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Singapore’s beauty prospects

Paul Theroux signs a copy of a recent title for Manila Standard columnist Jenny Ortuoste.

They’re all in the writing, for the most part, for 10 days in October and November. The Singapore Writers Festival 2014 gathered 200 Singaporean and foreign writers for its 17th edition that offered nothing short of dizzying prospects: readings, book launchings and signings, panel discussions on sundry topics, literature-related arts from music to film. 

On Singapore Management University’s campus in the center of town, large white balloons announced the year’s theme in three languages: “Prospect of Beauty.”

Per Steering Committee chair Philip Jeyaretnam, the theme “lends itself naturally to genres like romance and the lyrical in fiction and poetry. Yet beauty may be skin deep, or even scarring: the pressure to conform to notions of universal beauty and to remake oneself in the image of the ideal.”

For Festival director Paul Tan, it’s a “poignant reminder that the perfect unified moment and the paragon of ideal beauty are ultimately unattainable, even if nearly within our grasp. That aspiration for perfection must be what drives much of humanity’s creative endeavors, and how much the richer we are for it. This year’s festival celebrates the best of these endeavors in the literary world and underlines how art can stir the spirit and capture our imagination.”

Mayo Uno Martin, Conchitina Cruz and Eric Tinsay Valles serve up the “Pinoy Poets Panel.”

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Festival tents on campus served as bookstores, book launch and signing venues, discussion and social arenas. Nearby, the National Museum, Singapore Art Museum and Art House also provided space for the myriad of modules that had ticket-holders hopping from one feature to another, that is, if these weren’t in conflict in the packed program.

The Festival’s Fringe had the sub-theme of “Truly, Madly, Deeply” — with journalists and activists discussing “how their convictions have driven them to extremes.”

The big-ticket draws for the first week included Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Muldoon and former US Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky serving on a panel on “Rhythm and Meaning” — on the “close relationship between music and poetry”

Then there were Naomi Wolf, Jonathan Lethem and Barry Lopez — all drawing full audiences for the modules they literarily starred in.

On Nov. 3, Chinese novelist Su Tong, Singaporean poet Yong Shu Hoong (shortlisted for the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize) and MAN Asia Prize winner Miguel Syjuco, who’s enjoying a Creative Writing residency in a Singapore university, discussed “the role that creative writing programs have in the world of letters” in the panel billed as “Room With a View.”

UK poet George Szirtes and Singaporean poet
Alvin Pang in conversation at the Singapore Writers Festival 2014


I would have also enjoyed the panel “Joining a New League” which had our very own Paolo Fabregas introducing “a new twist to the superhero mythos with an under-funded, under-manned Filipino Heroes League…” I understand that Paolo sold all the copies he brought over. 

Meet-the-author sessions, film screenings of literature-related films, playwrights on history and interactive storytelling were among the best-attended, or so we heard. Other interesting fora dwelled on such topics as “The Map of My Body” (“female writers celebrating the body… and breaking down barriers between the private and the public”) and “The Poet as Pilgrim,” with good friend Aaron Lee, Singaporean poet, joining the discussion on what being a pilgrim means to a poet.

Manila Times writer Sheila T. Mañalac and I were brought over to cover the final weekend of activities. And we still had our fill of the wordfeast, with travel writer and fictionist Paul Theroux as the prime draw.  

We attended his SWF Lecture, “The Roads I Travelled,” then had an interview with the affable, engaging writer who started his literary career with the novel St. Jack, written in Singapore in the late 1960s while he taught English at a university.

What he shared as insights and personal accounts during his lecture, as well as his extended replies to our interview questions, deserve much more space here, so we’ll have those next week.

Sheila and I enjoyed our guided tour of the Arts House, the former Parliament House that’s been preserved as a gallery space for literature-related art. On exhibit was “Inscription” — featuring artists engaged in the processes of writing, drawing, movement and performance, as curated by artist-writer Jason Wee.

Then we took in a whodunit theater piece offered by SWF Fringe: “Body X,” an interactive-experiential murder mystery production that had us following a cast of six characters dramatizing the murder puzzle through the building’s various chambers.

Saturday, Nov. 8 had us attending the riveting conversation between Singaporean poet Alvin Pang and Geogge Szirtes of the UK, with both also reading from their works. 

On the last day, the “Pinoy Poets Panel” featured our poet-authors Mayo Uno Martin, Eric Tinsay Valles and Conchitina B. Cruz. Mayo has also been excelling in journalism as a long-time Singapore resident, while Ateneo alumnus Eric is doing post-grad work in the Lion City, if I’m not mistaken.

So little time, so much to cover, so that brief chats were all I managed to have with both of these fine young men. For her part, “Chingbee” Cruz, one of our finest young poets (Dark Hours is her excellent latest collection), was a delight to listen to when the discussion turned towards the usual question of cultural identity besetting Filipino writers.

She recalled how at 15, she first experienced listening to Filipino poets reading their works. These were Jose “Pete” Lacaba and Marra PL Lanot. She found it fascinating and felt herself alive in a new way, having been brought up almost entirely on Western literature, such as the Nancy Drew series with their “strawberry-haired and blue-eyed” heroines.

Cruz also cited the “pressure to come up with a checklist that can’t help but intersect with what is indigenous” in having to come up with Filipino content. Then, there’s this arresting quote, too, in my CP Notes: “It’s a futile pursuit to revert to a pure Filipino identity, not only reductive but futile.” Not sure now if it was she or either of the two Pinoy gentlemen that flanked her who said that. 

But we’ve run out of space now, and there’s still much more to relate of SWF 2014. We’ll take it up again next week, have more on the book launch that featured new titles by our buddy Aaron Lee together with Eric Tinsay Valles, our conversation with Paul Theroux (particularly on his kayaking adventure in Palawan), and how Alvin Pang served up a sacrament that matched if not enhanced all that jazz all that poetry.

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