Although this was a short trip to Singapore, it made a powerfully positive impression on me, even more so than my first and last trip in 2003 when I took part in a literature festival. Singapore is such a unique country, so small, so urban, quite rich and very ambitious. It makes it a fascinating country to be in and especially to engage with its artists, who are so dynamic.
I took part in two British Council events during my visit, a film showing five Singaporean writers talking about being writers, plus myself, and a panel discussion hosted by Professor Shirley Chew with Madeline Lee, Troy Chin and myself. It was a great session and the films, made a few weeks earlier by the dynamic creative duo Cherry Chan and Jonathan Kiat, were fascinating.
The second event was a masterclass that I led for four hours on a Saturday afternoon with Singaporean writers and aspiring writers. This was a fiction workshop that covered the basic components of storytelling with an emphasis on ‘writing the city’. The students’ ages, most of whom were female, ranged from a 17 year old schoolgirl to a man who was perhaps in his 70s. It was a great workshop from my point of view because the students were lively, positive, creative and willing, and brought their varied life and cultural experiences to the workshop. I set them initial warm-up exercises, which went down well, followed by some more in-depth exercises drawing on their pasts in Singapore and Malaysia.
I also read the Writing the City anthology of short stories, which I also found very impressive. I do hope that aspiring writers continue to be nurtured in Singapore and to be published. Local publishing needs to thrive so that local authors are not reliant on foreign publishers to oversee their literature output. It’s a big issue in much of the world. Who gets to decide on what stories get into print. I was very impressed by the independent bookshop, Books Actually, now in its tenth year, which also has its own poetry imprint, Math Paper Press, producing beautifully designed poetry books. I was quite shocked to see lots of young people in this bookshop browsing quietly. In the UK the largest reading demographic consists of middle aged and older women. It was a quite a visual contrast.
I was also told about a 24 hour readathon, where people STOOD listening to writers read throughout the nut. Amazing.