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I'd write more, like you said I should. If only, there was more to me.

Monday, December 03, 2007


What a difference two years make. With a perfect setting, chambers rich in history, each seat inspires you. What would a journalist from The New Paper be thinking when he sat in the seat you are in. Would it have been a fiery debate? A debate that would spell out major changes, what were those words like? It's only fitting that 'The Chamber' at The Arts House should play host to some of the most stimulating exchanges of words. For it is when words cross, that ideas are formed and journeys defined.

I embarked on mine at The Singapore Writers Festival on Sunday. Over the past year, I've had the fortune of meeting the people who are scripting the action. Yvette, who hasn't a moment off since it all started. Michelle who has shown up all things literary. Yilyn who remains a picture of poise, never mind all the endless requests you continue making. Phan Mingyen, who'd rather discuss Michael Ondaatje than get down to eating that meal he sorely needs. When you see passion like that, you know you can hope for visions of grandness. And that's what I saw at the five things literary I engaged in.

Packed sessions. Yes, what authors and moderators love to see is - no standing room. And no standing room is what I saw as I flitted between several sessions. Oh, the choices, these lit fests force you to make.

Enormously enjoyed listening to Goh Poh Seng, who rightfully dismissed the moderators question of the dearth of the Singaporean novel: "There's too much pessimism," he rightly pointed out. "You can't rush a novel, you need time, perseverance and continuity," he added. Take a look around you, it took Kiran Desai 7 years to come out with her Booker award winning effort 'The Inheritance of Loss.' At the end the day, its the quality not the quantity that matters when it comes to the art of the novel. At the end of the day, what's the point of pushing shelves full of novels which will fail to find readers if they've been too rushed.

Equally impressive on that panel was Daren Shiau who was at ease speaking about his failure with the poetic form, his shift to short story and the writing of 'Heartland', which he admitted happened "almost by accident." It was an attempt to show, among other things, that the Heartland in Singapore was not an intellectual wasteland. The author himself would count as its finest product. A Fulbright scholar, he's a practising lawyer and his is a voice I'd suggest you hear more of.

Philip Jeyaretnam is known to pack the punches and he sure did as he spoke about writing being "an extension through which I could get into the heads of people who are very different from me." He called writing "a way to dream and dreaming was almost an act of resistance." It was thoughts like these and the stimulating exchange that followed that elevated 'Dreaming Singapore' to a top-notch panel discussion.

There was lots to learn from Booker longlisted novelist Tan Twan Eng, who is at ease doing the stuff he's doing. I still recall my first meeting with him, the pauses, the doubts about how the book would be received. Those doubts no longer exist. 'The Gift of Rain' has got the attention it deserves and its helped Twan the writer shape up as an eloquent speaker. Squeezed in two of his sessions and the note pad brims with thoughts:

- Getting from Point A to Point B wasn't planned. I can only suggest you absorb, assimilate and be open to ideas.
- When asked if his characters rebelled, he was quick to point out "they couldn't rebel because I was in charge of them."- On short stories: "I don't read short stories as I often don't understand their endings. From the start I knew I was going to write a novel and that was it."
- On life post Booker: "It feels the same but things are a lot easier for my publishers and agents. Their phone calls are returned."
- What sells: "Long books that read like short books sell well."

With that, the final word, "you have to write the right book at the right time." The only thing is not to wait for that moment, I guess.

Lots more lined up this weekend. A good place to start would be the literary tour that's got P C Abraham's stamp of approval. Take that man's word for it, he's done the rounds and his nod means a lot.

In between the walking and the talking also take a moment for Between Land and Sea: The Life and Times of Joseph Conrad: Polish writer Joseph Conrad lives again through this travelling exhibition curated by the Adam Mickiewicz Museum of Literature in Warsaw. The political writer's works, such as Under Western Eyes and The Secret Agent, remain as fresh as ever today, 150 years on.

The Singapore Writers Festival is happening at The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane. It ends on 9th December.