22 November 2016: Students and faculty speak in events at Singapore Writers Festival

Text and images by Yasunari Watanabe

Al Lim (Class of 2019) reading a poem written in twin cinema form

From 4 to 13 November 2016, Singapore’s literary scene was abuzz with readings, panels and events as part of the annual Singapore Writers Festival organised by the National Arts Council. This year, three students and two faculty members from Yale-NUS College joined in the excitement at four different events, each speaking from their experiences as writers.

“The Singapore literary scene is remarkably robust for a small island,” remarked Professor Rajeev S Patke, Director, Division of Humanities, who spoke at a panel entitled ‘Critical Stage: Why the Literary Critic Matters Even More Now’. He observed that the festival presents Singapore as a showcase to international writers, while showcasing those writers to Singaporean readers.

Professor of Humanities Robin Hemley, Director of the Writers’ Centre, also participated in a panel discussion at this year’s Festival. Entitled ‘Writing from the Diaspora’, the panel focused on issues of representing people not corporally from one’s culture, and explored how much immersion or distance is needed to feel comfortable writing about it.

“We talked about what it means to write about a place you don’t originate from,” explained Professor Hemley, who read at the event from his essay about Singapore, his Filipino wife, and the different receptions their skin and origins evoke.

While the Festival featured writers such as Professors Patke and Hemley, who have been in the literary scene for years, it was also an opportunity for young writers.

One such student was first year student, Lesley-Anne Tan (Class of 2020), who was a speaker at two panels. ‘Singapore Through Their Eyes’ explored how Singapore is portrayed differently through each local writer in their fiction, while in ‘Write This Way: A Guide for Teens by Teens’, Lesley-Anne joined other published teen writers to give budding writers an insight to the writing industry.

When she was 16 years old, Lesley-Anne penned her first book in the five-part Danger Dan children’s series, about a boy who explores Singapore’s history. She co-authored the series with her mother, who handled marketing as Lesley-Anne balanced her writing career with academics.

“We made it a point to get all of the first drafts out during school holidays, so I would only have to do edits or illustrations during the school year,” said Lesley-Anne, who has participated in numerous other literary events. She has since written a historical companion, Secrets of Singapore, and is now working on a second series set in the future, dealing with more complex themes and ethical issues.

Two other Yale-NUS students, Al Lim (Class of 2019) and See Wern Hao (Class of 2020), also participated in the Festival. Both performed a reading of twin cinema poetry with four other poets in a reading entitled ‘Twin Cinema Reading’ by Sing Lit Station. Twin cinema is a poetic form that was first formally developed in Singapore. The poem is displayed in two columns — each column may be read vertically by itself, or the whole poem horizontally across both columns.

“In our session, the two parts of the poems are not only linked together by ideas, they’re also linked together by readings,” explained Wern Hao. “Each half of a poem can stand on its own, but if you read them together, it conveys a third layer of meaning… the effect is really quite beautiful.”

Al’s interest in writing began at Yale-NUS, during a learning journey trip to Myanmar. The trip was a part of orientation, and included reflective free-writing exercises led by writing fellows who accompanied them on the trip. Upon returning from Myanmar, Al compiled his free-writes and received encouragement from his academic advisor to continue writing.

A little more than a year later, Al is now President of INK: Yale-NUS Literary Collective, which meets weekly to bring students with literary interests together. He has also been published in the Eunoia Review and Unseen the Magazine, and was a finalist in the A3 Fresh Voices Competition 2015 for poetry.

“For creative writing, it’s especially important to have a community of writers,” said Al, who describes INK as a place where students can be inspired by each other and are comfortable enough with each other to give constructive feedback.

(fifth and sixth from left) See Wern Hao and Al Lim participated in ‘Twin Cinema Reading’ held at The Arts House

For Wern Hao, his journey began a few years before entering Yale-NUS: he was inspired by an accomplished writer friend and his study of literature in junior college, where he was exposed to famous poetry works. He has since continued to write, frequenting the Writers’ Centre at Yale-NUS for feedback on his work.

“Even if it’s just a draft, [the advisors at the Writers’ Centre] can really sieve out the emotions you are trying to convey, and let them blossom,” he shared.

The Writers’ Centre supports students through one-on-one consultations with instructors, creative writing workshops, and late-night writing sessions. Yale-NUS also has a writer-in-residence in each Residential College.

“We are trying to make writing a part of the life of the campus, in every single way, both in terms of academic and literary writing,” said Professor Hemley.

The system adopted by the College acknowledges creative writing as a teachable element of the educational system, says Professor Patke. The liberal arts model, he added, “gives a chance for individual potentialities to grow in different directions. Every part of your human potential for growth and development ought to be cultivated by the College.”