“AFCC is nationality blind, we are interested in Asian Content”

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says R Ramachandran, executive director, National Book Council of Singapore about the Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC) 2014 in conversation with John McKenzie (senior lecturer at the University of Canterbury, NZ). Q: You are passionate about books and stories in an Asian context. What drives this passion?

R RamachandranRamachandran: It all began when we were developing libraries in Singapore and the region. We were looking for books that would reflect Asian background, culture and tradition- materials that were set in Asia. To our disappointment, we found very few of them and these few were difficult to acquire. We had to resort to American and British titles to stock our libraries. This is fine but if you want to promote and sustain reading and learning, children should be exposed to material that is meaningful and relevant to their background. Hence, we started an Asian Writers and Illustrators Conference in 2000. After numerous editions of this conference, we found that the number of books that was written was not increasing. We then decided to revamp the whole conference into a Festival and added the consumers – parents and teachers as well as the publishers and distributors. We brought the entire community along the content chain to the Festival. Changes took place. Then creators got together with the producers and new materials began to emerge.

Q: What has been the high point for you in the last four years in organising AFCC?

Ramachandran: AFCC is growing. Each year more and more people are attending it. The participants have great time learning, sharing as well as discovering new titles and authors they have never known before. Besides AFCC provides a platform for talented writers and illustrators from different countries to cooperate and write books. Last year for instance, a story written by an Indian writer who is a resident in Singapore and an African illustrator who attended the AFCC in 2012 was launched. The rights of Singapore children’s books were sold to an Indian publisher. Such examples are inspiring and indicate that AFCC does result in new content relevant to Asian children. This does not take into account the number of new manuscripts that are submitted for the awards held and increasing number of books launched during the ceremony.

Q: Tell us about the focus country – India – this year?

Ramachandran: The focus country for AFCC 2014 is India. India is such a large power in Asia and yet books by her authors are not readily available, beyond the subcontinent itself. There are two reasons for this. Indian publishers do not widely export their books and the readers beyond India are either not keen or are not exposed to Indian publications. This is a chicken and egg question. Indian publishers do not promote and the quality of their content and wide range of good Indian authors is not made known to the rest of the world. AFCC through its focus on specific countries (in 2012 and 2013, the focus was on Philippines and Malaysia respectively) hopes to introduce the authors and their books of specific countries to the rest of the Asians. Some of these will include: Malavicka – bilingual author from Chennai, Payal Dhar – author, Sayoni Basu – publisher and editor, Sandhya, Prabhat – author, Sampurna Chattarj – author, Tina Narang – publisher, Ruskin Bond –author, Arup Kumar Dutta – author, Subir Shukla – author, Atanu Roy – illustrator, Manjula Padmanabhan – illustrator and Radhika Meganathan – writer.

Besides we have also invited the Indian Diaspora authors like Mitali Perkins – author USA, Rina Singh – author – Canada, Mahtab Narsimhan – author – Canada, Kamini Ramachandran – storyteller – Singapore, Pooja Makhijani – author – USA and Saad Chinoy – IT expert – Singapore.

Currently the Asian publishers go to Book Fairs in the West to buy rights from them. Very few Westerners buy rights from Asia. At AFCC we facilitate the intra – Asian book trade that is sadly lacking. The AFCC manages the Media Mart and Book Fair as well as the Rights Exchange where such businesses are transacted.

Q: How important is it for people to attend and contribute to the different strands of the festival?

Ramachandran: Participants should attend the entire Festival as each track is relevant. A writer must know what the teacher and parents are looking for and the teacher needs to know what is being written and by whom so that they can use them at school and at home. Both the teacher and the parent are introduced to a vast array of materials available and how they can be introduced to the child. Illustrators show how important visual communication is for children. In addition, the last day of AFCC is devoted to publishers and producers who are looking for content. Anyone with a manuscript would be able to meet a supportive and appreciative publisher who might offer a deal to the writer with an interesting manuscript.

Q: How important is AFCC for professional people who work across different media?

Ramachandran: AFCC is for everyone dealing with children’s content. As children are media-savvy, print content must appear in different platforms and different media to reach them. A story must migrate and AFCC brings together people with stories and those with expertise, technology and funds. Such a gathering of experts would help to bring material from one media to the other.

Q: How important is AFCC for teachers who work within different national educational systems? What nationality would you really like to see come and contribute?

Ramachandran: Teachers are key and in many ways they are most often ignorant of what is being published. AFCC, therefore, exposes them to the newer material as they are published. The standard of development of countries is irrelevant as AFCC focuses on print as well as the electronic media. At whatever stage of development the country is in, her teachers and writers would find AFCC relevant. It is because we provide for a wide spectrum of delegates coming from different countries who have different interests and concerns that we have a maximum of 5 concurrent session spread out over four days. All in, we would have 40 sessions conducted by 80 different experts. The AFCC is nationality blind. We are interested in Asian Content. Anyone who is able to develop Asian content is welcome to share their experience and expertise with us.

Q: What is your vision for the future AFCC?

Ramachandran: A Festival that embraces and inspires children, young adults and those developing Asian content for them to come together for four days with the sole purpose of learning and sharing their interest in Asian Content and discovering ways to make them readily and easily available. To help the Asian Content spread and multiply faster we would like to establish a translation forum as part of AFCC. In five years time, I hope to see Asian books dominating the libraries, the bookshops and the reading lists of children and young people in Asia.

Q: What are you personally most looking forward to in AFCC 2014?

Ramachandran: I would like to see AFCC self – supporting in 2014. To do so, AFCC must develop a model that brings in revenues. I am not in favour of sponsorships and donations with strings attached as they will compromise the objectives of the Festival. At this point one quarter of the funding is derived from registration. The rest is from grants and assistance from different institutions and people. We need to raise the number of delegates registering for AFCC to contribute half of the funds required to manage AFCC. The other half of the funds could come from Media Mart and Book Fair, The Rights Exchange, advertisements and merchandising. These three aspects of the Festival that is in its infancy would be developed to its full potential. We hope to begin this process from AFCC 2014 onwards and this will set the stage for the Festival to develop into the Bologna of the East.

(For further information about AFCC 2014, visit http://afcc.com.sg/).

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