For nine days from 24 October to 5 November, Singapore played host to 114 authors and moderators of the Singapore Writers’ Festival. Wordsmiths like Neil Gaiman, Taichi Yamada, Qiu Xiaolong and John Ajvide Lindqvist converged in Singapore from over 20 countries around the globe.
Organized by the National Arts Council and The Arts House, the 13th annual Writers’ Festival featured a number of fresh initiatives, namely outreach programs, the inclusion of children’s literature, and a strong focus on Malaysian writers. In nine days, 157 programs, from meet-the-author sessions to poetry open mikes were held.
Asked about the remarkable scale of this year’s festival, Phan Ming Yen, Assistant General Manager of The Arts House replied, “We certainly wanted to have a festival that puts Singapore on the map, and to make people aware that there is a lot of good literature that comes from the South East Asian region. There’s a lot of literature in this region that deserves to be known all around the world.”
This year, the theme of the festival was “UNderCovers”. “We initially had many different suggestions, but the theme, UNderCovers, got the most votes. It’s quite playful: it could mean going undercover — the thriller and the crime novel — or the idea of reading to a child — the focus on children’s literature — and finally, playing on the word, you have un-cover-writers who have yet to emerge, or histories and narratives that are one-sided.”
City News spoke to three leading authors: Qiu Xiaolong, who wrote the Inspector Chen series of novels; John Boyne, author of the children’s novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and Miguel Syjuco, winner of the Man Asia Literary Prize 2008.
Originally born in Shanghai, Qiu was studying at Washington University in the United States of America when the incident at Tiananmen Square unfolded in 1989. Because of his previous fundraising efforts for the protestors, Qiu decided to stay in America, and now lives in St Louis, Missouri with his wife and daughter.
His Inspector Chen series won the Anthony Award for best first novel in 2001 and has been translated into 20 languages with more than a million books sold. Qiu also has a strong following in France, where his collection of linked stories, Years Of Red Dust, has been serialized in national newspaper Le Monde.
When asked why he started to write detective fiction, Qiu says, “I love detective stories, but the reason I started writing detective stories myself was because I wanted to write a story about modern China. But I had a hard time putting my things together, so I thought that I could use the detective story genre as a framework for what I have to tell.
“My main character, Inspector Chen, he has a lot of questions, but he does not have easy answers, and sometimes, he has no answers at all. In that sense, my books do not provide an answer. They are trying to look into the whole situation, so the writer and the reader come together and try to find an answer, an understanding of what’s happening now.”
The beauty of Qiu’s books lies in their cultural richness. “My books focus a lot on the Cultural Revolution, because you have to understand the past before you can understand the present. They try to capture part of the dialogue between past and present.”
Born in Dublin, Ireland in 1971, John Boyne is the author of seven novels, including The Boy in Striped Pyjamas — a World War II tale of Bruno, the son of a high-ranking Nazi official, and his life next to the death camps. The book was an international bestseller, with more than five million copies sold worldwide. Miramax Studios has made a movie based on the book.
City News spoke to Boyne about the reception of Striped Pyjamas. “I don’t mind the fact that reception is mixed. Any good work of literature should aspire to have passionate advocates for it — and just as passionate detractors. When I set out to write the novel, one of the reasons why I called it a fable was because it wasn’t my intention that people, particularly younger readers, would read the story and think that this was exactly how the Holocaust was. It’s not really written with that in mind — it’s trying to engage readers in the subject matter, particularly younger readers. I think if they are moved by the story and by the characters, that they would actually educate themselves about it.
“[Striped Pyjamas] is my most successful book, and it’s changed my life in the sense that though it wasn’t my first book — I’ve now published seven — but it was the book that broke me through to a readership and an audience. The opportunities that it’s brought me on the international level — the fact that I get to travel a lot, that my books are read — are simply amazing.” Boyne is now writing a second children’s book.
“I love the storytelling; I love actually writing the books. I’m lucky that I can write full time.”
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Don’t be embarrassed if you have yet to hear of Miguel Syjuco. The recipient of the Man Asia Literary Prize 2008 and the 2008 Palanca Award, the highest literary honor in the Philippines, will be the first to reassure you.
Miguel explains, “The Man Asia Literary Prize is a really special award because it’s for unpublished manuscripts. For many years I was working on this novel and working on short stories and getting rejected and trying to find an agent … just trying to get my foot in the door. Suddenly I won the prize, and people started to take a closer look at my work, which is unconventional. The prize is set up to be that way, and it’s great that it’s successful in being exactly that.
“The hard fact is that Asian writers don’t have all the opportunities that Western writers have — because of proximity, and also attention, and the world’s knowledge of that particular culture of writing. The Prize really tries to connect Asian writers with Western readers.”
Miguel’s novel, Illustrado, will come out in May 2010, in 12 languages and 16 countries.
“This isn’t supposed to happen to a writer like me who’s just so used to rejection. It’s everything I’ve ever dreamed of as a young boy, reading and wanting to be a writer; as somebody trying so very hard to be a writer and working odd jobs just to be able to make that happen. I’d work night shifts and work in the day; day shifts and write in the night. Now that the book is out, I can just focus on writing, which is a dream come true.”
To sustain his writing, Miguel has been a medical guinea pig, movie extra, eBay seller of ladies handbags, and a journalist, among other things. What words of encouragement does he have for aspiring writers?
“Fight your parents, fight your own self doubt, fight anything if it’s really what you want to do, and you feel you’re good at it, just keep at it!”