Yale-NUS faculty discuss climate fiction, travel writing and the meaning of home at the 2020 Singapore Writers Festival

17 November 2020

By Kelly Ng

From left: Balli Kaur Jaswal, Matthew Schneider-Mayerson and Lawrence Ypil. Images provided by Balli Kaur Jaswal, Juria Toramae, and Lawrence Ypil.

From 30 October to 8 November this year, the National Arts Council organised the 23rd edition of the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF). Year-on-year, the multilingual and multidisciplinary literary festival celebrates the written and spoken word in Singapore and brings together thinkers, artists and writers from Singapore and abroad. This year, the festival theme was ‘Intimacy’. As the first-ever digital edition of the SWF, it sought to capture the meanings of community, loneliness and human interaction in a socially-distanced world. Three Yale-NUS authors and faculty members participated as presenters.

Ms Balli Kaur Jaswal, Lecturer of Humanities, spoke on the intersections of space, time, female travel and fictional writing. She is the author of four novels, including the international bestseller Erotic Stories for Punjabi Women and Singapore Literature Prize finalist Sugarbread.

As a panel speaker for the ‘Who Roam The World? Girls!’ programme, she talked about the joys and challenges of female travel. In fact, her most recently published novel, The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters, offers a female perspective on the Indian travel narrative. It is a road trip novel about three British-Indian sisters travelling across northern India to fulfill their late mother’s wishes.

“I was curious about the relationship that Punjabi families in Britain have with India, and I thought it would be interesting to write a story where people reconcile their relationship with the present by traveling to the land of their family’s past,” she shared.

However, Ms Jaswal realised that many travel narratives in India were “from the perspective of Western tourists, usually men”. This motivated her to write about the experience of traveling in India from a woman’s perspective.

She participated in two other sessions – ‘Go So Far, Write So Near’, in which she spoke about “memory, place and imagination” with writers-cum-literary friends Glenn Diaz from the Philippines and Kyoko Yoshida from Japan – and an In-Conversation session with Canadian novelist and global literary heavyweight Margaret Atwood, with whom she spoke about the profound power of fiction to witness, inspire and resist.

Mr Lawrence Ypil, Lecturer of Humanities (Writing), also spoke on several panels this year. Mr Ypil is the author of two poetry books, including the recent Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize Co-Winner The Experiment of the Tropics. Through the hybrid lenses of photography, historiography, lyric poetry and anthropology, the book travels back in time to explore

20th-century Philippines during the American occupation. Mr Ypil’s passion in writing about his homeland, the Philippines, is further captured in the various programmes that he was involved in.

In the programme ‘Letters from Home to Home’, 11 writers and poets from around the world came together to reimagine the possibilities of what “home” means to them. Mr Ypil read new poems that he reconstructed from essays he had written in the past about Cebu, his hometown. “By turning these essays into poems, by fragmenting those paragraphs into lines, I am proposing that “home” be seen as a refracted sense of place and memory made possible by repetition, revision and transformation,” he explained.

In the other programme ‘A Labour of Love I: A Spotlight on Tagalog’, Mr Ypil shared and translated the Tagalog poems of one of his oldest college friends. “Tagalog, for me, is a language of friendship. Unearthing these poems and translating them into English was such a moving experience for both of us,” he said.

While Mr Ypil thoroughly enjoyed reading his poetry on the aforementioned two programmes, he was most excited to interview United States Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith in this year’s SWF.

“It was so important to be in conversation to an American poet, especially now at a pivotal point in their history. We talked about her influences as writer, her love for jazz, and the necessary task of poetry as an effort to re-memorialise history,” he shared.

Lastly, Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, Assistant Professor of Social Sciences (Environmental Studies), also participated in SWF 2020. He conducts interdisciplinary research work on the cultural, social and political dimensions of climate change and is the author and editor of several books.

Asst Prof Schneider-Mayerson spoke at the programme ‘All Writing is Environmental’, where he discussed the primacy of art’s engagement with the climate.

“An effective response to the climate crisis must include significant changes in policy, energy, and infrastructure, but it must also include a cultural component. Storytelling, media and literature are creative forms of climate communication and myth-making that can remind us of the incredible danger we’re currently in, inculcate pro-environmental values, and help us imagine better futures,” he explained.

Most recently, he edited Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene, a collection of essays by Yale-NUS students and alumni that interrogates Singapore from an ecocultural perspective. He describes this project as the “most meaningful and memorable” one as it allowed him to work with his students on their ideas and writing, helped him think about his own work and more than anything, ruminate on “the meaning of writing while the world is on fire”.

Looking ahead, Asst Prof Schneider-Mayerson will be continuing his work on environmental writing with a new module at Yale-NUS titled Ecotopian Visions next semester.

“At this point, we have a pretty good idea what we’re against, or what we should be against: climate change, fossil fuels, deforestation, species extinction, and so on, as well as related forms of injustice, such as growing inequality, racism, and sexism. But what are we for? What does a better world look, feel, and taste like?” he asked.

In the module, students will explore positive visions of socio-ecological futures through a variety of media forms, including literature, film and music. By fostering imagination with an on-the-ground understanding of climate reality, students will envision “the kind of world they want to bring into being”.

Besides the faculty members, others in the Yale-NUS community who participated in SWF 2020 included alumni Mr Aidan Mock (Class of 2020), Ms Teo Xiao Ting, and Ms Harini V (both from the Class of 2018).