If the literature we read is a reflection of the times we live in, then those of us in the South-East Asian region seem to be doing a fair amount of soul-searching about identity – at least, if our literary festivals are any indication.
The recently-held Ubud Writers And Readers Festival in Bali chose to dwell on the theme “Tat Tvam Asi: I Am You, You Are Me”. Meanwhile, the upcoming George Town Literary Festival in Malaysia is themed “Hiraeth”, a Welsh word that means “the longing for a homeland that is no longer there”.
It seems apt, then, that this year’s Singapore Writers Festival (SWF), held in between these two, chose as its theme the emotive yet melancholic Malay word “Sayang”, which hints at both love and a sense of longing – and it doesn’t feel like much of a stretch, given the topics that kept recurring during the festival, to extend that love and longing to notions of identity.
SWF director Yeow Kai Chai said the word, found in Malay, Tagalog, Sundanese, and various other languages of the Malay Archipelago, evokes a multiplicity of meanings for those in this region.
“‘Sayang’ means love and tenderness, (but) significantly, it also refers to regret and pity. We savour these nuances, its shades of loves and losses.”
Held in the wake of the United States election, the closing weekend of the 10-day SWF last week seemed to reflect a kind of uncertainty and anxiety, adding to a year that had already given the world Brexit, not to mention continued political challenges in many South-East Asian countries.
Yes, the 300 over writers from Singapore and around the world were there to talk about literature, but most also spoke in one way or another about literature’s place in a world that seems increasingly fractured.
During a session with American author Hanya Yanagihara, known for her 2015 Man Booker-shortlisted novel A Little Life, she was frank about her thoughts on her country’s election results.
“The one upside to the next four years in the United States is that we’re going to see a flourishing of arts and literature,” she said to a packed hall at The Arts House. “Historically, periods of dictatorship and abuses of power always lead to a wealth of art and literature in response.”
Fellow American Evan Puschak, more popularly known as The Nerdwriter, seemed to still be coming to grips with the situation. Having made his name as the creator and producer of a popular web series of video essays on art and culture, Puschak delivered a talk titled “Unravelling the US Presidential Elections” – and admitted that he had anticipated speaking in a scenario where Hillary Clinton, and not Donald Trump, had won.
Visibly still baffled, he described Trump winning the election as “trauma”. “Trauma is the breakdown of old narratives and the restless searching for new ones,” he said. “And for much of my country, Trump was the trauma that made the working class reality visible.”
American writer Lionel Shriver, meanwhile, was more direct. “I’m dumbfounded. I am very upset. I’m clinging to the hope that this was a temporary lapse of judgement for my country,” said the author of novels such as the 2005 Orange Prize-winning We Need To Talk About Kevin.
Notions of identity and belonging within the landscape of larger global politics figured in many of SWF’s sessions, some prominently and others as a subtext.
The panel on “The Rise Of South-East Asian Speculative Fiction”, which featured Indonesian writer Eka Kurniawan and Singaporean writers Ng Yi-Sheng and J.Y. Yang, grappled with South-East Asia’s similarities and divides, as well as its struggle for a cohesive identity within a global literary world.
Ng pointed out that many South-East Asian speculative fiction writers do not necessarily write about South-East Asia or themes related to the region, preferring instead to write on subjects that were perceived to have a wider audience. Eka pointed out that the lack of a common language among countries in the region also made it more challenging for a unified writing scene to arise.
Panels like “Living Through Adversity”, featuring Singaporean spoken-word artist Deborah Emmanuel, post-apartheid writer Sabata-mpho Mokae, and Fukushima poet Ryoichi Wago, discussed processing pain and trauma through written narratives. Mokae also joined Malaysian writer Golda Mowe and Zafar Anjum of Singapore to speak on “Communi-ties Under Threat”; Mokae writes on the encroaching Westernisation of African languages, Zafar on the current generation’s lack of accessibility to the Urdu language, while Mowe focuses on the Iban people of Sarawak.
On the panel of “Writing As A Moral Compass”, authors Joanne Harris and Timothy O’Grady discussed their writing through the lens of their moralities.
Meanwhile, in “Dislocation And Cultural Identity In Transition”, Pulitzer-winning Indian-American poet Vijay Seshadri, graphic novelist and Holocaust survivor Miriam Katin, Taiwanese-American novelist Shawna Yang Ryan, and Indian-Canadian dancer/author Gitanjali Kolanad talked about how migration both informs and disrupts one’s sense of identity.
Literature, however, was also where many writers saw hope.
At a panel on “The Allure Of The Otherworldly”, Eka, Harris and Andrew Michael Hurley reflected on “otherworldly” narratives as metaphors for all-too-real issues. Eka said stories perceived as fantastical could help with building acceptance in real life.
“Such stories can help us accept those we see as “others”: unfamiliar cultures or people who are different from us,” said the author of Man Tiger, nominated for the Man Booker International Prize this year.
Yanagihara sees the novel as a space where people can be confronted by real-world difficulties. When asked about her unflinching portrayal of violence in A Little Life, she said, “We live in an era where brutality is more accessible to us than ever, and yet we’re allowed to turn away more easily than ever before. It’s within the novel that we can be immersed in these realities.”
Helen Oyeyemi, award-winning author of books such as Mr Fox and What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, when asked in her session what makes for powerful writing, said: “If you can make reading not like reading, but more like having your brain touched ….”
Perhaps this sums up why so many of us are seeking answers – to so many questions, on identity, on belonging, on what recent events mean for collective humanity – in literature. What else manages to encompass so much of the world’s struggles and hopes, in a myriad of ways, while also connecting with us so intimately?