An Interview with IWR Alumni Corrie Tan and Yan Naung Oak

An Interview with IWR Alumni Corrie Tan and Yan Naung Oak

We are profiling some faculty and alumni leading up to the 2018 Retreat. Corrie Tan and Yan Naung Oak joined us in 2015, and were also interviewed as part of a video we produced afterwards.

CORRIE TAN is a writer, editor and researcher from Singapore. She is currently the guest editor of the arts media platform Arts Equator, and was previously the arts correspondent and theatre critic at The Straits Times, Singapore’s largest English-language broadsheet. During her time with the newspaper, she co-organised and adjudicated the annual M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards, which honours excellence in Singapore theatre. Corrie has also written about theatre and performance for The Guardian, The Stage, Exeunt Magazine and BiblioAsia.

YAN NAUNG OAK works at the intersection of civic tech and data journalism. He was one of the founding team members of Phandeeyar, an innovation hub based in Yangon, which is spearheading the use of technology to accelerate change and development in Myanmar. A 2017 School of Data fellow, Yan is passionate about open data and the power of new technologies to empower communities and civil society. He currently works as a data visualisation designer and data literacy trainer.

How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally?

We found out about the Iceland Writers Retreat through a former colleague of Corrie’s at the Singaporean newspaper The Straits Times, who had attended the inaugural Retreat. She painted a picture of Iceland as a writer’s paradise: a fiercely literary population whose love of books saw them through harsh, beautiful winters. 

What did you most look forward to about the Retreat?

Corrie and Yan

We both write in very different ways: Corrie has a background in cultural journalism, so she writes reviews, essays and discursive pieces on a regular basis; as an open data and tech consultant Yan’s professional writing consists mostly of report writing and grant applications. But we’re both drawn to a variety of different forms of writing: Corrie has dabbled in short fiction and poetry, while Yan often crafts thoughtful pieces of creative non-fiction. We chose our small-group workshops at the Retreat quite differently. Yan selected his workshops by form: travel writing, for instance, or crafting the “immersion paragraph”. Corrie immediately signed up for workshops conducted by her favourite writers, including Adam Gopnik, Barbara Kingsolver, and Sjon. But more than the opportunity to devote some time to writing, we were also there for our honeymoon! So the Retreat we were looking forward to was one both literary and romantic…

Did it match up to your expectations?

We found a wonderful community of fellow writers at the retreat from a wide range of demographics, and we loved the focus and intimacy of the small-group workshops. But more than that, the care taken to make every single participant feel involved and connected was what made the Retreat so memorable. We arrived at our hotel room to find a welcome bottle of bubbly from Eliza and Erica as a gift for our honeymoon: it can’t get more personal than that. We still have the note it came with, three years later.

One of our favourite experiences was the literary walking tour of Reykjavik, where two very charming Icelandic men introduced us to the ghosts and goblins and little folk who roam both country and city. We also absolutely loved our Golden Circle tour – led by President Gudni himself (before he was president, of course). We found ourselves discussing everything from Iceland’s first parliament at Pingvellir to the country’s recent economic crisis and resurgence. And what a treat it was to visit the home of Halldor Laxness, Iceland’s Nobel laureate for literature, and listen to Andri Snær Magnason regale us with his witty, darkly humorous poetry as we took shelter from a passing blizzard.

But I think one of the terms we’ve held on to all these years later is “multi-local”, introduced during a talk by the inimitable Taiye Selasi. As a “third culture kid”, Yan has often sought ways to define his sense of belonging to several countries, including Singapore, Myanmar, and the United States. We have both spent extended periods living abroad, away from our home countries, and as a transnational couple we’ve had to spend a lot of time negotiating border-crossings – be they physical, cultural or emotional. “Multi-local” resonated with us, to know that we’ve been able to adapt our lives – and our writing – to various geographical and cultural contexts.

What are you working on currently and/or is there anything exciting that has happened in your writing life since the retreat?

Corrie and Yan in Iceland

Corrie and Yan in Iceland

Last year, Corrie made her debut as a contributing theatre critic for The Guardian and Exeunt Magazine while we were based in London. After we came back to Singapore in late 2017, she was appointed editor of Arts Equator, an online platform dedicated to the arts and creative practices in Southeast Asia. She also writes reviews and does long-form interviews for the site.

Yan was a 2017 School of Data fellow, and he also writes for Open and Shut, a blog exploring the potential of open data to transform closed societies. He also conducts data journalism training for independent media in Myanmar, his home country, and has also analysed the country’s socio-political developments.

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