‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’ Maya Angelou’s famous words best sum up the key takeaway from the second Asian Women Writers Festival 2018 (AWWF). The event featured seven writers from four countries: Meira Chand (keynote speaker), Balli Kaur Jaswal and Nuraliah Norasid (Singapore), Shobhaa De and Mitra Phukan (India), Sabyn Javeri (Pakistan) and Claire Betita de Guzman (the Philippines). Held on January 19-20, 2018 at the iconic Arts House, the theme of this landmark event was ‘Women Write To Change’. It aimed to provide a dedicated platform for Asian women writers who stretch the boundaries of their art and society’s conscience.
Despite the roadblocks and tropical downpour, it was a full house with Ms Claire Chiang, Chairperson of the Singapore Book Council and former President of Aware as the Chief Guest while India’s High Commissioner to Singapore, HE Jawed Ashraf was the Guest of Honour. There was also good representation from the diplomatic community with the presence of their Excellencies the High Commissioner of the United Kingdom Scott Wightman and Mrs Wightman, the High Commissioner of Pakistan Nasrullah Khan, the High Commissioner of Bangladesh Anisul Haque, the Ambassador of Belgium Andy Detaille, the Deputy Head of Mission of Norway Anes Osnes, the Asia-Pacific Director of the Commonwealth Office Kate White, the Nepalese ConsulGeneral in Singapore Madhusudan Patel and the First Secretary of the Australian High Commission Nicholas Kay.
Speaking at the launch of the event, India Se Media’s Managing Director, Shobha Tsering Bhalla said this festival was launched because it is “imperative for women writers to be heard and to have a platform that they own – a “Room Of One’s Own” to quote Virginia Woolf. The AWWF is that metaphorical “Room Of One’s Own” – not just a charitable breadcrumb from the high table of patriarchy that is the way of the world, particularly in Asia.” She pointed out that despite the fact that women bought two-thirds of books sold; magazine and newspaper reviews are centred on male authors and mostly written by male critics. “Each time a woman writes it’s a reminder to the world that the devaluing of women’s words and women’s ideas is shaping a world in which women themselves are devalued. That is why we started the AWWF. We want to help women writers in Asia stretch the boundaries of their art and society’s conscience,” she said. Four awards were also presented this year, up from last year’s three which included the Best Asian Woman Writer of the Year.
This year’s longlist of 17 books was selected by a panel of six judges: Professor Rajeev S Patke, Professor of Humanities (Literature in English), Director, Division of Humanities Yale-NUS College, Associate Professor Kirpal Singh former Director Wee Kim Wee Centre, Singapore Management University; Jatinder Bhatia former English Literature Lecturer at Delhi University & Hong Kong Open University, Journalist Susan Tsang former book reviewer at The Straits Times, Shobha Tsering Bhalla, Editor-In-Chief of India Se Magazine & book reviewer, Nithya Subramanian Deputy Editor & book reviewer India Se Magazine. After much deliberation, Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was selected as the winner. Apart from a trophy, it also carries a cash award of S$5000 sponsored by entrepreneur Sajni Gill of Gill Capital.
This year a new category – The Most Promising Writer of the Year Award – was instituted carrying a cash prize of S$1000 sponsored by Jatinder and Harjit Bhatia of Asia Growth Capital. The winner of the Short Story Writing Competition was Sumitra Selvaraj for her story ‘Recoil”. The judging panel for this segment included Editor Tara Dhar Hasnain and writer Joyce Chng. To complete the virtuous circle, we had instituted the Best English Literature Teacher Award. Based on the solid testimonials and votes of her students, this year Runima Borah Tandon of Anglo Chinese School (Independent) bagged the award.
Delivering the opening address, Ashraf, said he has always been gender neutral, recognising people for the talent, vision, aspirations and excellence that they bring to the world. But the fact remains that there are prejudices and disparities that exist. “But when I reflect on it, these prejudices, disparities and differences should not be seen just in terms of the pay check at the Australian open, or in sometimes the incredulous reception women get when they climb mount Everest, or when they break the bastion of men but it is in the world of letters, in the fact that even among writers, there is a certain stereotype that surrounds women and women writers. And not withstanding the fact that over ages, you have had some of the most outstanding writers who have entertained generations with some wonderful writing which every male may have read but for some reason is not able to overcome the fact in a way their writings have to do with certain aspects of life which reflects their experience,” He acknowledged that women writers wrote some of last year’s international bestsellers, and they are the ones who are making greatest impact on society and politics. Ashraf pointed out that sometimes beneath the “veneer of liberalism there is a silent expectation of adhering to stereotypes. The more women are coming out, the more they are finding voices in every walk of life, the more you see the collision, because it challenges the status quo. Therefore it is important for women to be writing. It enables us to see things with a higher sense of sensibility. “A forum like this is a great leap forward, not because it is concentrated on women, because it tells us how much talent, how much achievement and accomplishment there are in this world, and that is a source of great inspiration, great encouragement to all of us,” the Indian High Commissioner concluded.
In her speech, Claire Chiang, Chairperson of Singapore Book Council said the theme ‘Women Write to Change’ is a powerful call to motivate the female literary community to string up 26 syllables into meaningful words to change mindsets about women. “This morning, I was with Minister Shanmugam (Singapore’s Minister for Home Affairs & Law), and he told me that it is time to change some of the policies and legislations to protect women even more. “
Sabyn Javeri from Pakistan, who made waves with a political thriller, ‘No One Killed Her’ questioned the need for creating a women’s fiction category. “There is no category called men’s fiction. I find that disturbing. When I wrote ‘No One Killed her, I was asked, being a woman, how could you write a politics? What are your qualifications to write this? It is interesting how women get slotted, I think as writers, we should just think of us as that. What the written word does is something universal.”
Another interesting point of question raised by Prof Patke was, “What do you expect to change by writing this book? Is it the reader or the world around you?” In a spirited response, Assamese writer, Mitra Phukan, said, “I never thought my books would change anything, but it was important to place my perspective. My ‘Collector’s Wife’ is situated in a place where there has been a lot of insurgency; this was a trigger. I decided to write this novel on the day when my son who was eight then, came and told us that his best friend had been kidnapped. That was a horrible time; we couldn’t raise our voices when we talked about the ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam, a separatist outfit operating in the state). This I wanted to change. Till that time time, I read stories that valourised the killers/kidnappers. In my book, my perspective was not from the kidnapper’s point of view. I wrote not as a woman writer, I was very angry/anguished, but from the perspective of the sufferer. Change is a huge word, but I wanted to put my thoughts.” Taking up the theme on whether there was room for humour and fantasy, particularly the kind that can be found in books such as ‘Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows’ or not, Patke asked Singaporean writer Balli Kaur Jaswal what prompted her to do so. “When I began writing this novel, it started with a what if… what if a group talk together about sex and other taboo topics in their life, what if we put them in a room, Once I started writing, the characters became fully fleshed out, and it became very real to me, they were no longer characters but became people I knew really well. It stopped being fantasy. What I thought was impossible, actually became very possible, it just became these women’s reality. What starts off as a far-fetched notion, gradually becomes this alternative reality. The line between reality and fantasy becomes very blurred, especially with this novel because I so very much wanted 70-year-olds to be having sex and being excited about it. I wanted these women to have the opportunity to talk about things that they never did.”
The event ended with the global trailer launch of a Malayalam biopic based on the life of India’s most famous and controversial poet Kamala Das. Titled ‘Aami’, the movie’s main protagonist is played by top actress Manju Warrier, who was present at the event along with its director Kamal and other members of the crew. Expressing her gratitude, Warrier said, “There is no better platform to launch this trailer than the Asian Women Writers Festival.”