stories as part of their content.
Following that comes the focus on execution, exploring different ways that will best achieve the intended purpose. For SGAG, their form of execution all comes down to what best suits their target audience. Focussing more on empowering the youths of today, SGAG uses a two-pronged approach to ensure that their content reaches the widest audience possible. While spending attention and time experimenting with different kinds of social media platforms and reviewing the responses they get from the public, they also constantly update themselves on the different avenues available which can best package their content.
By focussing on these two aspects, they have managed to increase their viewership extensively over the years. This has strongly encouraged them and further strengthened their passion in SGAG and its potential. To be able to amplify the hidden good and most importantly, for us to be the hidden good.
For all the avid readers out there in Singapore and beyond, you would have sooner or later wondered about this perennial question: what defines Singlit? Is there a distinctive theme or style that sets it apart? Indeed, as our nation grows in affluence and self-awareness, its desire to embrace a unique identity has also heightened, leading in part to today’s session entitled “Singaporean Identity in Contemporary Fiction”, where we listen to two young authors JY Yang and Balli Kaur Jaswal (BKJ) share their personal take on this complex topic.
To start off, the panellists shed some light on how they themselves explored Singapore identity through their works. For JY, she recognised the difficulty of doing so due to the relatively new phenomenon of a national identity, as opposed to her Western-centric works borne out of a practical need for funding and access to a broader market. For BKJ, her desire to examine Singaporean identity through the lens of less represented communications was primarily due to her own identity as being a North Indian in Singapore, which she considers a minority within a minority. Accordingly, she strongly believes in expanding the narrow definition we sometimes impose on Singaporean identity as ‘a dynamic society defies definition’. That said, she acknowledged that there were certain key concerns within each ‘wave’ of Singlit, and although she grew up in a generation that grappled with the idea of Singapore as an ‘offshoot from someone else, [constantly] looking outwards’, with a focus on war and post-colonial independence, some tensions, for instance between tradition and modernity, continue to be felt today.
On what inspired the two writers and their works, race emerged as a significant factor. For one, JY highlighted how Chinese privilege has initially made her a sheltered child, and it was her entry into the realm of journalism that forced her to look at the world more deeply, eventually motivating her to create fictional worlds that exaggerate problems (of power balances and rules) which can then be examined. Similarly, with a sense of bleak humour, KBJ shared that it was the difficulty of being Indian in Singapore, compounded by the layers of restrictive rules from parents, school, and the kiasu culture at large, that compelled her to challenge authority (figures) in her workers, ensuring that the underdog gets what they deserve. As the moderator Sheena Kang notes, both authors recognise the complexity of identity and are especially careful not to fall into any stereotypes, even as they recreate fictional words in their favour.
As we moved on to the Q&A session, the discussion shifted to globalisation and how its potential effects on Singlit. On the one hand, JY is cheerful that with the Singapore publishing world experiencing a renaissance of sorts, you can now be both a local and global writer, roles once mutually exclusive. On the other hand, BKJ tempers this sense of optimism by citing how the Western publishing world still desires the Orientalist image of the Far East (eg. Crazy Rich Asians), and this prevailing and totalising mindset is unlikely to change anytime soon, as the publishers must retain readers’ interests, and even as readers seek to expand their minds through reading, they would also be wary of and uncomfortable with too radical a paradigm shift in outlook. As such, she really hopes that even as our national icon as commonly represented in Singlit has changed from the Merlion to MBS, we can one day get past this image (a tall order nonetheless!).
Ultimately, despite the differences in background and writing genre, both authors, who identify as queer and non-binary, never fails to emphasise the importance of having socioeconomically disadvantaged groups (like the disabled) tell their own stories, and while having a singular national narrative is a seductive idea, we would much more appreciate for a diverse variety of voices to be added to the literature canon!
All In! Young Writers Festival was a flurry of activities on the last day of its event, with many rushing from one session to the next and others catching quick words with literary idols and mentors. While spending my time engaged in different activities, from online games to spoken poetry during lunchtime, I also had the opportunity to attend two of the sessions in the programme line-up which struck me the most.
One such activity is a panel session titled "Developing Social Awareness Through Writing", conducted by Dr Gene Navera, a lecturer for writing and communication and a teacher for rhetoric and composition courses, and moderated by Mr Ow Yeong Wai Kit, an English and Literature teacher. The focus of the session was about rhetorical citizenship, where writing is a social act and citizenship is something everyone does. Keeping in mind what interests the reader and how words expressed influence the reader, rhetorical citizenship requires ethical communication and the commitment to increasing awareness for making better and informed decisions. There are three core values involved: accuracy, clarity of information, and empathy. Text samples were distributed to the participants who then formed groups of three to discuss and share features of the texts, paying attention to what makes it an act of citizenship and how the writer responds to the issue. Even the Q&A session proved to be highly informative and educational, with the participants benefiting from pieces of advice Dr Navera and Mr Wai Kit shared, such as the virtue of humility, and the good practice of reading texts beyond social media.
Another such activity is a workshop titled "Write and Save the Planet", conducted by Mr Muzakkir Samat, a civil engineer, and facilitated by Mr Wai Kit. After a round of participants' self-introduction, the workshop started off with a question on the definition and purpose of ecopoetry, scoping the line of discussion. The participants were encouraged to consider the current environmental challenges and their enthusiasm for nature, as ecopoetry involves environmentalist and non-anthropocentric attitudes. They were shown sample ecopoems from the only Singapore anthology of nature written in English, titled From Walden To Woodlands, edited by Mr Muzakkir. Following that, the participants were encouraged to engage their surroundings as well, given how it was a workshop focussing on our environment. They were led on a mini nature walk within the building premises to find little spots of greenery in the vicinity for inspiration to start writing and sharing their own ecopoems, using a one-page handout as a guide. The workshop concluded with key takeaways, prompting us to consider our relationship with nature and environment and the vital contribution we can make to ongoing dialogues about sustainable living. Perhaps most importantly, the workshop has deepened participants’ understanding of ecopoetry, giving them the tools needed to better engage the environment even in literature. .
As the day drew to a close, one comes to the realisation that despite the varying nature of the sessions attended, a common theme could be found; widening the accessibility to literature. This can perhaps be further elaborated by the words of Mr Wai Kit himself, "... poetry shouldn’t be the exclusive province of literati ensconced in ivory towers. Our workshop was premised on the fact that young people can and should nurture their passion for writing, even if they’ve hardly had any experience in it so far.” It sums up the nature of All In! Young Writers Festival perfectly. To create a platform that engages youths across all boards, experienced or not, into the world of literature and to encourage them by showing them the impact it can make in various social sectors.
Recall the last time you watched a riveting documentary. What was it that caught your attention? Was it a heartwarming storyline? Stunning visuals? Characters that you really connected with? Often times, it would probably be an intriguing mix of these elements that make a documentary so riveting.
In this session titled ‘Documenting the Undocumented’, we listen to two prominent local filmmakers Sumithra Prasanna and Mary Chin as they candidly share about their filmmaking experiences. Having been producing visual content for quite some time, both of them started by re-affirming the value of documentaries in providing us with insight into the human condition, while crafting a narrative journey that the audience can connect with. For Sumithra, filming a documentary is much like writing a research paper — to posit a strong premise which will then be answered, keeping in mind the relevance of the subject material to the audience involved. As she patiently details the process of cinematography — from locating dynamic angles to shoot, to recording the right ambience sounds, from asking the right questions to the interview subject to managing the dynamics within a crew, one cannot help but feel immersed in an actual scene itself! It may be a demanding artistic exercise, but as Mary reassured us, it is actually the keen observation of everyday life and choice of a topic close to our hearts (and backed up by research) that help filmmakers like herself convey their message with personal conviction and aesthetic intricacies.
Yet, the process of filmmaking has far more profound impacts than simply capturing a story; as the discussion moved on, the panellists both expressed how it has helped them attain new perspectives on reality and cultivated values such as empathy and self-awareness in the crew, informing the way they live life beyond the screen. For instance, Sumithra notes how in her favourite documentary Undercover Asia, which reports on the trafficking of underage girls as child labour, the suspense the audience feels as they follow the quest to find a missing girl accentuates the joy when she is finally rescued, eliciting in them a whole palette of emotions to contend with. Indeed, Mary reminds us that while documentaries are factual by nature, it is simultaneously also a conduit for relationship-building, requiring those involved to invest both time and their hearts in the process. Interestingly, this raises the question of whether the crew needs to detach themselves while shooting to avoid being too emotionally detached to their subjects, to which Sumithra addressed in the Q&A by doubting whether any documentary can be truly objective since filmmakers invariably bring in their own perspectives into the subject matter. What filmmakers seek to do, instead, is to stay balanced, eschew propaganda, and provide the audience with alternative points of view for them to form their own conclusion.
To budding directors, the panellists urge you to tell good (and true) stories, question the status quo and explore depths of subject matter at hand. At the same time, adopt an open-minded, respectful, and responsible attitude as you embark on this exciting journey. Your correspondent couldn’t agree more with the panellist’s quote in closing: if you can’t pay back, at least pay forward.
The gradual growing emphasis placed around establishing a prominent and robust literary community in Singapore has seen the rise of many local literary events over the years, one of them being “All In! Young Writers Festival” which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. A strong advocate for youth involvement in the Singapore literary scene, it is thus apt that we attempt to shed more light on the subject matter. As our literary scene evolves, it becomes ever more important for us to ground ourselves to our roots by asking, what exactly is Singlit?
Guiding us along in this journey are veterans in this sector, having spent years studying and producing their very own style of local literature across different genres. From local children’s books to a collection of real life stories of colonial Singapore, Don Bosco, Josephine Chia and Rosemarie Somaiah have their fair share of insights to impart to the audience about just what it means to be an author who writes local literature.
The discussion covered a wide range of topics. The more notable points being the role that local literature plays in our lives today and how writers have developed it, the evolution of a uniquely Singaporean command of the English language and perhaps most important of all, finding a personal voice amidst the various other inputs we receive.
The panel started off by scoping the discussion for debate, providing their views on what Singaporean literature meant to the average citizen. The notion of literature being “highbrow” was brought up by Josephine Chia amidst a vivid recount of her experiences growing up in colonial Singapore as opposed to her later years spent in England. To Josephine, literature can be accessible and the key to change this mindset may lie in local literature. Writing literature -- local or not -- is about conveying important issues through stories. As such, writings do not have to sound patronising by exclusively churn out facts and philosophical ideas, which is arguably what causes many people to consider it “highbrow” and inaccessible. Instead, this can be avoided by focussing on giving stories a solid and well thought out setting, it in turn allows readers a glimpse into an underlying theme that anchors the readers to the piece. When it comes to Singaporean literature, this is paramount to differentiating it from other forms of literature. It lies in finding out what “Singapore” means to the writer. It may sound elusive, yet it goes a long way in defining Singlit. Only when “Singaporean literature” has been defined and takes on a personal meaning for the writer can it then be extrapolated to produce a piece of work that is localised. Defining an underlying strong theme allows one to find like-minded readers who better relate to the work, increasing accessibility to literature.
As the discussion shifts, we find ourselves focussing more on identifying specific traits, such as form or imagery, that sets Singaporean literature apart from others -- assuming there are any. For Dom, he believes that diction goes a long way when it comes to producing local literary works, especially for children. After committing himself to producing texts for young local children, he felt that a good way to encourage children to read was by tapping on what they already have, such as their existing vocabulary. This led him to further explain how Singaporeans’ sentence structure varies greatly from the other english speaking countries when it comes to the way English is used in its colloquial form. As such, this practices may impact written works as well. This means that young children, who are much more familiar with colloquial language than the former one, may find it difficult to read what was written by people who are more familiar with their way of language usage. This sensitivity allowed him to learn to ground his books in words that stemmed from an effort to be localised, not forcing young children to accustom themselves to an acquired taste which might be heavy and foreign.
Lastly, for all budding writers that might have the most pressing question at hand, how does one find the source of inspiration? Well, the discussion naturally led them to share their own sources of inspiration. While it is most definitely not an exhaustive list, their passion and vigour may move you to try them out yourself. For Rosemarie, being a foreigner in Singapore has caused her to question her identity for the longest time. However, it is due to the conflict within herself that allowed her to eventually find her source of inspiration; gratitude. Gratitude is her way of connecting with her audience and no one else could have said it any better than herself, that “you’re only as relevant as you’re serving your audience.”
If the discussion has proven anything, it is that Singaporean literature may stay as elusive as ever and it is an ever evolving entity that reshapes itself with every push and pull. However, what was made crystal clear throughout the session is the emphasis on the power that writers have when it comes to defining local literature. While our history and diverse culture has given the local literary scene a broad definition, that does not mean we are at the end of our path. On the contrary, the path has widened as we trod on. As Josephine has aptly put, the best way to contribute to local literature is to “Find your own voice. Don’t try to imitate anyone… that is where the greatest writing comes from.”