As The Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) returns for its 23rd edition this year, it brings with it a theme especially poignant in light of current happenings: intimacy. Known for putting together thought-provoking events with standout international and local writers, this year’s festival will hone in on topical subjects like the changing definitions of loneliness, mental health and the need for human interaction as we fight to survive amidst a pandemic.
SWF is also aptly going virtual for the first time this year. “It has been a whirlwind of a year. When the pandemic hit, we knew we had to relook at our festival programming and plans, down to the theme. These important discussions took place remotely, during the circuit breaker and the early stages of Phase 2,” shares festival director Pooja Nansi. The decision to pivot to a virtual festival may have been born out of necessity thanks to COVID-19 restrictions, but it has serendipitously allowed the organisers to expand their pool of both audience and creators.
This year’s festival will see 10 international headliners—a record high in SWF history—gracing various panels and dialogues. From poetry reading by Pulitzer Prize winner Sharon Olds to a Q&A session with literary titan Margaret Atwood, audiences all over the world can tune in to engage with their favourite writers. Other international headliners include Zadie Smith, Art Spiegelman, Liu Cixin, Naomi Klein, Sarah Lewis, Cassandra Clare, Tracy K Smith and Teju Cole.
“We are pushing the boundaries of what a digital festival can look like. With a diverse line-up of programmes, we are offering a myriad of experiences and activities under our Digital Festival Pass, which includes international headliner programmes for the very first time,” says Nansi. As an acclaimed local poet herself, Nansi is well aware of how under-appreciated Singaporean literature has been in the past—hence why one of SWF’s key missions has long been to celebrate the best Sing-lit has to offer. This year is no different.
Along with featuring notable Singaporean talent like Amanda Chong, Daniel Boey and Lauren Ho, this year’s festival will also unearth substantial literary history. One notable virtual exhibition, for example, explores the work of three seminal Tamil writers whose prolific careers have spanned short stories, novels, poetry, and radio. From the Second World War to Singapore’s development in the 60s to 80s, this showing uncovers the anxieties and aspirations these literary pioneers had and offers a glimpse into the lives of Singapore’s Indian community.
“We worked with The Arts House to present our well-loved Literary Pioneers Exhibition in the form of a microsite, where festival goers can explore engaging virtual rooms revealing the lives and works of Tamil writers and Cultural Medallion recipients P Krishnan, Ma Elangkannan, and Rama Kannabiran,” shares Nansi. “The fact that we are presenting these stories in both Tamil and English also means that new audiences can learn about these local literary giants without being restricted by language.”
SWF honours literary content in all of Singapore’s four official languages, which is a point of pride for Nansi. “We happen to be one of the rare multi-lingual literary festival that is recognised for being an international assembly of writers and ideas,” she says.
“While we miss the buzz of being on-site—bumping into each other and saying hi and eating tacos from the truck—there’s also nothing like being transported into another world with your favourite writers and stories from the comfort of your own home”
As for what she’s most looking forward to in this year’s festival, Nansi lists several innovative digital events that she cannot wait for. “You can’t miss the experiential chatbot Dearest S, where participants act as confidantes to protagonist J as she navigates the idea of intimacy in her relationships and uncovers her own vulnerabilities. We also revisit analogue formats like the phone call with A Call Away, where participants are guided through the unpacking of an activity package through an intimate phone call,” she says. “I’m also looking forward to A (Teenage) Love Affair, a programme by this year’s youth curators, where we see bestselling author of The Mortal Instruments Cassandra Clare discuss representations of romance in the Young Adult genre with Australian author Amie Kaufman and local author Anittha Thanabalan.”