Getting It Write
For poet, educator, and current director of the Singapore Writers Festival, Ms Pooja Nansi (Arts and Social Sciences ’04), a successful festival space invites the coming together of all people, no matter their backgrounds.
WHO SHE IS
The Director of the Singapore Writers Festival, Ms Pooja Nansi often explores the themes of ethnicity, identity, and feminism in her own work. She has published two collections of poetry, Love Is An Empty Barstool (2013) and Stiletto Scars (2007). The recipient of the 2016 Young Artist Award, Ms Nansi was also Singapore’s first Youth Poet Ambassador.
When poet and educator Ms Pooja Nansi was approached to be the director of the annual Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) by the National Arts Council and its former festival director Mr Yeow Kai Chai, she was in two minds. “It felt then like a giant undertaking; I was intimidated,” Ms Nansi, 39, confesses to The AlumNUS. She knew, however, that it was an opportunity not to let slip. “Nobody has ever made a difference by closing the door when they are given the chance to shake things up. Thankfully, a lot of the work I had done leading up to the festival — in education and in independent literary spaces — prepared me for this job.”
Having helmed the festival for two years, Ms Nansi — a first-generation Singaporean whose parents grew up in Mumbai and came to Singapore in 1982, when she was just one — has certainly helped to create a greater buzz surrounding the festival, largely by inviting renowned and popular writers such as Roxane Gay in SWF 2019 and Zadie Smith in its most recent run, which was held entirely virtually due to the pandemic. “My parents are both closely involved in the arts and so I grew up in a household where music, dance, reading, and writing were the norm. I am who I am because of my family and they are at the centre of everything I do,” says Ms Nansi, who double majored in English Literature and Philosophy during her time at NUS.
Plans for SWF 2021 are already in the works, but The AlumNUS managed to catch the busy new mother — just six weeks after she gave birth to her first child, a daughter — for her thoughts on the festival and her experience of it so far.
Since taking on the festival directorship, you’ve been clear in your direction, in wanting it to be as accessible as possible. Why has this been one of your top priorities?
I believe in making engaged communities through the literary work that I do. So it is crucial to me that a festival space — which is a ‘coming together’, especially with a national festival — stands for accessibility and inclusivity, and feels like a space for all, regardless of who we are. Ideally, the festival should feel like a physical and emotional space that everyone can feel comfortable in, and feel a sense of ownership over.
You’ve included writers who have gotten a lot of people excited as part of the festival’s programme. What is your selection or curatorial process like?
The team and I tend to spend some time thinking deeply about who is making work that addresses and unpacks the year’s theme — that’s generally a good starting point. We also brainstorm and share what we are reading and bring up names we think are discussing salient issues of the day so that the conversations at the festival feel urgent and relevant.
My top three must-haves for a successful writers festival are that the conversations must be current and relevant; the space must feel welcoming and inspiring; and finally, good food, drinks, and music! A festival is not a conference!
You’ve also maintained a good balance, putting the spotlight on both renowned international writers and local ones. Has this been a difficult process?
Not at all. There’s no real distinction in my mind between the groups. In my curatorial process, I try to include as many perspectives as possible that address what the festival is trying to explore. And I am deeply aware that we are the Singapore Writers Festival, and so we must have perspectives of our own front and centre in conversation with global and regional voices.
What have you learnt about running the festival so far?
I’ve learnt that there are many, many moving parts to a festival and numerous aspects that work together to create a seamless experience for audiences. Everyone matters, from our dedicated volunteers to our marketing team and the tireless operations team. By the time the festival rolls around, I am so exhausted — and have looked at the details for so long — that I get taken aback when someone says he/she is deeply moved by a programme or conversation that we’ve conducted. But this is always an important reminder of why a space like SWF matters.
What has been your biggest challenge?
To be honest, it’s managing the expectations of different communities and stakeholders who all have their priorities and notions of what the festival should accomplish. While I try my best to make the space diverse, accessible, and inclusive — and that’s all anyone can do — the truth is, there is just no way to please everybody. All I can do to overcome this is to listen, understand, and learn from the feedback.
What makes a festival successful to you?
My top three must-haves for a successful writers festival are that the conversations must be current and relevant; the space must feel welcoming and inspiring; and finally, good food, drinks, and music! A festival is not a conference! Without giving too much away, for the next festival, we hope to expand the conversation around what constitutes literature even further.
What was it like rolling out a festival during an ongoing pandemic?
We wanted to continue bringing together people in their shared love for stories, which is why SWF 2020 went digital. Rather than attempting to replicate our physical festival, we instead tried to create new experiences that set SWF 2020 apart by collaborating with our partners to create engaging and interactive experiences for festival-goers. If anything, going digital was a boon for us. We were excited to have more opportunities to reach international audiences and introduce them to authors and presenters who work with Singapore’s official languages. Festival-goers were able to log on from wherever they were and join in our celebration of literature.
PENCIL IT IN
SWF 2021 will return from 4 to 13 November 2021. In the meantime, teachers and students can look forward to SWF’s outreach programme, Words Go Round, which will take place from 1 to 13 March 2021. Words Go Round will feature multilingual programmes for pre-primary to tertiary students, with a series of interactive talks and workshops by Singaporean and international writers.
What do you remember most about your time at NUS?
What I remember most starkly are the friends I made there, some of whom I am still very close to. I must confess: I skipped some lectures to hang out at Sentosa or to nurse a hangover, but I also loved my classes and access to the library. I also remember my thesis supervisor Dr Susan Ang, her ever-welcoming office and the wonderful conversations she afforded me. My time in NUS allowed me the freedom to explore, be curious, and experience life lessons both in and out of the classroom, and that set the tone for who I was as a teacher and now, a festival director.
Do you think people are reading or writing more during the pandemic?
I think my reading habits shifted during the pandemic. I can’t speak for anyone else, but personally, I found it hard to read in the same focused way during the Circuit Breaker. My attention span just wasn’t there. I did find myself reading more non-fiction as opposed to fiction, and leaning harder into poetry.
We are sure you have a long list of favourite writers. Who are some of them?
You’re right, I have a very long list, but I owe my imagination to Enid Blyton. I am the poet I am because of Anne Sexton. I want to write prose like Marlon James and non-fiction like Joel Tan. Currently, I am reading Inua Ellams’ new collection of poems, The Actual.