'Other Tongues': Youth Poet Ambassador Pooja Nansi is launching a literary festival of minority voices
What is the work that you are most proud of?
I am most proud of teaching. That is the best work I've done in my life. I genuinely feel like it's my calling. I love working with young people. If you are talking about writing, I don't think it has happened yet, but I do feel strongly about the one-woman show that I did. It felt quite urgent that I wanted to tell stories about my grandparents, great-grandparents and all the cultural richness that exist in my heritage. I didn't think I was capable of writing that, so it's the work that's closest to my heart.
What have you achieved so far as the first Youth Poet Ambassador?
The Youth Poet Ambassador is a fairly new initiative. The National Arts Council created it with the intent that it would give young poets a platform to get more involved within the community so that they can give back. I got a certain amount of funding to run six public programmes during my two-year tenure. 'Other Tongues' is my last one. It gave me the opportunity to be in the United Kingdom for three months where I got involved in different poetry groups. It was really cool to see different scenes and models. Back in Singapore, one of the highlights was a workshop with students at CHIJ St. Theresa's Convent. It was a quiet session with 16 girls. We talked very little about poetry and a lot about the experience of growing up as a girl in Singapore.
Let's talk a little bit about 'Speakeasy', the series of events you organised at the now-defunct Artistry. What came out of it?
'Speakeasy' was the brainchild of Prashant, who now runs Intermission bar at The Projector. When he asked me if I wanted to do a poetry night, I said I'd loved to. I thought about what I could do differently, the fact that the spoken word and page poet scenes tend to run in different circles. I thought it would be ideal if I could programme a night when both crowds could come together and experience each other. We ran about 35 editions over four years. When Prashant decided to shut Artistry, I decided that 'Speakeasy' had come to an end as well. It would have been a different beast in another space.
Somehow I feel that all of these experiences have led up to Other Tongues.
Yes, I don't think I would have the confidence to run a whole day full of programming if I hadn't gone through these experiences first.
Bring me back to the genesis of 'Other Tongues'. Where were you?
I was at Wine Connection in Katong with my dear friend Shridar who works in programming as well. We were having conversations about representation in the scene. He used to work on 'Kalaa Utsavam' in Esplanade. A lot of minority programming tends to happen in traditional arts, or it's mother tongue-focussed. We wanted to see more contemporary work, and I thought, "Wouldn't be cool if we could run a festival for all the brown kids who don't feel heard?" It's really easy to run another spoken word night, but it's not really offering people what they can't already get in the scene. I started encountering kids who were working in the fringes, doing exciting work but would never come to these mainstream literary spaces because they didn't feel comfortable or confident. It's a shame because their work is great, so I thought it would be good to programme minority experiences.
How would you describe the minority experience?
I don't think there's one monolithic minority experience. My minority experience is really specific because I'm first-generation. My parents are immigrants. I'm much closer to ideas of citizenship, belonging and Singaporean-ness than most people are. My parents grew up in a completely different world than I did. Anyone who is a child of the diaspora will know that you are always straddling two worlds; you are never Indian enough and you are never Singaporean enough. My minority experience is about navigating and trying to justify belonging. It's doubly complicated in a country like Singapore because we have neat boxes of identity checklists.
Talking about kids on the fringes — could you give me an example?
I went to a really cool event run by a visual artist named Divaagar. It began when I was invited to write the abstract for the graduating LASALLE students' projects, and that's when I first encountered his work. It was a purple-tinted bar with an altar set up to Solange. I wanted to know everything about it, so I reached out to him on Instagram. His work explores the idea of double otherness and what it means to be a queer brown person. He redid the project called Soul Lounge at soft/WALL/studs. It was fascinating because you had to check your SES, race and whether you identified as a queer person or not. We all got different coloured stickers, and in a certain iteration of it, you would have to pay a different price for drinks depending on the sticker you had on. There was also a circle of kids participating in a 'wokeshop', talking frankly about their experiences as minority kids. I realise a lot of them were in visual arts, and some of them were working with poetry and text. I felt that their voices needed a larger platform.
Let's talk about the programming. How are you putting it together?
It's literally a two-person army. The focus is on text-based work because it's a Youth Poet Ambassador programme. I thought about the kinds of conversations that would have made me feel supported when I was a young poet coming into the scene. I don't like panels, because I feel like they can be quite "talk down" so I have re-envisioned them as conversations. There is a conversation about the burden of representation and what happens when one person has to be the voice for an entire community. It can be really stressful. I don't pretend to be a voice for the Indian community. I don't know what the experience of a Tamil Singaporean would be like, for example. Nobody has to be a voice for an entire diverse community.
How do you facilitate a genuine conversation between audiences and artists?
The nature of the topics is less like "let me tell you what I know about this" and more "we are all here on common ground and what can we learn from this". None of us actually have a definitive answer. I know some of the conversations around the event would be about who feels excluded from it, but it would be great if people understood the intent of the programming was to not replicate spaces that already exist. Instead of thinking of who it excludes, let's think about who it's including. The word 'minority' refers to an incredibly diverse group of people in Singapore. We've got Filipino and Bangladeshi writers. We even have Thomas Lim who is going to be talking about the disappearing Teochew language. Let's see because this may not be the last edition.
Is the work you're doing for Other Tongues a sign of the direction you'll be leading for Singapore Writers Festival 2019?
I'm going to say nothing about the Singapore Writers Festival. I don't know yet. I'm not committing to anything right now.