Life in books: This Singaporean woman curates an interesting bookstagram on social justice topics

By Mohani Niza

Firqin Sumartono is a huge bookworm – especially on books on social justice. In 2017, the Singaporean woman started a bookstagram under the name @nonfirqtion.

Bookstagrams are simply Instagram accounts of one’s collection and reviews of books. According to one study , bookstagrams promote people’s reading pleasure, motivate them to branch out to different literary genres and make them more attentive to the books that they are reading. The self-presentation involved in creating and maintaining a bookstagram also correlates to the sense of identity of readers and their self-expression on social media.

Firqin’s bookstagram focuses on books on social inequality (such as poverty), gender and Islam, and perhaps her most favourite of all: race.

“It was started after my sister found my personal reviews too annoying and insisted I take my reviews online,” she told The Culture Review Mag.

When choosing which books to feature, Firqin admitted that it took a lot of hard work. “First, you have to read the book which may take some time. While you’re reading, you’re constantly digesting the content and thinking of how you want to phrase your reflection and review. You also have to keep up with online engagement and curate your pictures so they look decent or Instagram pretty. Then you have to plan. When are you going to post it? What are you going to write about? Is it relevant to the book? What was the most note-worthy theme or point the author brought up? And how does it relate to you and your country? I think the write-up takes the longest time.”

Firqin mostly does her reading while commuting. Most of her followers are women in their twenties to thirties, from Singapore, the US and the UK.

She has over 2, 000 followers. The growth of the account was gradual at first and then peaked. It has slowed down a bit lately. “I’d say it’s harder to get followers now – bookstagram is getting popular and I’m reading books I like rather than traditionally ‘popular’ books,” she said.

The choice of books is exactly what makes her bookstagram interesting, though.

Some of Firqin’s recent reviews include ‘Living a feminist life’ by the British scholar Sara Ahmed, the 2018 social science hit ‘This is what inequality looks like’ by Teo You Yenn as well as a collection of essays by female Arab reporters which was edited by Christiane Amanpour.

There’s Chomsky too for fans.

Firqin’s bookstagram is an obvious side interest as someone who works in the field of linguistics.

“In the day, I work on issues pertaining to code-switching functions, language use and language perception in the Malay community and Malay world,” she wrote on her website. Her interest is studying the intersection of factors such as language, race, gender and identity in the country.

“My day job requires me to write and read a lot and mull over issues while forming coherent arguments which is not too far off from my hobby as a book reviewer,” Firqin said.

Firqin writes a lot indeed. She has been published in academic journals, the book ‘Growing up Perempuan’ and the Singaporean Islamic feminist blog ‘Beyond the Hijab’. In one post, she mulled on why her non-Malay friends were always telling her, “You’re not like other Malays” (Her reply? “What do you mean? I am your typical Malay girl”).

“I write as a cathartic and therapeutic form of healing,” Firqin said. “To be able to name my pain, and validate my own experiences is important for me.”

She admitted that belonging to Singapore complicates things a bit. While none of the books she has reviewed so far include banned books – she mostly borrows from the National Library, after all – she said the recent enactment and usage of the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) did make her “hyper-vigilant about the things I write”. But she did come public with a grouse: In one book review, she lamented at the lack of press freedom in the country. Journalists in Singapore, according to her opinion, are kowtow-ing to the government, and not reporting honestly enough for the public.

Then there is also the issue of access to books, which she has but perhaps other people do not as much, even in rich Singapore. “I have the privilege of working in a university which means I have institutional access to books and have leverage to also request great books. I understand a lot of the books that I read are not available to readers so that’s why I try to list if the book is in our library catalogue,” she said.

At the end of the day, what impresses me about Firqin – her bookstagram, her writings and her intellectual life as a whole – is that they reflect her own journey of making sense of the world around her which she intimately shares with others.

After all, Firqin is a big proponent of ‘unlearning’ – the process of discarding old knowledge that no longer serves oneself and society, in favour of new ideas.

“I’m not sure how much I have learnt about myself, but I have unlearnt a lot about this world and my own country,” Firqin said. “Unlearning is a daunting process, but it’s a necessary act. As readers, we have the responsibility to read responsibly and what that means is to be conscious of the authors we pick, the topics we choose, and the publishers we read from.”