Pooja Nansi, Festival Director, reflects on recent changes to the Singapore Writers Festival and asks, if the view from here has changed forever, what new literature experiences might we create?
Every year, for a fortnight, a historic building in the heart of the civic district becomes home to the Singapore Writers Festival and the 30,000 festival goers who come together. So it felt more than a little dystopic when I walked the empty halls of that same building on the third day of the festival to watch Margaret Atwood join us via a Zoom call. The festival team and I hadn’t physically been in the same room for about 6 months at that point. Covid-19 had wreaked havoc on the world, Singapore had gone into a 6 week lockdown and the festival had been moved – like many other events, online.
I won’t lie. I wasn’t excited. I was pregnant with my first baby, anxious, and the thought of putting together one of Asia’s biggest literary events in a space as nebulous as the internet did not feel like fun. A part of me was convinced this would be disastrous. What on earth is a festival if not an actual coming together of bodies? How were we going to experience human interaction through our screens and have it feel real? And yet, as they say, the show must go on.
Instead of a filled auditorium buzzing with human energy, I walked in that evening, to a cold white room set up with filming equipment and Atwood on a screen asking if she had enough time before the chat to make a coffee. I watched her potter away into her kitchen, as though she was a normal human being just like the rest of us.
It struck me then, in that small banal moment that nothing at the festival prior had ever felt quite as intimate. In what other world other than the one 2020 brought us, would we be peering over Margaret Atwood’s shoulder on her Zoom screen trying to see what she chose to display on her mantelpiece? In what other world would we see Zadie Smith casually reapplying her lip balm and eating a snack when the wonky internet connection meant we needed to rerecord bits of her conversation, Sharon Olds asking her assistant to drape some fabric over her TV so it wouldn’t be distracting?
Session after session, the Singaporean writers who were in conversation with our international guests reached out to say they felt like the time they had shared felt like a gift.
And they were right. When you sit on a stage in front of an audience of hundreds, it is never possible to truly ignore their presence – no matter how good the conversation, they always become a part of the performative dynamic. This time however, even though the festival was streamed to thousands of viewers, it was easy to forget that you weren’t alone. For one precious hour you were just two writers, two human beings chatting, connecting across oceans, having a deeply intimate exchange about what it felt like to be alive in these acutely strange times.
It felt like the view from here had changed forever but like we were seeing each other like never before.
Pooja Nansi is the current festival director of the Singapore Writers Festival. She is also a poet and performer. Her latest and third collection of poetry We Make Spaces Divine was published in January 2021. Her key performance work includes her one-woman show, You Are Here which explores issues of migration through personal family histories. She also wrote and performed Thick Beats for Good Girls with Checkpoint Theatre which opened in April 2018 and explored the intersections between feminism, identity and Hip Hop. She was a recipient of the Young Artist Award, Singapore’s highest accolade for Arts practitioners under the age of 35 in 2016. She is also the co-founder of Other Tongues, a literary festival of minority voices. Her practice is interesting in creating engaged communities in the literary work that she does.