Environmental & Social Responsibility at Singapore Writers Festival

From eco-poetry, social consciousness to civic imagination in the age of dystopia, the Singapore Writers Festival saw poets, writers, illustrators, filmmakers and literary critics come together to deal with urgent global and contemporary issues. Mallika Naguran and Tina Sim report.

SINGAPORE, 12 November 2017. Nature, the environment and social justice featured prominently at the 2017 edition of the Singapore Writers Festival.

Prominent Singaporean poets such as KTM Iqbal, Leonard Ng and Madeleine Lee treated the public to readings of their works during a session titled Eco-poetry in the Tropics and Beyond on Sunday, day three of the ten day festival.

Subtlety in handling concepts is topmost in poet Leonard Ng’s mind. “I won’t say that nature is all good and humans are all bad. I write about the grey lines between nature and humans,” said Ng, who is also the director of the civic group Urban Explorers of Singapore.

He read The Emperor, his poem about a raptor in flight, and urged the audience to look up as they go for walks for a possible glimpse of circling birds of prey.

Nature poet Madeleine Lee writes to describe as well as to warn.

Nature poet Madeleine Lee writes to describe as well as to warn.

Apart from communicating her love for nature depicted by highly visual descriptors, Madeleine Lee writes to warn as well. “My view about humans is that we are but a small part of the world yet we are pretty destructive,” said Lee who was a Writer-in-Residency at the Singapore Botanic Gardens in 2015.  

Her poem Cannonball is one that describes a tree species found in the newly listed UNESCO heritage site, and written with humour.

Ow Yeong Wai Kit felt that it was the moral obligation of a writer to convey messages pertaining to the current state of the environment. “Climate change, for instance, is implicitly communicated in our writing,” he told Gaia Discovery. Ow co-edited the anthology of nature poems From Walden to Woodlands with Muzakkir Samat, who also read out his nature poems written in Malay at the eco-poetry session.

Another panel session, The Green State of Singapore helmed by Timothy P. Barnard and Lena Chan looked at the greening of this island-state from the early 19th century.

How Writers Can Save the Earth featured Eliot Schrefer, Dokked and Shamini Flint. The three authors have written about environmental issues aimed at creating awareness of the imminent danger of climate change.

Diaz:  More important now than ever to form collectives to make a difference in the age of dystopia. Pic: MIT

Diaz:  More important now than ever to form collectives to make a difference in the age of dystopia. Pic: MIT

Pulitzer Prize-winning Dominican-American author Junot Diaz at his lecture entitled Hope and Resistance in the Age of Dystopia warned against falling into the line with the narrative “that the world is huge and f***ed up”, and to be so “overwhelmed by all this stuff, like (what's happening in) Syria, you can't even get down to the soup kitchen." 

This would play into the hand of neoliberalists who do not want to deal with collectives, because “atomised individuals…are easier to crush” while “collectives can crush power." 

Diaz urged that it was more important now than ever to form collectives, because we are going to need that miracle. The debate is not about whether the cup is broken (it is); the narrative thread should be that we can do something, and not be overwhelmed. The narrative thread of "resilience" should be about the ways we can be “energised with the sensibility of the possible”, how we can exercise some form of "civic imagination" to leave the world in a better condition than when we came into it.

That, incidentally, is the mission of Gaia Discovery, to be one of the many collectives that stand in this breach.

The social responsibility of a writer was also discussed at another panel. Featured authors included Lee Seow Ser who produces socially inclusive children’s books with Tan Ai Khim and Hidayah Amin. There was an exchange of views on how the medium of writing has helped vent difficult experiences through fictional or semi-autobiographical books.

Not all children are made equal – this is the motive behind The Joy of Quiet Adventures reading session by author Leila Boukarim and illustrator Barbara Moxham who have published two books about sensitive little people. Children watched and drew along as Moxham sketched images live from their colourful children’s books Aiden Finds a Way and All Too Much for Oliver.

All Too Much for Oliver is about sensitive children, written by Leila Boukarim and illustrated by Barbara Moxham.

All Too Much for Oliver is about sensitive children, written by Leila Boukarim and illustrated by Barbara Moxham.

Of Monsters and Man panel session on justice and human rights drew an audience of more than a hundred at the newly renovated Victoria Theatre. Helon Habila, a Nigerian novelist who wrote about the plight of the Boko Haram girls in his recent non-fiction book The Chibok Girls, spoke about the writer’s obligations in covering turmoil. “The responsibility of the writer is to try to go behind the façade and to know who you are writing about,” he said, adding, “We all have to become our own journalists.”

Benjamin Dix of the same session felt compelled to go beyond hard news or fake news to “tell the human story”. Dix, the founding director of PositiveNegatives, adapts academic research into comics and multimedia for advocacy and education. He shared that he was privileged to be writing the story of an abused Ethiopian domestic helper in the illustrated Alamaz: Maid in Saudi Arabia.

Dix’s mission in writing is “to teach the next generation what’s going on in the world.”

Speaking for the Voiceless, featuring Mohd Sharif, Miriam Bird Greenberg and Sim Chi Yin, put the spotlight on communities such as migrant workers and asylum seekers.  Sharif, a Bangladeshi construction safety supervisor working in Singapore, wrote to capture the emotions of his co-workers and himself in his recently published book of memoirs and poems titled Stranger to Myself. "Poetry allows workers to step beyond the boundaries of reality to communicate what they feel," he said, describing that migrant workers often write, sing and dance as outlets for creative expression.

Shivaji Das (left) explores migrant workers' issues at the Speaking for the Voiceless panel that included Bangladeshi construction safety supervisor Mohd Sharif Uddin (right). He is pictured here holding out his newly published Stranger to Myself. Pic by Gaia Discovery.

Shivaji Das (left) explores migrant workers' issues at the Speaking for the Voiceless panel that included Bangladeshi construction safety supervisor Mohd Sharif Uddin (right). He is pictured here holding out his newly published Stranger to Myself. Pic by Gaia Discovery.

The public got to hear poetic expressions by migrant workers as well on the last day of the festival. The free event featured poetry readings by construction supervisor Zakir Hossain Khokan from Bangladesh, shipyard supervisor Bikas Nath from Bangladesh, domestic helpers Rolinda O.Espanola and Rea Montiano Maac from the Philippines, domestic helpers Windu Lestari, Wiwik Triwinarsih and Deni Apriyani from Indonesia, and construction worker N. Rengarajan from India.

Shivaji Das, the organiser of the Migrant Workers Poetry Competition, hosted the session. He is also compiling a poetry anthology by the contributors and other migrant workers as well.

The multi-lingual and multi-faceted Singapore Writers Festival first began in 1986. The 20th edition of the festival picked Ireland as the country focus, and was organised by the National Arts Council with the support of event partners such as Culture Ireland, Embassy of Ireland Singapore, Nanyang Technological University and partnering venues such as The Arts House, Victoria Theatre, Timbre Music Academy, The National Gallery Singapore and  HideOut@Funan Showsuite.