Singapore Writers Festival: A literary roundtable featuring Shivram Gopinath, Cyril Wong, Sarah Naeem, Marissa Chen, and Kenny Leck
Speaking truth and power
As a media partner of this year's Singapore Writers Festival (SWF), I felt that it was necessary for Buro. Singapore to feature a diverse roundtable of key voices within the literary scene — instead of a solitary personality — to truly understand and reflect the dynamic changes that we're witnessing within the country's cultural landscape.
Organised by the National Arts Council, the Singapore Writers Festival offers a glimpse into these seismic shifts by throwing open the often-privileged doors of the literary world through a gamut of fascinating programmes that offer insight and access to some of the moods and personalities of the moment: get up close and personal with headlining international authors in the intimacy of the Old Man Bar, debate and discuss the role of men in feminism, and even capture some snapshots for the 'gram at an after-dark party at The Arts House.
Thrilling as these events may seem, when six of Singapore's most outstanding talents gathered around a table, the conversation turned mostly sombre despite the humble acknowledgement of growth. Throughout our 90-minute discussion in the millennial-pink interior of tea salon Antea Social, there were moments of comedy and clarity: BooksActually's founder Kenny Leck's encounter with Canadian heartthrob Shawn Mendes as well as The Moon's Marrisa Chen and Sarah Naeem's recollection of Chanel Miller's powerful letter as a sexual assault survivor, just to name a few.
Add accomplished wordsmiths such as award-winning poet Cyril Wong and twice-winning Singapore National Poetry Slam champion Shivram Gopinath to the table, and you've got a no-holds-barred break down of what it means to be in the business of words in Singapore today.
Let's pick up the conversation with Cyril asking quite possibly the most important question that was asked at the table that day, "What was Shawn Mendes like?"
Kenny: Unfortunately, when he came in, I didn't recognise him. He had a big-sized bodyguard who was watching him and everybody else from a distance. I knew that he was specifically looking for your book, Cyril.
Cyril: I saw that you posted about it on Facebook. I don't listen to his music. I just think he is cute.
Aravin: Let's start off our conversation with a simple ice-breaker. Is this a good or bad time to be a poet, book retailer, spoken word performer, and café owner?
Sarah: I don't think there's ever a good time to have that kind of conversation to be honest. It's one of those things where you do it and you just roll with it. There are certain things that are timely. For example, if you're going to open a CD shop, just when CDs are getting phased out, that maybe a bad time, but books are timeless.
Shivram: It's an interesting time for spoken word artists just because of how fast your work can travel, the scrutiny it can get, and the amount of work that's being generated at the moment.
Cyril: I'm ambivalent. I started out as a reclusive musician. I published a bit of poetry and that took me in a weird direction, so you can say it was a good time then. The circumstances were asking for a type of queer poet to exist. For better or for worse, I ended up taking up the mantle of being an outspoken poet for certain issues such as dysfunctional families. The circumstances called out for a poet to fill up that space and talk about it. Sadly, the circumstances are still right for that today.
Kenny: I agree with Sarah. There's no good or bad time. You just do it. If you decide to do it, you have to decide whether it's worth doing it for the rest of your life, however long that lifespan is. The running joke is that I'll probably drop dead at a bookshelf when I'm 80.
Sarah: Am I going to die at the store? That's not a bad way to go, though. I will haunt The Moon for the rest of my afterlife.
Aravin: That's hilarious! This year's SWF theme is "Language of Our Own". The first thing that comes to mind when I think of the potency of language is climate activist Greta Thunberg's "How dare you" speech. In each of your own experiences, can you recall the last time that you read or heard something that moved you?
Marissa: For me, it would be Chanel Miller's letter. She was the Emily Doe in the Stanford rape case with Brock Turner a couple of years ago. It was a really powerful letter that Buzzfeed published in 2016. It confronted her accuser in very plain language and reflected a lot of personal experiences of women everywhere, and yet, it was very disempowered in many ways because she was still anonymous. Despite the strength of her words, her accuser received a light sentence. Language is powerful, but we also have to acknowledge power structures.
Aravin: Because that case is relevant to what's happening in Singapore at the moment, what do you think about the use of language in the recent spate of sexual assault cases in our local university campuses?
Sarah: When women have to recount these experiences over and over again to prove it, they have to relive that trauma every single time.
Aravin: That's true. Are there any other examples?
Cyril: I'm always very impressed by the writings of students who I've met in my own workshops. Those are the ones that have made a difference in my life. It's the quiet and unassuming students or the ones you think weren't listening at all who write poems about #MeToo moments at home and the troubles of growing up queer. It inspires me because we've enabled a safe space for everyone to share a moment that will make a difference in all our lives, including mine.
Marissa: As writers and artists in Singapore, do you think that there are existing power structures that might be preventing people from writing at all, or disseminating their writing and getting published?
Cyril: The power structures are the same; they are invisible. That's the way Singapore works. It's about recognising what the circumstances are and deciding when's the right time to put your work out there. The great thing about Math Paper Press and BooksActually is that they're independent and have carte blanche on what they can publish.
Kenny: By right, coming from my background, I shouldn't be a publisher or running a bookstore. Based on our education system, there are technically no rungs on the ladder to climb up to where I am today. Somehow or rather, I'm here. Luck and support plays a huge part. For me, it's about how I can reach out to as many people as possible. For example, we have encountered Malay and other ethnic minority kids who travel all the way to Tiong Bahru in their school uniform to visit us. A few years ago, they would ask specifically for Lang Leav and were super happy when they bought it. To me, Lang Leav has done more than any of the local poets have ever done to reach out to these kids who might never have the chance to do literature. These kids are going to have something to hold on to, and that for me, is the most important thing.
Aravin: Shivram, has there been anyone in your life who has changed the way you view reading and writing?
Shivram: I used to hate English when I was growing up in India. I would only speak in Tamil until I was 10. I used to listen to Tamil poet Bharathiyar a lot. He was a pretty fiery guy who was fighting for independence through his writing. I was introduced this idea of poetry and expression through his work.
Aravin: Sarah, did you have a similar experience as Shivram?
Sarah: What inspired The Moon was the exact opposite of Shivram's experience growing up. I grew up in an environment that has English-speaking with lots of books by male Caucasian writers. It wasn't until my late teens and early twenties that I realised that I wasn't surrounding myself with more diverse perspectives. I made a conscious effort to change that. I've been very lucky to have met Marissa. We shared a vision and built The Moon together. Interestingly, there have been family members specifically who don't understand what I do and the need for it. It's been the case of "Your work is pointless, this is ridiculous, and you will not achieve anything." Learning to look outside of that to understand that my work is relevant and important as well as reminding myself why I started this in the first place, instead of looking for approval from places that I will never get it from, has been challenging personally.
Marissa: When Sarah first opened the store and approached a company to do market research, they came back to us with their findings and told us that it might be good idea for us to tone down our idea of a primarily women-led bookstore. They told us that Singapore wasn't ready. Interestingly, it was delivered to us not as advice but as a warning. Since opening, I've found that Singapore is absolutely ready, especially the younger crowd.
Aravin: Singapore is certainly ready. I notice that half of this table is in the business of selling words, while the other half creates with words. What would you say to each other that might potentially be helpful for one another to hear?
Shivram: I'm just grateful. Running a bookstore in Singapore is a hard thing to do. Both The Moon and BooksActually clearly face different challenges. The fact that both of you have chosen to place books in your spaces is incredibly amazing.
Marissa: I'll have to disagree with the question. Both Shivram and Cyril are in the business of selling their words. No one wants to write poetry and go broke in the process. True diversity means everyone should be able to make a living from their work. The implication that only people who can afford to not live off their writing can write in Singapore is a major problem in the lack of diversity in Singapore's writing scene. My advice as someone who runs a bookstore and has been in publishing, don't undervalue your work. If someone asks for your work for free, think twice. Valuing your work means giving yourself the space to improve, make mistakes, and receive feedback so you can command a fair price for your work. Low-balling is an art in this country.
Aravin: On a more optimistic note, since all of you are active participants in the scene, what are all of you positive about?
Sarah: For our one-year anniversary party recently, we had somebody gift us a book of poetry that they wrote inspired by The Moon. It was so precious and contained references to in-store jokes and conversations that we've had internally. It was very sweet and heart-warming to hear that the space has inspired people to create. One of the goals for me when I started the business, was to encourage our patrons to create, whether it was art, poetry, or music. To actually see that vision come to life is the most rewarding part of the process.
Shivram: The spoken word scene has grown a lot. When I first started out in 2004, there were often times more poets than people who came to see them. There's so much more strength in numbers. With numbers, come more reference and competition along with clique-ness and sameness.
Aravin: That's great to hear! Finally, from your greatest failure, what's one lesson you've learned that you would like to share?
Sarah: There are so many. I actually interviewed with Shivram at UltraSuperNew a couple years ago and he didn't hire me. It was a blow, but had I gone down that path, it would have been a very different life and career for me. It has been challenging, but this is what I'm meant to do. It might have been disappointing in that moment, knowing that there's something better and greater waiting for me in the wings, I just had to push through that initial phase of disappointment.
Shivram: I was such a visionary. You're welcome.
Shivram Gopinath and Cyril Wong are featured as speakers and performers at Singapore Writers Festival. You are also strongly encouraged to visit The Moon and BooksActually. Singapore Writers Festival will run from 1 to 10 November 2019. Festival passes and tickets can be purchased via SISTIC now.
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