Hear them roar: 91 women writers for writers' fest

SINGAPORE - Powerful women's voices will be heard at this year's Singapore Writers Festival.

Britain's poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy headlines a strong roster of women writers from other parts of the world, including China, Pakistan and the United States.

Duffy, known for her lyrical poems, is one of the most recognised names in poetry today. She was named Britain's Poet Laureate in 2009 and is the first woman to hold the title in the post's 341-year history.

Readers of The Straits Times can win a chance to have dinner with her when she is in town.

Also attending are other big names such as Jung Chang, author of the successful and critically acclaimed book Wild Swans; Pakistani poet and novelist Fatima Bhutto and Indian poet Salma.

Both Chang and Bhutto have new books out, which make their appearances at the festival timely.

Chang has a work of non-fiction titled Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, which will be the subject of one of the festival's lectures on Nov 4. Bhutto will discuss her fiction debut, The Shadow Of The Crescent Moon, in a session with novelist Romesh Gunesekera on Nov 9.

Festival director Paul Tan, 42, tells Life!: "As with many other literary festivals, you sometimes need a serendipitous alignment of the stars. Fortunately, both Jung Chang and Fatima have exciting new works out this year."

He adds that the festival's programming approach has always been to cover a range of genres and topics, and offer "a good balance of men and women's voices".

This year, there are 91 women writers from 15 countries across the world, with 52 authors from Singapore, compared to 66 women writers last year.

Now in its 16th edition, the festival is themed on Utopia/Dystopia and will explore broad issues ranging from war and peace to love and hate.

In addition to strong panels centred on women's issues, festivalgoers can expect more lectures, a focus on crime and a theme that allows the festival to look at the darker side of humanity, including some of the challenges women writers such as Indian poet and novelist Salma have had to face.


Tickets to the Singapore Writers Festival start from $15 for a Festival Pass and are available from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg).

Fatima Bhutto, 31, single

Known for her forthright opinions, Pakistani poet, journalist and writer Fatima Bhutto does not hold back when asked about the biggest challenge facing Pakistan today.

"It's completely corrupt and venal leadership has silenced the voice of the Pakistani people for decades."

She has the chops to make that judgment call since she hails from the influential Bhutto family, a political dynasty, two generations of which have been active in Pakistani politics. In fact, the charismatic grassroots worker has also been seen as a future leader of Pakistan.

Her grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was Pakistan's president from 1971 to 1973 and prime minister from 1973 to 1977. Her late Aunt Benazir was Pakistan's prime minister for two terms from 1988 to 1990, and 1993 to 1996.

In previous interviews, Fatima has said she is not interested in running for political office.

When asked again, all she would say is this: "My answer has never changed."

The brutal and corrupt world of Pakistani power politics was the subject of her hard-hitting memoir Songs Of Blood And Sword (2010).

In it, she blamed her aunt Benazir and her husband Asif Zardari for the killing of her father Mir Murtaza in 1996.

Her father was shot dead by police after a gun battle outside their Karachi home. The policemen accused of killing him were acquitted when Zardari was Pakistan's president in 2009.

Fatima was 14 years old then and shielded her baby brother as the gun battle happened.

Her father and her aunt had bitter fights about the future of the Pakistan People's Party, the party their father had founded.

Murtaza fled Pakistan in 1977 after the Zia-ul-Haq regime took power and did not return until 1993. As a result, Fatima spent her life hopscotching through cities from Kabul, Afghanistan, where she was born, to Damascus, Syria, where she grew up, to Karachi, Pakistan, where she now lives.

She will talk about her best-selling memoir which documents her family's turbulent life as well as her debut fictional novel, The Shadow Of The Crescent Moon at the Singapore Writers Festival.

In an e-mail interview with Life!, she says she always knew she would be a writer. "Since I was a child, I loved books and was completely transfixed by stories, letters and words."

The Shadow Of The Crescent Moon begins and ends one rainswept morning in Mir Ali, a town in the troubled tribal region of Waziristan, close to the Afghan border. It chronicles the lives of people trying to live and love in a world on fire.

Fatima says fiction is tougher to write than non-fiction because one is not working from pages of interviews and research. "Fiction requires openness and compassion. It forces you to empathise with those you would otherwise condemn or ignore. It does not forgive your prejudice."

She lives in southern Pakistan, far removed from the country's tribal belt, but travelled often to the north, which borders Afghanistan, for work as a journalist.

Even after Pakistan signed on to fight in the war on terror and to open its skies and bases, it was difficult, but still possible to travel around the north.

"Then one year, you could not go. These places from one's childhood and memory became cities under siege. I wanted to write about a people losing their home and a home losing its people. And about how hard it is not to die in these places, and how hard it is to live and how young people, especially women, survive in an atmosphere on fire."

She studied at Columbia University and the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, and writes columns for several publications including New Statesman, the respected British magazine on current affairs.

When asked how journalism has shaped or influenced her writing, she says: "Journalism is so black and white. It takes a very rigid stand on a story - everything works in absolutes. There's not a lot of shades in journalism and there's not a lot of empathy either - journalism approves or condemns. There's no room for the in-between - for observing without judgment. At least not in today's journalism.

"But fiction is a release from all that. There is great freedom in fiction."

This explains why she chose a fictional narrative to tell the story of north Pakistan.

Work on the novel took her an extended period of time during which she was supposed to be writing a very different book - a non-fiction book on Karachi.

"I wrote the novel in secret, returning to it whenever I could. I loved the characters, I became very protective of these made-up people. I carried them around with me all the time."

Her personal life has been shaped by tragedy, particularly the 1996 killing of her father and it has impacted her writing.

On the issue of loss and grief, she says: "They are partners. Grief is how we carry the losses we face, it is the memory of loss. I do not think it is possible to choose between the sadness of loss and what it feels like to carry pain."

Meet the author: Fatima Bhutto

Where: Binary Pavilion, Campus Green, Singapore Management University (SMU)
When: Nov 8, 7 to 8pm
Admission: With Festival Pass from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

In conservation with Fatima Bhutto

What: Booker Prize-finalist novelist Romesh Gunesekera and author Fatima Bhutto share their views on the fraught notion of home and its re-imagining through fiction
Where: Binary Pavilion, Campus Green, SMU
When: Nov 9, 10 to 11am
Admission: With Festival Pass

Jung Chang, 61, married

Over the telephone from London, Jung Chang sounds just a little tired.

She has to ward off a persistent cough and reaches out for her glass of water twice during the 30-minute interview.

"Wiped out" is a phrase she would use towards the end of this interview, but when talking about her newest book, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, she gets all fired up.

It is a subject that clearly thrills the wildly successful author of Wild Swans, her memoir which looked at the history of China through the lives of her grandmother, her mother and herself.

She says she first read about the empress more than 20 years ago when she was working on that 1991 bestseller.

The subject was always at the back of her head, says the author, who will talk about her book at the Singapore Writers Festival.

"I had thought it was the communists who got rid of foot-binding, but it was actually her. When I was researching Mao Zedong's biography, I ended up reading more about her. It was almost like my research was leading me to her, to my next book."

She calls the empress "a fantastic and fascinating subject" who has often been misrepresented and misunderstood.

Her extensive and detailed research - the work on the book took nearly five years - was aided by the opening of Chinese and Western archives, which made new material available.

She hopes her biography will help paint "a different picture" from existing accounts, some of which have prevailed for more than 100 years.

One of Chinese Emperor Xianfeng's many concubines, Cixi rose through the ranks by producing an heir, Tongzhi. When Xianfeng died in 1861, she ousted other contenders and installed herself as sole regent for her son, ruling China for 47 years.

Cixi is often portrayed as a conservative, cruel despot. In Chang's book, however, she is someone who abolished foot-binding, strengthened foreign trade and diplomacy as well as revolutionised China's education system.

This book, Chang adds, was a lot easier than the 2005 biography, Mao: The Unknown Story, which took her nearly 12 years to write.

Born the second of five children in Sichuan province, she left China at the age of 26 to study linguistics in Britain and became the first Chinese national to earn a doctorate at a British university - the University of York - in 1982.

She shot to fame in 1991 with her debut, Wild Swans. It was translated into 30 languages and has sold more than 10 million copies, but the book was banned in China.

A similar fate befell her Mao biography, which she co-authored with her husband, British historian Jon Halliday. They have no children.

Among other controversial claims, it asserts that the late Chinese leader was an amoral tyrant responsible for the deaths of 70 million Chinese people, rather than the 30 million commonly estimated - making his rule bloodier than that of Hitler or Stalin.

The book garnered widespread attention when it was released, not all of it positive.

When asked about the criticism, Chang says: "One of the things I am very proud of is that no one questioned its factual accuracy. What they have questioned is the portrayal, which is fine. These things are open to interpretation."

On the extensive research it takes her to complete each of her books, she says with a laugh: "I love research. I like detective work.

Doing research is like detective work."

The big challenge with research, though, is knowing when to stop. "There are millions of documents in archives. I cannot possibly read all of them. I read to a point that I have a well-informed picture of my subjects. I can tell when I have got to that point, after which I start writing."

She has been to Singapore a few times, sometimes in transit or as part of her book tours. But it is not the food, shopping or streets she remembers.

She says: "I was walking along the coast and I was rather amused when I saw a sign that read, 'Beware of falling coconuts'.

"I cannot remember which year it was, but the words have been in my head."

Book it

Singapore Writers Festival lecture: Utopia, Mao and the Empress Dowager Cixi by Jung Chang

Where: The Salon, National Museum of Singapore
When: Nov 4, 7.30 to 8.30pm 
Admission: $15

Salma, 45, married

Tamil poet Salma was not allowed to go to school when she turned 13.

"In the small village where I come from, girls' education was allowed only until they attained puberty," she says.

"It was a strict, though unwritten, code followed by the entire community. I felt trapped in my home. The only thing that gave me satisfaction and a sense of escape was writing."

Last year, she finally got her bachelor of arts degree through distance learning and is now working towards a master of arts degree in history from the same university - Tamil Nadu Open University.

It is perhaps no surprise then that in the interview, conducted over the telephone from South India where she is attending a literary festival, she is emphatic about the value of education.

"Education is very important," she says, via interpreter and journalist Aruliniyan Mahalingam, who is working on her biography, "as important as writing".

She began writing poetry at the tender age of nine. But all hell broke loose when one of her poems was published in what she calls "a small magazine".

When her family found out, the words were harsh and she was warned not to write.

She was not allowed to even step out of her home for nearly nine years till the day she got married, during which time she kept writing. She has two sons, aged 21 and 19.

"I come from a very strict Muslim family. My family felt I would spoil the family name if I kept writing.

"I did not stop. I just changed my name. My name is Rajathi Samsudeen. I started sending my poems in under the pen name Salma."

Her poems, often touching on issues confronting women and the pressures they face, were published in several Tamil-language magazines.

In 2000, her first book of poems Oru Maalaiyum Innoru Maalaiyum (An Evening And Another Evening) was published, followed by Pachchai Devathai (Green Angel) in 2003.

"But I was not satisfied. I wanted to say more. I wanted to write more. I became a little restless with poetry, which is how I started writing my first novel."

Her novel, Irandaam Jaamangalin Kathai (The Story Of The Midnight, 2005), was hailed by critics for its sensitive portrayal of the family relationships in Tamil Muslim society.

The novel looks at Muslim women's ordeals within the community. It has been translated into English, Spanish and German, something she says she "never imagined".

Her work, including short stories, is "almost always about women's issues". It addresses several topics such as how society treats them, sexual relations and a woman's sexuality.

Even though she is often called a feminist, she says she does not consider herself to be one.

"I am just a writer who writes about women's issues because these are things I have had to deal with."

As a writer, she has had to beat the odds, write in secret and hide her writing from her family.

When asked what advice she has for aspiring writers, she has just four words: "Always write the truth."

Book it

Torchbearers and Groundbreakers

What: Poets Salma, Cyril Wong and David Musgrave speak about their taboo-breaking verse
Where: Seminar Room, National Museum of Singapore 
When: Nov 10, 10 to 11am 
Admission: With Festival Pass

Literary styles and innovation

What: Salma, Imayam and J.M. Sali talk about the challenges and beauty of writing in the Tamil language
Where: Seminar Room, National Museum of Singapore 
When: Nov 9, 2.30 to 3.30pm 
Admission: With Festival Pass

Other panels with women writers

Asian Women Write Back!

Discover how writers Ameena Hussein (Sri Lanka), Lakshmi Narayan (India) and Ovidia Yu (Singapore) re-imagine the world through their work. They will cover issues such as the evolving roles of women as well as their anxieties and triumphs. The session is moderated by The Straits Times senior writer Cheong Suk Wai.

Where: The Salon, National Museum of Singapore
When: Nov 2, 5.30 to 6.30pm
Admission: With Festival Pass from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

Evolution: Women's Voices In Tamil Literature

Writers Kamaladevi Aravindhan, Salma and Suriya Rethnna talk about the challenges they face as writers and the fine balance between roles and expectations with the varied stories they want to uncover. This session is in Tamil and will be moderated by Dr Uma Rajan, a health-care consultant and classical dancer, who has been actively involved in promoting Indian arts in Singapore.

Where: Seminar Room, National Museum of Singapore
Nov 9, 4 to 5pm
Admission: With Festival Pass

Between Women

Authors Kirsten Tranter (Australia), Lydia Kwa (Canada) and Suchen Christine Lim (Singapore) discuss how they flesh out complex relationships between female characters - the deep friendships as well as elements of the sensual and the emotional. The session is moderated by writer Phan Ming Yen.

Where: Switch, NTUC Trade Union House, 01-01/02, 73 Bras Basah Road
When: Nov 9, 4 to 5pm
Admission: With Festival Pass

Woman Enough?

What constitutes the ideal woman in contemporary Chinese literature? A graceful domestic goddess or an understanding and patient listener? Join China authors Sheng Keyi and Liu Liu as they toss up ideas on their "ideal woman" while talking about their female protagonists who struggle to stay true to themselves. This Mandarin session is moderated by Lianhe Zaobao correspondent Teoh Hee La.

Where: Glass Hall, Singapore Art Museum
When: Nov 9, 11.30am to 12.30pm
With Festival Pass

Carol Ann Duffy

Join British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy for an intimate reading of her favourite poems from old and new collections including The World's Wife, Rapture and The Bees. Imaginative, playful yet deeply personal, Duffy is one of the most celebrated poets of modern time. Moderated by Singapore poet and writer Pooja Nansi, this event is a must for poetry lovers.

Where: Binary Pavilion, Campus Green, Singapore Management University
When: Nov 9, 2.30pm to 3.30pm
Admission: With Festival Pass

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