By Diyanah Kamarudin | Image by Aleithia Low
“Why do you write?”
This was one of the many questions posed to Mr Cyril Wong and Ms Suchen Christine Lim when they visited Yale-NUS College. The two writers, who are prominent in the local literary scene, read their original works to a mixed crowd of students and members of the public on 10 February and 3 March 2016 respectively.
The readings were organised by staff members of the Yale-NUS Writers’ Centre. It is part of a broader Reading Series, an initiative spearheaded by Professor of Humanities and Director of the Writing Programme, Robin Hemley, which aims to engage and bring into contact the writing community from the College with the wider writing community.
“Previously, our readers were mostly of international origins,” said Hao Guang, Dean’s Fellow and staff member of the Writers’ Centre, on why the Centre chose Singaporean writers. “We wanted to engage more with the local writers and expose our College community to the local literary scene.”
Each reading session was preceded by a writing workshop conducted by the local writer, an experience Ms Lim found “wonderful”. During her workshop, students were asked to write about an image inspired by obituaries and newspaper clippings given to them. Others then had to guess the image each student chose based on his or her short story.
Ritika Biswas (Class of 2018), found the workshop an extremely interesting experience.
“I thought that the method was an effective way to convey how one can provide evidence and context for a piece by gleaning subtext from images and other media,” she said.
Both writers were impressed by the quality of the students’ writing during the workshops. Mr Wong commented that the writing of the students from the College had a lot of soul.
“[In] schools in Singapore, students may try to sound clever, but this is like icing without the cake,” he said. “As long as you have soul, you already have a lot to work with.”
Students and staff from the College kickstarted both events by reading excerpts from their own writings. Roshan Singh (Class of 2018), opened Mr Wong’s reading with a short story about religious ritual titled Father Thomas, while Ms Laurel Fantauzzo, Writing Instructor at the College, delighted the audience with a thrilling reading of an excerpt from her non-fiction book, The First Impulse, before inviting Ms. Lim to the stage.
Both Mr Wong and Ms Lim touched upon intimate issues such as love, sex and violence during their readings. Mr Wong read a collection of his original poems, and Ms Lim read two passages from her novel that won the Southeast Asia Write Award in 2012, The River’s Song.
There was a flurry of questions after each reading by both curious students and members of the public alike. One of the first few questions raised to Mr Wong was why he writes.
“I write to remember and to lend clarity to my thoughts. I also write to retain certain memories of which I am just not done with,” he replied.
“On the other hand, I publish because I like offending new people every day,” he added cheekily, prompting a chorus of laughter around the room.
Mr Wong, a poet, fictionist and critic who is also a previous recipient of the Young Artist Award from the National Arts Council, also advised budding writers not to give up. However, he acknowledged that this is especially difficult due to the pragmatic local culture. “The survival tendency is very ingrained in [us],” he said.
Ms Lim, a former International Writing Fellow at the University of Iowa, made the same point to her audience.
“Being a writer is definitely not very practical,” she said. “Not everyone can succeed, and if the writer has a family, it will be doubly difficult.”
The Yale-NUS Writers’ Centre also organised a reading on 9 March 2016 at the Elm Common Lounge by Dai Fan. Dai Fan is a professor of English and founding director of the Sun Yat-sen University Centre for English-language Creative Writing. Her work in English has appeared in publications such as Drunken Boat and Asia Literary Review.