Generational change: Young curators bring memes, K-drama, video games to Singapore Writers Festival

Youth curators involved in the SWF Youth Fringe. Left right: Layla O’Connor, 15, Althea Isis Giron, 18, Royston Soh, 17 and Joyce Jin, 18. — TODAY pic
Youth curators involved in the SWF Youth Fringe. Left right: Layla O’Connor, 15, Althea Isis Giron, 18, Royston Soh, 17 and Joyce Jin, 18. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, Nov 2 — Discussions on memes, poetry in Korean drama, narrative writing in video games and zine-making — these are some of the programmes that are in the line-up at this year’s Singapore Writers Festival (SWF).

These programmes — now under way at various venues — may not seem like they are part of your run-of-the-mill literary festival, and that’s because they came from the minds of a group of 15— to 18-year-old youth curators.

Under the guidance of the Singapore Book Council, the eight students, who were nominated by their teachers to participate, gathered mid-year to brainstorm a list of programmes that they believe would cater to the tastes and interests of their peers.

The result? A list of programmes that reflect the experience of what it means to be a young person today — a pendulum swing between the facile and the serious, from Internet culture and fanfiction to mental health and trauma in young adult fiction.

For youths, by youths, the slew of programmes are part of the SWF Youth Fringe — a new feature that was unveiled by festival director Pooja Nansi and the SWF team at a media preview in September.

Nansi told TODAY that the SWF Youth Fringe came out of a desire to ensure that the festival is “inclusive and accessible to everyone”.

“It is very important to me that young people know they have a voice, and they could come and feel like the festival is a space they want to be in,” she said, adding: “I want to affirm the youth that their voice and experiences are valid. The culture and art they are interested in is valid and remains relevant, and we should celebrate them.”

“There are a lot of comments that young people don’t read anymore or are glued to their smartphones, but I think young people are more literate and spending more time with text more than ever, it’s just not necessarily in ways that our generation responded to text.

“It’s very important for me that they take the lead on the conversation around how they would like to consume and explore the written and spoken word.”

Broadening the idea of literature

As opportunities like these are few and far between, the young curators that TODAY spoke to agreed that the SWF Youth Fringe was an important opportunity for them to speak up about the issues that young people care about.

“I feel that the youth, (though) we have a voice, we don’t really know how to use it or we don’t really know the platforms that would allow us to share our ideas Opportunities like this really benefit the youths as a form of self-expression and also (as a way of) representing our generation,” said Althea Isis Giron, 18, a student at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

Agreeing, Layla O’Connor, 15, from CHIJ Katong Convent said: “I think one of the struggles of being a youth is grappling with artistic expression, especially in Singapore where (such things) are usually looked down upon.”

When brainstorming ideas, the youth curators said that they felt it was important that their programmes help alter the perception of the literary arts as dull and serious by demonstrating how the medium has expanded in the age of technology and the Internet.

“When you say literature and a literary festival it sounds really daunting to teenagers because they relate it to school work and essays. We didn’t want it to be that way we want (for students) to see it in a more light-hearted and fun manner,” said St Joseph’s Institution International student Joyce Jin Zhujin, 18.

Meanwhile, Royston Soh, who studies at Anglo-Chinese Junior College, wanted the programmes to demonstrate that less conventional modes of writing can and should be taken seriously as literary genres.

Raising the examples of memes, songwriting and video games as less appreciated forms of writing, the 17-year-old student felt that it is “disingenuous” when older people “discredit another form of writing (just) because it’s not the standard norm”.

That is also why Soh thinks that older people often “miss the mark” when designing arts programmes targeted at young people.

“It’s not that they’re not trying enough, but they’re trying too hard. The older generation really doesn’t understand our humour and the media we consume. They don’t give enough credit to our generation — the media we’ve created and the language that we use,” he said.

Empower the youth through literature

By making the programmes accessible and inclusive, Nansi hopes that young people who have never attended the festival before may be more inclined to check out the festival to see what it has to offer them.

“Exposing the youth to the literary arts at a young age empowers and encourages them to take part in discussions that broach relevant topics and genres, building up their confidence and enabling them to become critical thinkers,” she said.

“I believe that we should continue to provide a space that allows youths to develop further interest in the literary arts and engage in issues important to them.”

The youth curators agreed with Nansi’s sentiment and expressed a desire for future arts festivals to feature more young voices.

Adding to this, Soh said that he hopes more young people understand that the arts have a space for young people: “I really hope that future arts festivals have more youth involvement. It is important for the youth to understand that art as a form of expression is not for the old — it’s for the young too. And even if they don’t realise it, what many young people are doing is already art.”

The SWF, including the SWF Youth Fringe, runs until November 10 at various venues in Singapore. — TODAY

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