On my absence

Gwee Li Sui withdraws from keynote speaker post for this year’s National Schools Literature Festival, as he joins Felix Cheong, Prem Anand and Adrian Tan in cancelling their attendance at NLB’s panel discussion today.
 
We reproduce his writeup on his absence.

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By Gwee Li Sui

By now, you may have heard that we 4 humour writers Felix Cheong, Prem Anand, Adrian Tan, and I have cancelled our panel discussion at NLB on Sunday. I have further withdrawn as keynote speaker for this Saturday morning’s National Schools Literature Festival.

I did not want to have to do this. Therefore, I owe an apology to all the teachers who have put in time and effort voluntarily to run this event. The National Schools Literature Festival celebrates the love of literature as a subject in schools and has done so admirably for 10 years now. This year, NLB has come in as a sponsor. 

I have deliberated long and hard and concluded that I could not, in good conscience, grace this year’s festival. My presence would have been the symbolic one of a writer. And there was no way I could attend this event without it being misperceived by many that I stood apart from my fellow writers and approved of NLB’s action against alleged controversial books. And there was no way I could defend myself or clarify the festival’s aims fast enough once the suggestion has been made.

Stuck in this conundrum, I’ve chosen the kinder of 2 bad outcomes and bowed out.

I am a writer, and, as all writers know well, words speak with great power. But, sometimes, the absence of words is also a word, and the word for now is No.

No – to read books that do not open our minds is not what reading is about. No – to make others enjoy the books we enjoy and incapable of enjoying what we have decided not to see is not what having books is about. No – to make quick, one-sided judgements about what a book says runs contrary to the nature of books themselves. No – to show that we have no other options than to destroy ideas materially is not what it means to be inspired by words.

It really shouldn’t have to come down to this: writers collectively defending the life of books, the knowledge and beauty in them, and what books do. There should have been so many to stand before us, above us: librarians, educators, academics, politicians, parents, children. I am thankful to academics such as Philip Holden and MPs such as Baey Yam Keng who have spoken up, asking urgently for better review processes and for sensitivity in a pluralistic society.

And yet here we are still: it has trickled down to us writers to tell you No. What else is there to say? This is the only important word I have left now.

 

First posted as a facebook note here: https://www.facebook.com/notes/gwee-li-sui/on-my-absence/10152123389341541

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