Pooja Nansi On What It Means To Be The New Director Of Singapore Writers Festival
Pooja Nansi’s relationship with language is a complicated one. As a child of migrant parents, she had little access to literature in Gujarati, her mother tongue. When she attended primary school in Singapore in 1987, the poet chose Malay as her second language. Besides Tamil, there were no other Indian languages offered. “It was a deeply hilarious thing. I had to pick a mother tongue that was not my mother’s tongue,” shares Nansi candidly, “I speak five languages fluently now, but I think that none of us in Singapore have a simple relationship to language.”
Taking over the directorship of the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) from acclaimed Singaporean poet Yeow Kai Chai, who helmed the past three editions of the festival, Pooja arrived at this year’s theme—A Language Of Our Own—by stringing together the past themes of Jiè, Aram and Sayang.
“It was nice to celebrate life while examining the language of each of the above, especially in a bicentennial year, and to ask this: what exactly is Singapore’s identity?”
The curation this year also invites the public to consider various non-verbal language mediums such as today’s digital meme culture, which will be explored through the festival’s newest programme, the Youth Fringe. As an educator at heart, Nansi’s persistence on including young people into the festival resulted in the new segment, where individuals aged between 13 and 18 can discuss a slate of programmes curated by and for them.
“I believe that we must listen to young people when working with them,” shares Nansi, “we got eight young curators to come in to propose a list of 10 programmes and there were many unexpected topics that came up, such as mental health and the presence of poetry in Korean dramas."
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Under Nansi’s helm, the festival has also incorporated the use of technology in an attempt to create more multi-faceted experiences for its audience members. Working with Singapore-based design company Kult Studio and Gallery, they have come up with an immersive installation that explores the evolution of texting as everyday writing. “We’re writing more than any other time in history, and we’re constantly doing so in a way that we didn’t use to.”
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How did you come into your role as the festival director of the SWF?
Pooja Nansi (PN) Everything I’ve done in the literary arts scene so far has prepared me for this role. I’ve been working in it for a very long time and was writing poetry long before I knew there was a scene. In 2003, I chanced upon a poetry slam during the Singapore Writers Festival, and that was when I realised how something I thought was very personal and solitary could be presented with a sense of community. I then did monthly spoken‑word events at art space Artistry for more than four years. After it closed down, I decided to do more curatorial things such as The Other Tongues, a literary festival for minority writers.
Did you get any advice from Yeow Kai Chai?
PN He told me to be myself and to stay true to who I am in my vision. I have him on speed dial and he always makes me feel at ease. I’ve texted him several times to ask if it is normal to experience certain feelings. And he always goes: “Yeah, don’t worry, this happens.” It is very heartening to have his support.
What does having ownership over your own language mean?
PN I don’t really like the word “ownership”, but access is interesting. I like [Austrian philosopher Ludwig] Wittgenstein’s quote “the limits of your language are the limits of your world”. That sparked another curatorial angle, which is how language sometimes alienates some of us. If you think of sign language such as braille or the language of ableist bodies, it definitely limits their access to some parts of the world that aren’t taking them into account.
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How would you tell a new festival-goer to approach the SWF?
PN The highlights are a good place to start. We have curated some of the fun big names, and included smaller commissions. One of them is The ‘d’ Monologues, a series of monologues based on real‑life experience of disabled bodied actors. Buying a festival pass gives access to over 100 things, so just explore. Attend something you otherwise wouldn’t go to; you never know what you’ll learn!
Can you share with us a haiku that encapsulates the theme of this year’s SWF, “A Language of Our Own”?
We talk with our whole bodies.
When we hug, 😉, wave,
when we walk away.