There are few words as simply understood and yet as complex as good.

In a global climate that often feels overwhelmingly fractured and negative, we are often told that doing good, being good people ourselves, is a step in the right direction – in the words of author Anna Sewell in the beloved book Black Beauty, “It is good people who make good places”.

Yet, what does being “good” mean? This was the question the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) sought to answer this year, with its theme “Aram”. A Tamil word rooted in ancient Indian literature – specifically, it is mentioned in the classical Tamil text Thirukkural written between the 1st and 3rd century BCE – the term examines goodness as an ethical concept in relation to conscience, virtue and societal values.

Significantly, the theme was also a nod to Singapore’s multiracial society, and SWF’s positioning as one of the world’s few multilingual literary festivals (last year’s theme was the Malay word “Sayang”, “love”).

Attending the last weekend of the 10-day festival (which ran from Nov 3 to 12), it was fascinating to see how this notion of “good” was defined and interpreted at various events and conversations. With over 340 international and Singaporean writers being featured, there was no shortage of ideas on the theme.

The ‘What If?’

Talking about the word good at the 2017 Singapore Writers Festival

Marjorie Liu speaking at the ‘Superheroines – Female Protagonists In Speculative Fiction’ panel discussion. Photo: Singapore Writers Festival

The festival’s focus on speculative fiction was particularly well-suited to discussing issues of what, ultimately, is “good” when it comes to humanity and our world – the genre’s ability to imagine new realities and ask “what if?”, seemed to provide a hopeful counterpoint to contemporary life’s grimmer truths. Here, creating inclusive spaces for a multiplicity of voices was repeatedly brought up.

American novelist and comic book writer Marjorie Liu, best known for her Monstress comic book series, talked about the importance of creating well-rounded, complex female characters during the panel “Superheroines: Female Protagonists In Speculative Fiction”.

“Female heroines are often created by men and fit a certain type, and we are so trained to see these that we take this for granted. But women make up half the world’s imagination; we don’t need to tell stories that are the male fantasy anymore,” she said.

Singaporean speculative fiction author J.Y. Yang, meanwhile, highlighted the genre’s potential for engaging with larger issues.

“Ask yourself what your motivation is. Do you think you want to write because you think you’ll be cool, or do you want to think about the impact you want to have?” said Yang at the “The Sci-Fi Mixtape: Creating An Asian-inspired World” panel.

Speaking at a session called “Not Everyone Is Oppressed Equally – Why We Should Look Beyond The Merely Heroic”, The House Of Shattered Wings author Aliette De Bodard questioned traditional definitions of “good” and “heroic” behaviour.

“It’s a lot more complicated. You don’t just wave a sword and take down an evil empire,” said the French-American writer.

One of speculative fiction’s most recognisable subgenres, the dystopia, played backdrop to the weekend’s most anticipated event: Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz’s lecture titled “Hope And Resistance In The Age Of Dystopia”.

A self-confessed nerd with a love for speculative fiction and comic books, the Dominican-American author linked the dystopian with the immigrant experience and a world of proliferating borders.

He located his idea of “good” within civic labour, and the idea that each of us are able to effect change, no matter how small it may seem.

“The constant barrage of negative news that we are exposed to isn’t meant to encourage you to help the world, it’s meant to make you feel powerless. We are exposed to information regimes that emotionally destabilise us.

“(But) the thread is not that the world is huge and f***ed up, it’s that we can do something,” said the author of The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao and This Is How You Lose Her.

The Asian Angle

Talking about the word good at the 2017 Singapore Writers Festival

Tash Aw (left) and Madeleine Thien sharing their views at the ‘Imagining Asia’ panel. Photo: Singapore Writers Festival

The SWF also emphasised the potential for collaboration that lies within Asia, and the many ways in which this can result in a greater good.

Award-winning Malaysian author Bernice Chauly talked about Malaysian and Singaporean creatives working together in the panel “Across The Causeway”.

“It’s this cross-border willingness to trust one another with each other’s stories that I find remarkable,” she said. “It’s what keeps our relationship going.”

While discussing whether the South-East Asian countries can come together despite their vast differences in the panel “All (F)or One? The Diversity Dilemma”, Laotian writer Dokked drew on her experience researching textile weaving in the region.

“The countries in South-East Asia have a very strong shared culture but we have created borders around each other. And now we are talking about creating a community. The truth is, that community already exists, we only need to support it,” she said.

Canadian writer Madeleine Thien, who most recently earned accolades for Do Not Say We Have Nothing, questioned strict delineations in literature between the East and West in her panel, “Imagining Asia”.

“We tend to think of them as opposing, but they’re not. Artistic forms of expression and philosophical ideas are almost a constant flow between these two places,” she said.

Her fellow panellist, acclaimed Malaysian writer Tash Aw, said he was interested in how different cultures view each other.

“There’s an interesting change in power structures, it’s no longer a poor Asia and a rich West. There’s also a growing narrative of nationalism that is becoming more powerful. Malaysia and Singapore, for instance, have developed more distinct identities.”

A Safe Space

Another interpretation of “doing good” lay in SWF’s highlighting of literature’s ability to create spaces for the discussion of difficult or controversial topics.

Young adult fiction author Jay Asher, bestselling author of Thirteen Reasons Why, spoke about the power books have to discuss issues like depression and suicide.

“Even adults fear talking about these subjects, and more often than not, people do want to talk about them and seek help. With a book, there is a safe distance to bring these difficult issues up, and to discuss them very seriously,” he said.

While discussing how Asian writing situates sexuality, Indian poet Kutti Revathi pointed out the importance of discussing the politics of it.

“We don’t just try to understand the body politics and dynamics between the husband and wife. It’s every relationship.

“We are interested in talking about sexuality and desire of sex, but we don’t talk about the politics of it,” she said, at a panel called “Sexuality And Desire In Asian Writing”.

Talking and writing about difficult subjects has the potential to change the world, said French writer Edouard Louis, author of The End Of Eddy and A History Of Violence.

“We’ve changed the world in talking about violence. People always ask me why I talk about violence. But no, look at feminist movements, class struggles, queer movements. All these movements are talking about violence. It’s in talking more about violence that we can create more beauty in the world we live in.”