International Women’s Day: Meet Pooja Nansi, The Woman Behind One Of Southeast Asia’s Biggest Literary Festivals

Singapore’s literary scene is a maturing and rapidly burgeoning one, and it was recently abuzz with the announcement that Pooja Nansi, poet, writer and educator, will continue to serve as the Festival Director of the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) for the fifth year running. SWF is perhaps the biggest event in Singapore’s literary arts calendar, having attracted in recent years giants such as Neil Gaiman, R.L. Stine, Jeanette Winterson and Teju Cole.

Pooja is the first female Festival Director in the history of the Singapore Writers Festival, having taken over from previous Festival Director, poet Yeow Kai Chai, in 2018.

Her job requires her to provide the artistic direction and work with the AHL team to plan, organise and execute the festival. Every Festival Director also brings with them their own personality and vibe to the role, and this bleeds into the Festival itself. Under Pooja’s leadership, the Festival has provided a platform for minority and marginalised voices.

Pooja is the first female Festival Director of the Singapore Writers Festival, a position she has held since 2018.
Pooja is the first female Festival Director of the Singapore Writers Festival, a position she has held since 2018.

“I’m always cognisant of the presence of women in our literary scene,” Nansi said in an interview with Channel News Asia last year. “One of the things that struck me was that every edition of the SWF has celebrated a literary pioneer but for the longest time, there had only been one woman in a sea of men. I had to do something about that.”

Pooja has also injected joie de vivre into the Festival. Exuberant musical and dance performances are now highly anticipated fixtures in the festival. The Festival also feels more like a celebration. Hang around the festival tent on the final day, and join the post-festival party. You’ll see what we mean. It’s no longer just a tentpole arts event. As we said – it’s a celebration, and the least we could do today is to celebrate the person behind it all.

Congratulations on 5 years as Festival Director! How does it feel?

Thank you! It’s been an absolute privilege to work on this festival that has been so pivotal in my own development as a poet and for the literary community as a whole and I don’t take the role lightly.

What’s an average day like for the Festival Director?

There isn’t an average day which is what makes the job so interesting! Some days are really administrative and fixed to the screen looking at budgets, some days really are big creative pow-wows, some days you find yourself on the festival grounds holding one end of a measuring tape while a contractor holds the other to see if the tent you want is viable. I have the best support system with the programmes team that anyone could ask for. They are a small but fierce group of people who are committed to making this festival the best it can be with all the challenges we face and I am so deeply grateful for them.

Every edition of the Singapore Writers Festival brings unforgettable quotes and memorable moments. What are some of the biggest highlights to you as Festival Director?

Some of the biggest highlights for me have been seeing new audiences come to the Festival. So many young people! I also love watching people watch programmes because that is the moment all the work you’ve done year long pays off.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as Festival Director and how did you overcome them?

Talk about challenges. Global pandemic? Check. Having a baby two weeks before the festival commences? Check. Moving the festival from one institution to another? Check. But through it all, I think being part of a team of people who remain committed to ensuring that audiences have the best experience has helped us all get through the challenges of the last four years, both professional and personal. It’s always the people you work with that make or break an experience. That and a husband willing to take the night shift with a newborn.

“Global pandemic? Check. Having a baby two weeks before the festival commences? Check.” – Pooja Nansi discusses some of the biggest challenges she has faced in her time as Festival Director
“Global pandemic? Check. Having a baby two weeks before the festival commences? Check.” – Pooja Nansi discusses some of the biggest challenges she has faced in her time as Festival Director

Your tenure has been marked by a shift towards embracing newer expressions of literature. Music and tech, for example, feature more heavily in the festivals. Was this something you were looking at, and if so, how else do you want SWF to evolve in future editions?

I’ve never really seen music, literature, performance or tech as inherently separate. Honestly text and language are at the heart of all modes of artistic communication so writers are never going to be obsolete. I wanted to make a festival that invites people from all walks of life to encounter the written and spoken word in diverse formats. From comics to theatre, music, games, and even astrology, literature is all around us. I also believe that by offering diverse and robust programming, we are able to make the Festival accessible to more audiences, connect communities, and demonstrate the flexibility, depth and power of the written word.

As festival director, you get access to some of the biggest names in world literature. Did anybody in particular stand out to you? Did you ever get to meet one of your heroes? Anybody you’ve always wanted to bring to SWF but couldn’t?

I’ve met so many of my heroes and so many stand out. But it was absolutely surreal to nibble on Kaya Toast with Claudia Rankine and hand Jeanette Winterson some Tiger Beer. The one writer ( and an absolute personal hero) that I keep trying to invite to the Festival but have never gotten an acceptance from is the great Judy Blume.