Spec Fic at the Singapore Writers Festival

Steph attended two panels on Spec Fic at SWF this last week. There were also two panels on horror, but she was unable to attend those. Under the cut: reading lists, Western-centric publishing, hantu on building sites.

Early in the festival I attended ‘Urban Fantasy at Your Doorstep’, which had a focus on Singaporean YA Fantasy. Singaporean fantasy must, by definition, be urban fantasy, I think, but they didn’t really discuss that.

Nick Yong read from his novel Meat Munchers, which is about zombies in Tiong Bahru (where I live!), a novel he wrote because he wanted to write about the heartlands of Singapore. He noted that zombie apocalypses always break out in NYC or SF, because zombies only go to there, and so it seemed fresher to make it Asian. He felt it was important to anchor it as Singaporean, and one way to do this is with Singlish, which he includes, with footnotes. (He commented that footnoting it makes it more accessible, but Joyce rebutted: on the one hand we should provide terminology, on the other hand we have the internet, so they can go research.)

[Liz notes: I read Crazy Rich Asians last year — yes, it’s as problematic as the title, yet somehow I couldn’t put it down, like it was superglued to my eyeballs — and that also had extensive footnoting for Singlish, and also Singaporean customs. I was torn between Hello, I Am A White Lady Who Doesn’t Know This, Thank You For Filling Me In, and Yes, But I Enjoy The Googling! Anyway, I hope the next wave of Singaporean popular fiction won’t need footnotes.]

Xie Shi Min read from Dragonhearted, which I laughed at and bought on the spot and am going to make Liz read shortly after my return to Australia. It’s about Nian! AAAHHH. She commented that children in Singapore are more likely to see the magical places, hence why she set Dragonhearted in a school.

Joyce Chng, who read from her book Wolf at the Door, noted that kids at her school think that there are pontianak in the toilets.

There was discussion about publishing in Singapore and abroad: Joyce noted that foreign publishers are more likely to publish her Singaporean stuff than Singaporean publishers. An audience member commented that Singaporeans don’t want to read/publish Singaporean literature because SG lit is about nation building, and urban fantasy isn’t about nation building at all, though Nick noted that even when writing about zombies there’s a kernel of truth.

This thread, about the role of the nation state in publishing, literature and art, is something that’s come up for me a lot in Singapore, and I’m going to elaborate on it later but not here in this post.

Before Shi Min got published, USA publishers were rejecting her with “it just doesn’t resonate with me,” which we all know means it was too foreign, or too Asian, or too other.

I also attended ‘The Rise of Southeast Asian Spec Fic’ the following weekend. It had an interesting cold open, with the moderator talking about how ‘rise’ is problematic because, if we include mythology, SEA spec fic has been around for about 2500 years, and that’s a problem in the post-colonial because the panel was moderated by a non-SEA white guy.

I mean, it’s nice that he acknowledged it, and he’s the editor of Lontar Mag, but still.

Ng Yi-Sheng gave a quick presentation on SFF in SEA, including an image of The Sea is Ours, by my friends Joyce and Jaymee. (He also referenced that most hated of all SEA-set steampunk/sff, at least by Jaymee and I, The Wind-Up Girl. Do you love the Wind-Up Girl? Get ooouuuttt.)

There was a discussion on these books, and how they’re evidence that publishers don’t think SEA spec fic sells – even SEA writers set their stories elsewhere. Ng hopes that the popularity of Indonesian Eka Kurniawan, also on the panel, might change that. The problem, Ng continued, is that in an (after) colonial world, Southeast Asians have felt we need to be respectable and to do that, we need to write “real literature,” which has prevented us from writing spec fic.

Part of the problem with wider diversity discussions is that as Singaporean-Chinese, Ng is part of the problem (he admits this). Indonesian, Singaporean, etc fiction is always Chinese. Even people like Zen Cho, Malaysian but now based in the UK, write for that market with two main protags one of whom is black and the other Chinese (though I think Ng was wrong on this, and Prunella was coded as Malay).

[Liz: I’m pretty certain Prunella was Malay, but now I’m doubting myself…]

Eka talked about the coding and misinterpretation through a western lens that prevents us from getting SEA spec fic published in western publishing houses. In the west they want to call our spec fic, our horror, magical realism. This is a problem when they publish Mexican spec fic, also. Further, Eka had a book cover where the publisher used an image of a woman that looked Chinese – coded through her clothes, with a Mandarin collar. Everyone assumes that to be Asian means to be Japanese or Chinese (or, lately, Korean).

This lens isn’t only externally imposed. Ng writes for Singaporeans but he finds himself self-exoticising when he’s writing for others/elsewhere. Eka noted that his book sold more in Indonesia, in Indonesian, after it was published in English, than in the 10 years before. Indonesians only want to read Indonesian books after they’re famous in the West.

The writers spoke about why they write about SEA. Ng commented, what if the government decides to use ghosts to save on migrant workers? There are hantu around the corner in Singapore. JY Yang, when she interviewed for her Masters, was asked why she and the three Singaporeans who came before her in the program all wrote spec fic. “Because we live in a dystopic city,” she said, which, she isn’t wrong.

Audience question: Is part of our post-colonial hangover that we don’t do much cross-country (in-region) translation? Ng answered: in SEA we think nationally or we think globally with focus on the West. We don’t think regionally. The mod commented that for example, the Philippines has a huge SF community but doesn’t have the distribution capacity to move those books overseas, and I’d like to thank Elaine for these authors for us to check out:

Further post-festival SFF reading:

  • Golda Mowe, Iban Dream
  • Nick Yong, Track Faults and Other Glitches
  • Lontar Mag
  • Heat, Flesh, and Trash, a trilogy from Buki Fixu
  • Eastern Heathens: An Anthology of Subverted Asian Folklore, ed Amanda Lee Koe + Ng Yi-Sheng
  • Clara Chow, Dream Storeys
  • The Sea is Ours, ed Joyce Chng + Jaymee Goh


3 thoughts on “Spec Fic at the Singapore Writers Festival

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