View Comments

The 2012 Singapore Writers Festival used the sprawling campus of the Singapore Management University as its base and reached out to embrace the National Museum of Singapore, the Singapore Art Museum, the Peranakan Museum, the School of the Arts and The Arts House.

It used the theme of Origins as its base and reached out to embrace beginnings, inspirations, identity, history, technology and storytelling via the work of 47 international and 109 local writers including Michael Cunningham, Edwin Thumboo, Krys Lee, Alvin Pang, Linda Jaivin. Jimmy Liao and Marina Mahathir.

It was also one of the few truly multilingual writers festivals with each of Singapore's four official languages - English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil - represented (and, unofficially, Singlish, lah).

Organised by the National Arts Council and this year directed by Paul Tan, one of the main ideas behind the 2012 SWF was to bring some of the best writers in the world to Singaporeans and some of the best Singaporean and regional writers to the world.

And certainly that's the sense I got during my four-day encounter with the 10-day festival. Large numbers of foreigners and locals enthusiastically engaged with writers and writing at every level.

As a visiting journalist I was luckier than most. From my own base at the commodious Hotel Rendezvous near the SMU, I was able to enjoy not only numerous panel discussions, readings and conversations but interview many of the authors one-on-one.

Friday began with a welcome lunch at the Singapore Art Museum's Trattoria Lafiandra al Museo - not quite traditional Singaporean fare, as Paul Tan jokingly pointed out to us over our meal.

Then it was on to a tour of the Masuri SN exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore. Masuri was a highly prolific poet who broke new ground in modern Malay poetry, and it was fascinating to read about his life and work as pages from that same work fluttered upwards beneath the museum's impressive dome like mute birds. Equally fascinating was Booksactually, a characterful and seriously stocked independent bookstore on the Tiong Bahru Estate run by Kenny Leck.

As we stood among the groaning shelves and bric-a-brac, I asked Leck about the book trade in Singapore. He seemed pretty sanguine.

"On the surface it doesn't seem healthy at all and high rents are a very big issue," he said. "But every year we've been doing better. There's light there; you just need to know where to find it."

After the official opening of the 2012 SWF in the Ilovebooks.com pavilion at SMU later that evening, I then had the pleasure of interviewing a Singaporean legend, Yeng Pway Ngon, an award-winning poet, novelist, playwright and critic who writes in Mandarin and whose 2002 novel Unrest was recently translated into English by Jeremy Tiang.

"This is the first use of metafiction in a Chinese novel," he told me of Unrest.

Over the next few days I was able to interview a range of other authors, including graphic novelist Troy Chin, whose autobiographical series The Resident Tourist is unlike anything I've ever read, and talented young short fiction writer O. Thiam Chin, whose collection The Rest of Your Life and Everything That Comes With It is by turns erotic and surreal.

But the highlight was perhaps my interview with poet and academic Edwin Thumboo, who was born in 1933 and who is considered one of the pioneers of Singaporean English literature.

"We have the great advantage of a strong National Arts Council which is sensitive and supportive to literature," he told me. "Which we never had when I was young. So Singapore literature is flourishing and defining the Singapore experience more and more. Read the young writers: you'll get the rhythm of what is going on now."

Of his own poetry, he said his influences were different from those that defined the poetry of young poets today.

"I grew up at a time when the nation was being formed," he said."The themes I explore are rooted in the experience of growing up here. By contrast, some of the themes of younger writers are rooted in the international experience." As for the sessions I attended - not to mention the one I chaired, Around the Festival Circuit with poets Hung Hung, Alvin Pang, Yong Shu Hoong - they ran the gamut of human experience.

There was The Ties that Bind with Philip Jeyaretnam, Charlson Ong, Che Husna Azhari and Seno Gumira Ajidarma; The Peranakan Wields the Pen with Desmond Sim, Josephine Chia and Walter Woon; Of Book Awards and Bestsellers with Brian Castro, Michael Cunningham and Simon Tay; Making it (up) in the Middle Kingdom with Paul French, Linda Jaivin and Jonathan Campbell and Marina Mahathir in conversation with Catherine Lim. And much more, including a superb lecture by Michael Cunningham at the architecturally stunning School of the Arts, In the Beginning, There Was the Story, and a startlingly frank SWF Fringe session at The Arts House, Pleasure as Power - Sex, the Most Powerful Metaphor with Linda Jaivin, Neil Humphreys and Verena Tay.

My head swimming with words and ideas, I was happy on my last day to enjoy a fine breakfast at the Raffles Hotel's Tiffin Room with Singapore crime and children's author Shamini Flint. And, after a tour of the impressive Goodman Arts Centre, home to the National Arts Council and countless artists and other creatives, there was a farewell lunch at the centre's Cafe Melba.

And, after my plane took off, I took a drowsy look back at what was a memorable taste of the increasing dynamism and relevance of the Singapore literature scene.

·William Yeoman was a guest of the National Arts Council Singapore.