At the Singapore Writers Festival: time for women to understand other women?

U.S. poet Cathy Song speaking at the panel Time For Women alongside Russian author Maria Galina and Singaporean author Nuraliah Norasid (photo: Singapore Writers Festival)

At the recent Singapore Writers Festival (November 2-11, 2018), a panel of three female writers from different parts of the world discussed a woman’s position in society. It ended up a disorienting presentation of contrasting realities that drove home the point that many of us probably need more practice when it comes to respecting diversity.

The premise of this Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) panel titled “Time for the Women!” (with an exclamation point, no less) sounded promising:

Is the tide changing fast enough? In Hollywood, all-women casts such as those of Ocean’s 8 and the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot were the talk of the town, while in the literary arena Marjorie Liu recently expressed shock that she was the first woman to win the writing prize in the Eisner awards’ 30-year history. Three writers—U.S. poet Cathy Song, Russian author Maria Galina, and Singaporean author Nuraliah Norasid—discuss the factors propelling this development.

I decided to attend this panel because I thought it would be educational and possibly even inspiring to find out how women, especially female writers, can find ways to have their diverse voices heard in their own terms.

However, soon after the polite and impressive introductions of these award-winning writers, there was a sense that this was going to be a very different kind of discussion when Maria Galina said, “Yes, Russia has many famous female poets and authors today. But we feel a bit tired of expressing ourselves just as women. Could we not look at literature in terms of men’s literature and women’s literature, but rather what is good and bad literature? I believe it’s more important to express ourselves as human beings.”

Cathy Song took this further by declaring that the way women have made strides in media, politics, and business “will not cure what ails us.”

“Allowing women into the military did not end war,” she said, “we need a new paradigm and not [to] be fighting for the equal share of the power from institutions created by males. All this striving to achieve what men have achieved is not good for our health and well-being.”

Nuraliah who, besides being an author, is also a research associate at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay affairs in Singapore, questioned the idealism of such a direction.

“Even within the realm of discourses by women, we have to consider class and race. Certain feminisms are considered better than other feminisms. There is a strong divide between certain groups of women. Only some women’s voices get heard, while others are not. This needs to be addressed.”

Cathy, however, believed that such divides between women could start out simply, in everyday life, with the conscious decision to be kind. She talked about her horror of reading about the Silicon Valley nanny police, working women who spy on their children’s nannies to ensure they are not using their smartphones while taking care of their kids.

“Why would women want to do this to other women—nannies who have to leave their own countries and families to care for your children? Isn’t it ironic that you are expecting these nannies to spend ‘quality time’ with your children that you yourself don’t have time for?” She believed that by activating this “feminine” discernment to be kind at this individual level, a better humanity would be discovered.

Maria disagreed with the idea that women are innately kinder than men. “There are women who can be cruel, and there are men who can be kind. But biologically, we all come from apes. And apes are aggressive.”

At this point, the festival goer next to me whispered, “What’s going on?” I shrugged my shoulders.

Singaporean author Nuraliah Norasid speaking at the panel Time For Women alongside Russian author Maria Galina and U.S. poet Cathy Song (photo: Singapore Writers Festival)

Cathy pointed out that yes, there are kind men, but because most societal power structures are built and perpetuated by men, there is a tendency for many men to lose that kindness more easily than women. On a similar note, she brought up how dreadful she felt about Ocean’s 8 and how it did not help female representation at all. “It was just these women with these horrible heels and a ton of makeup trying to steal something that does not belong to them. They are trying too hard to be Brad Pitt and George Clooney. And of course, the Asian has to be this tiny person who can contort into a little box.”

Nuraliah said she also felt that the female Ghostbusters movie was far from ideal, but that quality would improve as more film and art by women come to the forefront. “There were nuances in the Wonder Woman movie that I felt was done quite well, though of course, I was wondering why she didn’t even look a tiny bit gritty after just running through war trenches,” she remarked.

But the discussion deviated from the set topic of female media representation quickly with intermittent mentions of wearing hijabs, divine feminine energy, women burdened by physical and emotional labor, and competitive female bitchiness. As the moderator quickly wrapped up the panel with hasty farewells as time had run out, a woman walked off muttering, “This was a mess!”

And yet, I didn’t think that panel was all that futile. In fact, the seemingly wayward discussion had actually tied back to the central point of this panel: that there is more diversity when it comes to public discussions revolving around women. Nuraliah, while introducing herself at the beginning of the panel, had mentioned how “reality has more depth with more voices…coming out, and there are so many multiplicities to being a woman.” These three authors from three very different backgrounds and worldviews had demonstrated that rather unexpectedly.

It was actually rather grounding to see first-hand how “messy” it can be when discussing anything related to feminism. There is much to unpack, dismantle, and explore. Diversity means there will be disagreement and disunity sometimes, and in Asia (especially Singapore, where we like our events to follow the program write-up to the T), this might be seen as unsettling and pointless. Still, I’d like to think that as more and more female voices speak up in the chaos, a unifying message will emerge: we deserve to be heard.

Melanie Lee

Melanie is a writer and lecturer from Singapore. She mostly writes about the arts and heritage, and has also published an award-winning picture book series, “The Adventures of Squirky the Alien”.

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