What I learnt At The Singapore Writers Festival
Words matter, but actions matter more
I heard two famous writer’s speak at the Singapore Writer’s Festival this weekend, Pico Iyer and Marlon James. The theme of the festival— A language of one’s own, is an interesting one. As expected, these two famous writers, experts in vastly different genres had different takes.
Pico Iyer, familiar to me through his books, his TED talks and the fact of his Indian ancestry, was erudite, humorous and philosophical. Marlon James, imposing and impressive with his sheer presence and irreverence, was refreshing.
Iyer began by saying that language can be the key that opens the gate to another culture but went on to point out that words can also be used as weapons. In Japan, where he is a long term resident, “More important than learning to speak Japanese, is learning to speak silence.” Less is better. Reading a person, reading between the lines, understanding the unspoken goes deeper than merely learning to speak a language.
The 2015 Booker prize winner, Jamaica-born Marlon James, exuded an enviable kind of energy. A raw, all-pervasive passion and immersion into the subject at hand. He insisted that the British, didn’t “own” English. Language was a tool box, it could be used to write any story. It could also be used to fashion your own language. Even as he talked about cultural appropriation and criticism, he insisted that anyone could write any story. He didn’t like to use words like “should” and “should not” when it came to writing. But “do the work,” he exhorted the audience.
I have been to the Singapore Writer’s Festival in previous years, as a reader, as an interested spectator, as a customer in the pop-up bookstore that appears at the Arts House during the festival, but this year there is a subtle difference. I am no longer a mere observer. I am keen to understand the business of writing and publishing, the grit and grime behind the scenes of glossy book covers, the passion and persistence of writers who have made it big, and what it really means to be a part of the ecosystem of an industry that has undergone a sea change in the the twenty-first century.
I am not an industry executive. I am a writer. A creator and a consumer. I want to participate. I want to add to the conversation. I want to write about it. I write in the solitude of my home, or sometimes on my phone on a crowded bus or train, surrounded by people who watch movies on their devices, oblivious to my insistent thoughts that demand to be transcribed.
Attending lectures at the festival lets me have a peek into the person behind the words. A part of me has always been curious about how writers present themselves to the public. How do they straddle the private inner world that they occupy in order to create, and the public world that seeks to devour not just their writing but their persona?
The first weekend of the festival hasn’t answered that question but I did learn something important. For readers, the written words matter. But for writers, actions matter more. Talking about writing is not the same as writing. Listening to these celebrated writers, was stimulating. But what makes me happy is the act of typing these words. The writing comes first. The rest will follow. I am sure.
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