Wednesday, November 16, 2016

SWF 2016 :: Sayang

There were plenty of events at this year's Singapore Writers Festival. Nothing jumped out at me though. No panel that was a 'must-go'. Still, I dutifully bought the festival pass, scanned through the programs and bought tickets, unconsciously making space in the schedule for some panels.

There was this strange new ticketing system for non-chargeable events that was baffling. Like a festival pass plus an attendance ticket that is free but must be registered and collected. Anyway. For me, there were four sessions that were quite the highlights.

1) Atia Abawi's lecture 'Europe's Migrant Crisis'- I'm not sharing my thoughts on any online platform about the contents of her lecture, except that it was very good, touching on fundamentalism, starvation, Afghanistan, Europe's crisis, refugees and religion. The Middle-East-based foreign correspondent and author's lecture was human and sobering. I found it a bit ironic for many reasons, least of all how my affluent tiny country has no capacity to accept refugees. I'll chat about this with my like-minded friends offline though. Her semi-fictional novel 'The Secret Sky' (2014) set in present-day Afghanistan is worth a read.

2) 'What Makes A Story Singaporean?':-  Moderated by Richard Angus Whitehead, the panel held familiar names of Simon Tay, Balli Kaur Jaswal and Philip Holden. The question is on ongoing debate on identity. We don't need Singlish to make it sound 'authentic'. Setting stories in Singapore never makes them Singaporean. i.e. imho, Jonathan Lethem's rather lousy 'A Gentlemen's Game'. It was a robust discussion. And there wasn't any sort of conclusion. Writers will continue to flounder, and of course we saved the discussion on cultural appropriation and the sorts till the following weekend.

3) Jonathan Friesen's lecture 'Creating A Society of Empathy':- Admittedly, I'm not acquainted with any of his books till I did some last-minute homework before attending the lecture. The author and motivational speaker talks about his struggle living with Tourette Syndrome and epilepsy. Inspiring? Always.

4) Lionel Shriver's 'An Unflinching Eye Into the Truth':I was too curious. I do like her writing. Had to pop in, and sat as near as I could to the exit. Moderated by Divya Victor, it was erm a really candid session. I rushed through 'The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047' and read its associated criticism. Hmmmm. That wall in the novel built to keep out Mexicans got really real. The author didn't quite deviate from discussion about the book although the results of the US Presidential Elections were commented on. She seemed really shocked about that as she only found out the results upon landing in Singapore. In the aftermath of the US Presidential Elections, the author's prior response to her book's criticisms in the Washington Examiner published on 23 September 2016,

This, Shriver wrote, has made the Left now the "oppressor," the ones who enforce conformity. Shriver said she is a "lifelong Democratic voter" but is "dismayed by the radical Left's ever-growing list of dos and don'ts — by its impulse to control, to instill self-censorship as well as to promote real censorship, and to deploy sensitivity as an excuse to be brutally insensitive to any perceived enemy." 
She said all the "frenzies" surrounding claims of cultural appropriation, trigger warnings, microaggressions and safe spaces are "overtly crazy" and will push people toward GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.

We've all heard about what happened in Brisbane and what the author said in her speech. In an interview with our national newspaper on 1 November 2016, she said,

"I am of two minds about whether I should have given that speech - and not because I can't take the flak or because I've experienced the slightest regret about any of the sentiments it expressed," she says. 
"I still think the whole notion of 'cultural appropriation' is wrong- headed and poisonous, as it applies to anyone or anything really, but also fiction writing in particular." 
She adds: "Because I find this concept so unworthy of perpetuation and the discussion unworthy of conducting at all, I worry that by starting what turned into an international debate, I inadvertently fired up a fad I had wanted to help extinguish." 
"Sometimes to have an argument at all is to lose it. So I am in dread of this issue continuing to follow me."

While I'm not a fan of Lionel Shriver's 'The Mandibles', I think we need to discuss more than cultural appropriation. It's about how races are portrayed in a story and the stereotypes she placed the characters in. That's one huge issue. Yeah, I checked my privilege at the door too. This thing about cultural appropriation is well, in a very generic and simplistic term, like our uhh 'Racial Harmony Day' which I'm befuddled by. Each time 'cultural appropriation' is brought up, it needs to be expanded in its context and not just bandied about as a term. If cultural appropriation is defined loosely as such, or not quite as interpreted by said author, then what will our Singapore writers write about? What language can we use? What is majority privilege? What is Singapore?

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