American Writers Festival 2015 [UPDATED]

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This week, I attended three events as part of the American Writers Festival, an annual celebration of American contemporary literature here in Singapore. What I like best about this festival is its racial diversity; year after year, several American writers of color are invited to share their work in Singapore. (On a regular basis, I am interrogated about my national identity. Too many people seem to think all Americans are white smdh.) In years past, AWF has hosted Rowena Torrevillas, Shawn Wong, Ravi Shankar, and Chinelo Okparanta among others.

Yesterday, Tina Chang, Poet Laureate of Brooklyn and teacher of poetry at Sarah Lawrence College, read from her two collections, Gods & Strangers and Half-Lit Houses, as well as the W.W. Norton anthology Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond which she co-edited. I first heard Tina read, IIRC, at Intimacy and Geography: The National Asian American Poetry Festival in 2003 when I was working at Asian American Writers Workshop (one of the many administrative positions I held to pay for graduate school).

Kirpal Singh, Associate Professor of English Literature and Director, Wee Kim Wee Center at Singapore Management University, was not an effective moderator; he cut off audience questions and rushed Tina. But, she was a real pleasure to hear read, and I was especially moved by her works-in-progress—poems inspired by her children and the recents murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner at the hands of American law enforcement officials.

Earlier this evening, Rajiv Joseph, playwright of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, a 2010 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Gruesome Playground InjuriesAnimals Out of PaperThe North PoolThe Lake Effect, Mr. Wolf,  and Guards at the Taj, screenwriter of the Showtime series “Nurse Jackie” for seasons 3 and 4, and co-screenwriter of the film “Draft Day,” read a monologue from the opening scene of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo and an entire act of Guards at the Taj. I’d never heard of Joseph or his work—admittedly, I pay less attention to contemporary American theatre than I do to contemporary American fiction, poetry, and literature for young readers—and now I want to read everything he has written!

Following Rajiv Joseph’s reading, I attended a panel discussion featuring three remarkably different, extraordinary authors: Michael Meyer, an American travel writer and the author of In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China and The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed; Adam Johnson, an American novelist and short story writer, and the author of The Orphan Master’s Son, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize; and Nisid Hajari, Asia Editor at Bloomberg View and author of Midnight’s Furies: The Deadly Legacy of India’s Partition. This all-male panel (*side eye emoji*—this is really unacceptable) addressed the ways in which  imagination can transcend national, geopolitical, and psychological boundaries. It was a deep and thoughtful discussion, and Jon Fasman, The Economist‘s Southeast Asia bureau chief, was a well-prepared and knowledgable moderator. I’ve added both Meyer’s In Manchuria and Hajari’s Midnight’s Furies ever-growing reading list; both authors make Singapore their home, and I hope I will have the chance to hear them speak again soon.

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Tickets for all the festival’s events were free, but friends and I had issues with the ticketing platform (Peatix) and the repeated changes of date and location of the events. My name didn’t appear on registration lists at all, despite having registered multiple times! Thankfully, I had an e-ticket on my smart phone.

This was my first American Writers Festival, so I don’t know what attendance has been like in years past. Both venues—at SMU and Yale-NUS—were rather full, but many people I know, non-Americans who would’ve been interested in attending, had no clue that there was such a festival in town. I only heard of the festival through other “American” channels: Singapore American School, the U.S. Embassy, Yale-NUS, etc.!

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UPDATE 9/18/15: On Wednesday, I wanted to ask Adam Johnson a question about white privilege and co-opting others’ stories, but, one, I haven’t actually read the entire book, and two, I didn’t know if I had any allies in the room. I was one of few Americans of color there. So, I let it go. But I’ve been thinking about him since that evening and all the ludicrous things he said about North Korea and the North Koreans, and found this essay, which articulates some of my frustrations:

When I first read The Orphan Master’s Son, I thought: I am reading an American cowboy Western. As a setting, it was familiar in its unknowability: it reminded me of the lawless Wild West, filled with bandits, Mexicans, and Indians—enemies so alien that they were only gestures toward themselves, the outlines of our fears. The Orphan Master’s Son is a wildly entertaining story, raucous, riveting, filled with big dreams and reckless chances, and an epic fight against injustice. Yet as I read it, I found the sensibility as all-American as you can get: the protagonist felt entirely Western in his concerns, in the way he spoke and thought, in the way he interacted with the world and authority—and it struck me as I read it that it was a quintessentially American story that tells us nothing about North Korea itself, but uses certain facts about that unknown country to constitute the backdrop of an old American story about the quest for personal freedom. And while it relentlessly criticizes North Korean propaganda, it somehow remains blissfully unaware that it becomes itself an insistent piece of propaganda for American values.

Of course, writers should be allowed to write about whatever fascinates them, but we don’t live in a vacuum. Power structures exist and determine who gets published and who wins prizes. And I should have expected that an event sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Singapore would be happy to promote an “insistent piece of propaganda for American values” unquestioningly. Anyways, I’ve been kicking myself for not opening my mouth on Wednesday evening; next year, I won’t be so timid!

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