26th edition of SWF ends with community karaoke, Pooja Nansi bids adieu as festival director

It’s one for the books for the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF), as the 26th edition of the festival concluded with about 200 free and ticketed events for festivalgoers to enjoy. Befitting of this year’s theme, Plot Twist, festivalgoers were in for a ride with unconventional programmes such as a Hip Hop 50th anniversary series, combat sports, punk rock and walking tours, as well as sold-out programmes by headlining international authors.

Organised by Arts House Limited (AHL) and commissioned by the National Arts Council (NAC), SWF 2023, which ran from 17 to 26 November, drew diverse audiences with its spread of panel discussions, workshops, performances, exhibitions and even an evening of hip hop tunes on the lawn with a live DJ on decks.

However, it also marked the last appearance of Pooja Nansi as the festival’s director. The 42-year-old poet has served as the lead for five editions. “It felt surreal to see SWF 2023 come to life on festival grounds, and now that it has drawn to a close, I am filled with gratitude to have had the opportunity to grow alongside the festival for the past five years,” Nansi said.

“Throughout my tenure that saw the whole world shifting its course, I am truly grateful for the unwavering support of audiences and the work of a passionate and innovative festival team, with whom I’ve had the honour to work alongside for five unforgettable editions. I hope that the festival continues to grow and attract new audiences, with the realisation that literary spaces are crucial and relevant to all of us individually and as a community,” she added.

Following Nansi’s departure, Yong Shu Hoong will take over as the director of the festival for its upcoming editions. SWF 2024 will take place from 8 to 17 November 2024.

Meanwhile, the festival managed to surprise its attendees with ChatGPT as one of the speakers for the Festival Opening Debate. The bot represented the team for the motion “This House Believes AI is the Better Writer”. However, it was being fed prompts by debate stalwart Joshua Ip. There were several other events which kept the audience enthralled throughout.

This year, SWF continued to provide a platform for local and international authors and audiences to connect through the literary arts. Fans of Pulitzer Prize-winner Viet Thanh Nguyen (US) snapped up tickets for his sold-out In A Tiny Room programme to get an intimate conversation and Q&A session with him.

Equally passionate fans of Judith Butler (US) grabbed the opportunity for a virtual meeting with the ground-breaking philosopher in a full house showing at their Festival Keynote Talk.

The presence of other international authors such as Lat, Fabian Fom and Perumal Murugan, whose programmes spanned a range of topics, from cartooning to journalism, energised the Chinese, Malay and Tamil literary arts scenes.

The 26th edition of the Festival consisted of a powerhouse line-up of about 260 local and international presenters. In total, SWF 2023 welcomed approximately 330 Singapore-based writers, including moderators, and 40 international authors, representing about 17 countries.

Homegrown and Southeast Asian creative talents were given a spotlight in SWF signature series such as Southeast Asian Focus (SEA Focus), Youth Fringe, and the Chinese, Malay and Tamil language programmes that were curated in close collaboration with guest curators. Panels featuring local and regional speakers also proved their popularity, with programmes such as 63-65: Notes from a Separation in the list of programmes that saw full house showings.

Yap Seow Choong, who led this year’s Chinese language programmes, said “Numerous Chinese programmes were sold out, and we garnered positive feedback from attendees too. These programmes were designed to show participants that literature can be enjoyable and fun!”

Guest curator for this year’s Malay language programmes, Aqmal Noor, said, “SWF 2023 was a success as seen by the number of participants that were present during some of the talks and workshops. Some notable events such as ‘Anodos of Words’, ‘Nusantara Myths in Malam Seribu Jahanam’ and ‘Dikir Jam’ were some of the programmes that had very encouraging response from festivalgoers. These programmes also cater to the youth and a wider community of participants. My hope for the future is that more programmes can entice a wider community of readers to be engaged in programmes such as these.”

Guest curator Chitra Ramesh spoke of the popularity of this year’s Tamil language programmes, “The SWF Playground programme ‘Into The Jungle: A Children’s Play by Kokkarakko’ was a box office hit. The performance room was filled with little ones with their curious eyes closely following the play. In his keynote talk, critically acclaimed writer Perumal Murugan from India shared valuable insights in a filled room of about 50 attendees.”

For the first time, Youth Moderators had the opportunity to moderate programmes outside of the Youth Fringe, getting the opportunity to share the stage and be in conversation with some of their favourite authors.

Youth Moderator Triparna Poddar, who had the opportunity to be in conversation with Chinese-Australian Young Adult novelist Ann Liang for her programme “Ann Liang: If You Could See”, shared, “It was an unforgettable experience! Since it was Ann Liang’s first in-person event, I wanted to do my best to make it an experience she would remember. It really is an honour to be a part of SWF as a Youth Moderator for the second time, and I would do it all over again if I had the chance.”

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To start them even younger, SWF Playground welcomed the little ones to storytelling sessions, workshops, theatre performances and even a draw-along session with headliner John Patrick Green (US).

SWF Volunteer Kotula Ashleigh Daniella said, “This is my second year volunteering with SWF and it is enjoyable to be part of the team working to deliver such a vibrant and unique festival!”

Closing the festival with twist endings, a powerhouse line-up of poets from across the world presented the Festival Closing Reading: An Unlikely Beginning, disrupting audiences’ understanding of an ending and unravelling the fabric of a new beginning, while writers, singers and even festivalgoers took the mic in Festival Community Karaoke, because what better way to end the festival than a community karaoke?

For those with post-SWF blues, fret not as the Literary Pioneer Exhibition, titled ‘Tell Bowie He’s Only A Rock Star. I, However, Am A Poet’ spotlighting the late Goh Poh Seng, extends beyond the Festival period and continues to run at Funan till 10 December, before moving to Heartbeat@Bedok until 27 December 2023. The exhibition will also be part of Textures 2024 (19 to 28 January 2024) and will run at The Arts House from 28 December 2023 till 28 January 2024.