In a rollercoaster year characterised by social and political changes on the global stage, the 19th edition of the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) struck a chord with its ‘Sayang’ theme, reaching new highs in attendance figures as well as the number of festival passes.
SINGAPORE, 5 December 2016 – SWF attracted 20,350 festival-goers – which is higher than last year’s 19,700. It also achieved a record number of festival passes snapped up – 3,500 passes compared to 3,000 in 2015. Over the period of 4 to 13 November at The Arts House and the Civic District, festival-goers attended 352 events, which featured more than 310 authors, artists and personalities from Singapore and around the world.
Addressing topical issues this year, the festival cast light on hard-hitting developments such as the U.S. presidential elections, terrorism, Europe’s migrant crisis and the after-effects of Fukushima nuclear meltdown.
Centred on love and loss (aligned to the Festival theme of ‘Sayang’), conversations were ablaze on matters personal and communal, national and universal. In its efforts to engage a wider audience, SWF continues to erase the boundaries between art forms, languages and genres. To that end, it invited thought-provoking writers, artists and speakers such as Lionel Shriver, Gosho Aoyama, Hanya Yanagihara, Atia Abawi, Farish A Noor, Marjorie Perloff, Siti Khalijah, Miriam Katin, Edwin Thumboo, Tash Aw, Tan Twan Eng, Boey Kim Cheng, Shobasakthi, Vijay Seshadri, A Yi, Can Xue, Gwee Li Sui and Sonny Liew.
Festival-goers thronged a range of sessions, ranging from panel discussions on Sayang-related topics such as the Epic International Readings on Love and Loss as well as the newly launched SWF Classroom Series talk on Love, Actually by the popular video essayist The Nerdwriter aka Evan Puschak. The festival theme was also addressed by Farish Noor who gave a lecture on the etymology of the word and how it captures our region’s history.
The Festival also featured a non-English-commissioned work for the very first time, written by the mother-daughter pairing, Noor Hasnah Adam and Nur Aisyah Liyana. They performed the piece entitled ‘Genggaman Sayang’ (Love’s Grasp) beautifully at the Opening Ceremony as well as at the Epic International Reading on Loss.
“Through this year’s programming, we hope to capture the spirit of the times with the theme ‘Sayang’. I am glad to see numerous dialogues and discussions that proved to be stimulating and challenging. I would like to think that we have succeeded in creating a global village of sorts where people connected and diverse opinions were shared and respected,” says Yeow Kai Chai, Festival Director.
More participants attend SWF and its year-round programmes
On a significant note, the Festival has attained about 41,275 in attendance for its year-round programmes (including the main Festival, SWF POP, Utter and Words Go Round), which is a leap from 30,800 in 2015. This is the result of a re-visioning of the Festival introduced last year as a year-round event, to widen its reach and make the literary arts more accessible to new audiences.
This year, the Festival also held three exhibitions at The Arts House – Shades of Sayang (co-presented by The Arts House), The Great Wall of Sayang (co-presented by BooksActually) and The SWF Broadsides – which attracted an additional 6,150 festival-goers.
The overall increase in attendance throughout the 10-day Festival also translated into more sell-out ticketed events as well as more packed Festival Pass sessions. In the case of SWF Stage events – which were separately ticketed marquee events such as SWF Lectures as well as theatrical and music performances – there were seven sold-out events out of 13. This was a jump from last year where two out of 10 were sold out.
Seven out of 12 SWF Class workshops and masterclasses were sold out, whereas four of nine were sold out in 2015. Some key SWF Class events included Lionel Shriver’s sold-out masterclass talk, Melding Fact and Fiction, where she expounded on fiction writing based on actual events, ranging from school massacres and economic downturn to terrorism and obesity; as well as the masterclass by Indian feminist playwright and director, A Mangai, who guided participants on the process of transforming literary texts into stage plays.
SWF3 (children and young adults) events were also a hit, with 11 out of 14 either sold out or fully registered. This was higher than last year’s three out of 18. Both the literary tours (under SWF Beyond track), which gave festival-goers an inside look at publishing houses and indie bookstores, were fully subscribed. The wider interest also meant that many of the Festival Pass and free events – comprising largely panel discussions, readings, film screenings and SWF POP events on the lawn – were well attended, with people thronging the aisles. Altogether about 27 enjoyed 100 per-cent attendance.
Says Singapore writer Desmond Kon: “I absolutely adore how expansive and inclusive SWF has become. Such appreciation of new, exciting literary inroads. For me, some highlights of this year's excellent curation included events on investigative journalism, literary criticism, cross-genre writing, and SingLit history. I like how SWF is really raising the bar on how people think about and engage with the literary arts. SWF is truly a top-notch, world-class writers festival.”
First time festival goer Elizabeth Yong adds: “I like how the festival gave me the opportunity to get to know more local writers and appreciate Singapore literature even more. Attending the panel Writing as Moral Compass was a highlight for me as I learnt how to write better and interacted with writers and other like-minded participants who enjoy writing.”
New SWF Classroom talks and Sequential Arts programmes well received
Continuing the direction set last year, the Festival delved deeper into the five Festival Tracks – SWF Stage (marquee events), SWF Class (masterclasses, talks and workshops), SWF³ (SWF for families), SWF Beyond (transcending language and genre) and SWF POP (year-long series of fun and surprising pop-up literary events).
It launched SWF Classroom, an enrichment series of talks to engage audiences in wide-ranging topics such as football in the Middle East, poetry as fishing, heritage sites at risk, and illegal wildlife trade in Singapore. A new Sequential Arts focus was also introduced, to address the ascent of graphic novelists, illustrators and cartoonists in the literary scene.
Wayne Yeo, 16, a student who has attended the Festival for the past three years, said: “What draws me back every year is a mix of familiar faces speaking on new topics and new panelists. SWF is a great place for discourse and it brings to the surface many different issues.”
Celebrating SingLit and inclusive programming
This year’s Festival also has a strong Singaporean representation, in terms of the number of new and established writers, ranging from literary pioneers Edwin Thumboo, Lee Tzu Pheng and Suratman Markasan to new and emerging authors Amanda Chong, Imran Hashim and Daryl Qilin Yam.
The contributions of Singaporean literary players were also celebrated in the well-received theatrical production, Between The Lines: Rant and Rave II, a love letter to the evolution of Singapore literature, as helmed by The Finger Players’ Chong Tze Chien.
The Festival also partnered with Berita Harian to present Malam Lawak Sastera (Literary Comedy Night), featuring the who’s who of the Malay literary circle, from poets to actors to comedians. Another commission, Siti Khalijah: An Actress Prepares, was also critically acclaimed, featuring the well-known stage and television thespian reexamining the roles she has played and those she would like to take on, in a script written by Alfian Sa’at.
To make the Festival more inviting to all audiences, it made a concerted effort to expand its inclusive programming. Sign-language interpretation was provided to Deaf festival-goers at 13 events, ranging from lectures to panel discussions to SWF3 programmes. The Festival also reached out to the community with disabilities via partners such as The Disabled People’s Association. For the first time, it also held well-received weekday programmes for its youngest festival-goers ever – pre-schoolers (aged two to six) from daycare centres and kindergartens, in collaboration with its venue partner, National Gallery Singapore.
Due to the overwhelming demand for the Closing Debate last year, the Festival also decided to shift the venue from The Chamber to the Victoria Theatre to accommodate more people this year. A packed audience numbering more than 610 people queued for passes to witness two teams to debate the topic, “This House Believes That Singaporeans are in the Mood for Love”. Another highly entertaining, side-splitting event, the debate brought the Festival to a close as both sides argued rambunctiously on the state of love in this country.
The SWF organising team would also like to place on record its heartfelt thanks to our sponsors and volunteers who have supported us through 2016 at our year-round events and main festival.
Preparations for next year’s installment of the Singapore Writers Festival are already underway and it is scheduled to take place from 3 to 12 November 2017.
Annex A: Attendance and Participation
Annex B: SWF at a Glance