Concluded earlier in the month of November, the Singapore Writers Festival garnered an attendance of at least 20,000 people. Themed ‘Island of Dreams’, the annual literary event, which is also one of the few multi-lingual literary festivals in the world, was a celebration of the spoken and written word in English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. Many of the programmes featured were lectures, masterclasses and panel discussions, with a few performances and literary tours. Out of the 310 ticketed and free sessions, 6 were conducted in Tamil. The remaining Indian writers were involved in about 10 English-based panel discussions alongside other writers. Among the spotlighted handful were Na Muthukumar, Pia Padukone, Paro Anand and locally based Latha (featured image), KTM Iqbal and Prabhu Silvam.
I was pleased to find a panel discussion focusing on the status of Tamil female writers in Singapore. Having been male centric, the literary canon has evidently only consisted of pocketfuls of female voices – many of whom had only written their works for competitions and newspapers. It was not until 1989 when Suriya Rethna broke the mould to become the first Singaporean Tamil female novelist in 1989 with her self-published work, Merkkey Uthikkum Sooriyan (The Sun Rises in the West). Her presence amidst fellow panelists Jayanthi Sankar and Meenatchi Sababathi at the discussion was a notable one as they tackled the much-heated subject, “Avalukkum Kanavu Undu!” (Women Can Dream Too).
Moderated by Subramaniam Kannappan, the dialogue quickly delved into a range of issues from the social barriers of female writers, the wrath of critics and the conflict between literary and commercial fiction. It was agreed that women had unique circumstances due to the demands of their maternal duties. Family support is therefore crucial to sustaining one’s career as a writer. Then again, the question of whether women are confined in these traditional gender roles still remains.
One of the attendees also rightfully pointed out her dilemma with the reading culture of Tamil literary fiction these days and how the lines between literature and commercial entertainment have been blurred. When approached to conduct a poetry writing workshop, she was given an odd suggestion to teach poetry the way music composers in the entertainment industry teach lyric writing. Evidently, people have contorted the idea of poetry by aligning it to commercialised songs.
As much as this appears to make Tamil literature more palatable for the younger generation, it provides them with the misconception that the two are interchangeable.
We can’t use Taylor Swift to teach Shakespeare. Likewise, using Anirudh Ravichander to understand Kambar would be a tall order. How then do we extrapolate the sensibilites between Tamil literature and commercial songs while making the learning of Tamil literature more relatable? This churned out an eye-opening discussion on the necessity to safeguard the way our heritage is studied.
Of course, being a writer has its own set of challenges. The panelists shared about their interesting encounters with critics and how those had impacted their works. Their word of advice was to take criticism constructively while building a positive support system.
What heartened me, by the end of the discussion, was the level of intimacy and the keen desire to see one another grow and achieve.
A majority of the audiences in attendance were middle-aged, female published or to-be-published writers from the Association of Singapore Tamil writers. As much as we find ourselves lamenting on the dearth of Tamil women writers, it was consoling to know that a small, tight-knitted community exists and continues to be an aid for up-and-coming writers. What’s left is to watch and wait, and I take it upon myself to say this on behalf of the only two youngsters in the audience: the time is now.