If you’re a Singaporean living or studying abroad, chances are you’ve encountered a “wow your English is so good!” or two during your travels. But come October, it may be no surprise to hear New Yorkers wax lyrical about how we don’t just speak well, but write well too.
The Singaporean literary community in New York City, led by poet Koh Jee Leong and writer-editor Paul Rozario-Falcone, will be organizing the first-ever Singapore Literature Festival this year. Held from Oct. 10 to 12th, the festival is a community-led, grassroots event seeking to connect Singaporean writers and showcase the best of Singaporean literature to a New York audience.
“The idea for a festival actually came about a number of years ago when I was talking to Kenny Leck of Books Actually, and he suggested that since we have so many Singaporean writers in New York it would be good to do some sort of showcase,” Rozario-Falcone tells Popspoken. “I thought it was a great idea, and a while ago I met Jee Leong, who is my co-chair, in Singapore. After a while we got to talking and we said ‘why don’t we take up this idea of a literature festival in New York.”
Locations for the festival include acclaimed arts space 92nd Street Y, the New York University Writers House, as well as Manhattan bookstores Book Culture, and McNally Jackson.
And at the time of writing, 15 Singaporeans have already confirmed their attendance as festival featured authors. They are: Alfian Sa’at, Alvin Pang, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, Christine Chia, Colin Goh and Yen Yen Woo, Cyril Wong, Haresh Sharma, Jason Erik Lundberg, Joshua Ip, Kirstin Chen, Pooja Nansi, Tania De Rozario, Verena Tay, and Wena Poon.
“We wanted to have a broad spectrum of writers,” Rozario Falcone said. “We reached out to playwrights, poets, fiction writers, and writers of different ethnicities as well.”
Poet, author and essayist Cyril Wong tells Popspoken he will be reading “a range of queer-themed love poems and a few more philosophically-minded poems about apples and loss and death,” during the festival. He also noted the difference between reading to a local and foreign audience.
“There is a greater open-mindedness in audiences outside of Singapore; which only makes it more challenging to read in Singapore, a challenge that I always enjoy taking on,” Wong said.
For the festival organizing committee, it seems there’s no literary disconnect between the Big Apple and our Red Dot at all. Rozario-Falcone says writers and readers in New York will definitely identify with books written about Singapore by Singaporeans, especially since Singapore’s a multicultural city, and New York’s “very multilingual” as well.
“I think there’s a lot of universal themes that our Singaporean writers address, themes of identity, coming of age, living in an urban setting, reflecting on changes that Singapore has undergone,” Rozario-Falcone said. “And New York is all about changes, and neighbourhoods gentrifying. Singaporean writing also deals with everyday subjects like family, love, and our place in the world, so there’s a lot of resonance between the two places.”
Singaporeans, according to Rozario-Falcone, should also feel proud of their countrymen “who contribute to the cultural life of the country” as well.
“Good writers look at things in a different way,” Roazario-Falcone said. “They’re able to tell stories, and illuminate situations in a way that ordinary people may not necessarily have seen, giving you a window into your own self. If you’re a Singaporean reading Singaporean literature, you know that there are other Singaporeans who are looking into larger issues of life and death and love. And there’s something very beautiful about that.”
Besides promoting the festival via social media and an official blog, the Singapore Literature Festival organizers initiated Second Saturdays, an ongoing monthly reading series in New York City featuring Singaporean and American literature. Previous Second Saturdays guests include 2014 Pulitzer Prize for poetry winner Vijay Seshadri, and Joseph Legaspi, co-founder and chair of Asian-American arts organization Kundiman.
A Kickstarter was also introduced in July to help defray the costs of running the festival. While the project has met its initial goal of $6,000, Rozario-Falcone says the campaign will carry on for two more weeks due to the sudden withdrawal of a major corporate sponsor.
“The Kickstarter campaign really represents the community support we have received,” Rozario-Falcone said. “Individuals who have donated very generously to this project because they believe that Singaporean literature is worthy of a larger audience, there is merit in all the writing and the writers that we have produced.”
Ultimately, Rozario-Falcone hopes the Singapore Literature Festival can establish Singapore’s presence in the New York literary and publishing community, what he calls “the publishing center of the world.”
“Our writers need to be published here,” he said. “As long as we keep doing this, people will notice, publishers or editors will notice, and our stories will then have a global reach.”
And to Singaporeans back home unable to attend, Rozario-Falcone has this to say:
“Knowing this festival is taking place in New York, if it just prompts you maybe to go to the library to borrow a book written by a Singaporean, that would mean the world to us here.”
Images by the Singapore Literature Festival