Singapore Writers Festival 2020 navigates intimacy in a socially-distant world

The 23rd edition of the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) returns from 30 October to 8 November 2020 with a diverse line-up of programmes inspired by the theme of ‘Intimacy’ and will be presented in a digital format for the first time.

Organised by the National Arts Council (NAC), the multi-lingual literary festival celebrates thoughtful discussion, a love for stories and encourages intercultural dialogue by bringing together writers, thinkers and participants from Singapore and overseas.

2020 Festival Theme: Intimacy
What does intimacy mean in a time of quarantine and social distancing? SWF 2020 invites authors and audiences to discuss and reflect on the impact of the pandemic and how people are able to engage digitally and connect with one another despite being apart.

Topics covered include the changing definitions of loneliness, mental health and the need for human interaction and community-mindedness in a time of pandemic.

Festival-goers can explore these topics across languages and formats, where artists have developed inventive ways of experiencing literature with the digital medium. The public can immerse in stories that explore mental states and illness in aural and visual forms with interactive microsite Sit With Me; or assume the role of a confidante in an experiential digital encounter Connections which features five seniors who are first time writers that capture the intimacies of life in their respective short monologues filmed from their homes.

Paving the way for digitalisation in the literary scene
COVID-19 has undoubtedly accelerated digitalisation in the arts as the world is ushered into this new normal of sharing experiences safely together while apart. More importantly, this digital edition will allow the festival to bring together writers and fans located in Singapore and from around the world, profiling the region’s finest while ensuring that the best of Singapore’s arts and culture can be enjoyed anytime, anywhere.

Festival Director Pooja Nansi (below) said: “The future is now. As the leading literary festival in the region, we are always looking for ways to engage with language and literature to create exciting experiences that bring about conversations and connect our audiences. This digital direction marks a turning point for us, where we had to experiment with new formats and innovate closely with the local literary community.

“We are thrilled to offer our audiences this strong mix of online and offline touchpoints and are excited to see how digitalisation can bring about greater convenience to festival goers who will be able to attend a wider range of programmes.”

Nansi added: “The COVID-19 crisis has been surreal and challenging for the world, but we have seen diverse communities lifting each other up with empathy and engaging in varied forms of self-expression. We are taking the leap into the digital realm in order to explore the complexities of the human condition during these unprecedented times. Through the festival’s programming and ground-up initiatives, we hope to spark conversations at home and abroad about what intimacy means to us in this new normal. We invite everyone to witness the power of literature in capturing this shared human need.”

An international assembly of ideas and writers
As Asia’s premier literary platform, SWF provides common space for local and international writers and thinkers to meet. Festival-goers can get up close and personal with their favourite internationally renowned writers in An Hour With to learn more about their passions and inspirations. This edition features headliners such as author of best-seller White Teeth, Zadie Smith; poet of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Life on Mars, Tracy K Smith; poet of Stag’s Leap, Sharon Olds; acclaimed cartoonist of graphic novel Maus, Art Spiegelman; and Hugo Award-winning science fiction author Liu Cixin, and author of bestselling young adult fiction series The Mortal Instruments, Cassandra Clare.

Celebrating local literary talents
SWF 2020 celebrates the best of Singapore’s literary scene by working together with local partners and the community to cast a spotlight on the diverse stories and experiences within our rich SingLit landscape.

Presented by The Arts House, the well-loved Literary Pioneer series returns this year to celebrate the life and work of three seminal Tamil writers and Cultural Medallion recipients, P Krishnan, Ma Elangkannan and Rama Kannabiran, whose works span across short stories, novels, poetry and radio.

Festival-goers can expect an interactive and multi-sensorial digital exhibition in both English and Tamil that honours the legacy of these literary figures. The showcase also unearths the untold stories of Singapore’s Indian community from the Second World War to the years of industrialisation and urbanisation in the 1970s and 1980s.

SWF will also feature voices from the community by presenting 20 innovative commissions in digital literary formats – an all-time high in festival history. This year’s innovative offerings include unexpected offline formats as seen in Play This Story: The Book of Red Shadows.

The interactive psychological horror game takes place entirely over email, where participants are tasked to complete a series of assignments in the fictional universe created by speculative fiction author Victor Fernando R Ocampo.

Inspired by Alvin Pang’s best-selling collection What Gives Us Our Names, Artwave Studio will also offer a participatory hands-on experience titled A Call Away, where participants are guided through an intimate phone call when unpacking their activity package.

Through these special commissions from Singapore’s arts community, SWF continues presenting a strong focus on SingLit, while utilising the digital realm to create multi-faceted experiences for new audiences.

Spotlighting voices across the region
As one of the premier multi-lingual festivals in Asia, SWF continues to spotlight Southeast Asian literature and literary talents to a wider audience in the hopes of promoting meaningful cross-cultural dialogue.

Through the Southeast Asian Focus programme co-presented with Sing Lit Station, the festival features a growing number of Southeast Asian writers and curates a dedicated series of panels and talks.

Programmes include Vis a Visibility, a panel session that raises critical questions regarding literature for and by people with disabilities. Intimate Pairings: Questions Over Dinner sees prominent writer pairs, such as Jakarta-based mother-and-daughter Leila and Rain Chudori, discussing issues such as identity and body in the context of their writing over a hearty meal of their favourite dishes.

The melting pot of cultures represented at the festival is complemented by intercultural programming across all disciplines and Singapore’s official languages – English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil. Examples include Bait-bait Puisi Penghubung Jiwa (Connecting Souls Through Poetry) which explores how words in powerful poems can connect souls by the likes of Samsudin Said, Aqmal Noor and Mustaqim Ahmad.

In the reading and discussion session From Singapore to Hong Kong, writers from both countries share their perceptions of connection and isolation after engaging in the intimate act of letter writing with one another over an extended period of time.

Translated texts and the process of literary translations will also be profiled through programmes like Translation Circle(s): Live!, which is the most ambitious edition of the signature programme so far with translators tackling a live translation of works across different languages. Subtitles in English will be provided for programmes in Chinese, Malay and Tamil.

Other programme highlights
With the aim of nurturing the next generation of literary talents and future audiences, SWF 2020 will present programmes specially curated for children and youths.

In partnership with the Singapore Book Council and co-curated by a panel of Youth curators, this year’s Youth Fringe programmes will touch on relevant topics like the portrayal of romantic relationships in stories through conversation session A (Teenage) Love Affair.

Family-friendly programming in SWF Playground include The Write Weekend, where Singapore and international authors guide budding young writers ages 8 to 12 on the craft of developing stories in the form of illustrations or podcasts.

SWF 2020 will also present inclusive programmes for and with persons with special needs through collaboration with partners such as Act 3 Theatrics and Very Special Arts Singapore. In addition, subtitles will be added to all the videos produced for the festival to make them accessible for all.

Writers and audiences of all levels are welcome to participate in hands-on workshops under SWF Classroom. Spoken word poet Arianna Pozzouli guides participants in online workshop Imitation or Intimacy? Making Connections Through Parody to build bridges with others through humorous recordings.

Additionally, The Arts House will transform into SWF’s radio station every evening with Night Spin 182.7, a series of podcasts and vodcasts highlighting both local and international artists. Listeners can enjoy works by American poet Ryan Van Winkle, local actor Grace Kalaiselvi, theatre group The Second Breakfast Company and more.

With a Digital Festival Pass, audiences can look forward to participating and interacting with authors through over 100 programmes. These will be live-streamed from the festival website on schedule with most available for replay on demand subsequently.

Other SWF 2020 programmes include workshops, interactive micro-sites and programmes over emails and phone calls.

Digital festival passes are available at $20 from 21 September 2020 via SISTIC Live and will include full access to all programmes by international speakers for the first time.

For more information, please visit the festival website

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