At the recent Singapore’s Writers Festival, three literary stars gave their take on what tickles.
Contributed By Yong Yung Shin
It was a combustible mix of literature and laughs at the panel event featuring Australian artist Tom Cho, humor columnist Neil Humphreys and Malaysian novelist Chuah Guat Eng at the Singapore Writers Festival on Oct. 29 at the Singapore Management University. Titled “Why So Serious” and moderated by Carolyn Camoens, the panel discussed the various approaches to humor, how it can be most effectively used and the fine balance between what’s funny and what’s not.
“The first rule of humor is to be self-deprecating. That’s the starting point—if you can’t laugh at yourself, you have no right to laugh at others,” shared Humphreys, as he related an anecdote in his 2001 bestseller, Notes From An Even Smaller Island, about being “victimized” and scolded by his Indian landlady who was in a certain state of undress when he returned to the flat.
On why and how humor can be an effective delivery mechanism for a powerful message, he related another episode about how he was verbally accosted by an “auntie” while he was reading the newspapers at a community library. “There’s no mention of race or religion in the story, no mention of foreign talent or immigration; I pass no judgment, so once the humor is gone, the readers take away from it whatever they want to.” Humor allows one to sharpen the message, communicating much more effectively than a ranting commentary. “Humor frees you to tackle social taboos that you would probably never address in a society like Singapore.”
Added Chuah, “The really funny things have a serious edge to it.” Humor is defined by Cho as “an attack on that which we have a lot of investment in, an attack on the sense of conventions in society such as the problem of modesty. Humor is exciting because it is grounded in a lot of transgression. When things are at stake, that is when it gets the funniest.” Indeed, the recent flash floods, for example, have been the butt of jokes of many in the online community.
For Cho, a first-timer to this country, Singapore is a place where much humor can be employed, given the sense of order and care, observed especially at the MRT stations, which are some of the “cleanest I’ve ever seen.”
For aspiring humor writers, Humphrey’s “advice” was blunt: “There’re two types of humor writing—the ones that are funny, and the ones that aren’t,” Cho added: “There aren’t many rules for writing humor; humor tolerates so much contrivance; jokes interrupt the narrative, there is a certain lawlessness to jokes …”
The week-long festival from Oct. 22 to 30 aimed to showcase Singapore’s best authors while providing an opportunity for writers and publishing industry stakeholders to meet their international counterparts. Previously a biennial literary event, the Singapore Writers Festival is now organized yearly by the National Arts Council. Highlights included a food writing session with local gourmand KF Seetoh, as well as the introduction of the SWF Lecture Series featuring high-profile literary gurus Steven Levitt (Freakonomics), the Pulitzer Prize-winning Michael Cabon (The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay) and Bi Feiyu, who co-wrote the screenplay for the 1995 Zhang Yimou film Shanghai Triad. This year’s SWF also introduced the Festival Pass, which allowed participants access to 75 percent of the programs including panel discussions, meet-the-author sessions and special readings for just S$15.