Singapore Writers Festival: Singapore literature should go beyond unique content

SINGAPORE – Singapore literature should have its own unique features and this should go beyond content.

Homegrown poet Yeng Pway Ngon, who was speaking at the Singapore Writers Festival on Saturday (Nov 3), said that words and the “language” also play a part in being unique.

“You should be able to recognise it at a glance,” said the 71-year-old in Mandarin.

Yeng, a Cultural Medallion recipient, is one of Singapore’s most prolific authors, who has published more than 25 volumes of poetry, essays, fiction, plays and literary criticism in Mandarin. His works are being celebrated at this year’s festival, with events such as an exhibition, classroom talk and an evening party.

His comments on Singapore literature came during an event entitled Social Upheavals in Modern Chinese Fiction held at The Arts House. The event also featured Singaporean novelist Soon Ai Ling, and Liu Zhenyun, one of China’s best-selling contemporary novelists.

Yeng elaborated that the Singaporean brand of Mandarin, which is influenced by Chinese dialects, Malay and English, features expressions that are different from how the language is spoken in other countries.

Singaporeans have the tendency to use the classifier “yi li” when referring to apples, rather than “yi ge”, the accepted version in standard Mandarin. “I don’t believe this means we are wrong,” he said.

An audience member asked the speakers if they were concerned that fewer people now have the patience to plough through a novel, preferring instead to watch the movie adaptations.Yeng joked that Singapore writers don’t have this problem because their works are rarely adapted for the big screen.

“Something that’s quite saddening is that writing in Mandarin in Singapore is a rather lonely job,” he added.

Soon acknowledged that that film adaptations, as well as translations, are a good way for more people to access the works, while Liu, whose books have been made into films, responded: “Why do we need to read literature? A big reason is that in our everyday lives, we might not approach emotions and life with a lot of depth. Literature can intricately and in minute detail depict what we have overlooked in our lives.”

“Why did these films win all those awards? The answer is simple: because the books were well-written,” he said to rapt applause from the crowd.

Freelance writer Liu Chang, 36, who attended the talk on Saturday, said she was there to “meet her idols” and enjoyed the talk because of the high calibre of the speakers.

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