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Why These 3 Authors Are Deserving Of Their First Singapore Literature Prize

Hint: They pushed the envelope

Photo: Singapore Book Council

We don’t want to hear you say that literature in Singapore is dead ever again. On the contrary, our literary scene has been thriving lately, and this year’s Singapore Literature Prize has the facts to prove it.

Organised by the Singapore Book Council, the biennial competition recognises our nation’s best fiction, non-fiction and poetry works in all four of our official languages.

At the awards ceremony last night on 6 August, the chief judge for Poetry in Tamil commented on how difficult it was to whittle down the list of 172 eligible submissions to 50 titles shortlisted for Singapore’s top literary prize –  a statement we couldn’t agree more, seeing how a new generation of writers on the rise and many experienced writers finally gaining national recognition. 12 of the shortlisted works are the authors’ debut full-length published works, while among the 18 winners at last night, all but one received the prestigious prize for the first time.

One author even took home two awards: Farihan Bahron arrived at the ceremony a first-time nominee and left as the only double winner. His winning poetry collection in Malay, Tukang Tunjuk Telunjuk (Finger-Pointing Expert), explores how Singaporean youths balance tradition and today’s cosmopolitan life.

Something that all the winning works have in common is the authors’ willingness to push the envelope, and their keen insights into the complex systems of Singapore society and history.

“Envelope-pushing” certainly describes A K Varadharajan’s Commendation award-winning poetry collection in Tamil that imagines Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s childhood. “It was a gratitude towards Lee Kwan Yew that inspired me to write; a sense of wanting to do something for him,” he told the organisers of the Prize, the Singapore Book Council.

Really diving deep into the choppy waters of Singapore politics are the shortlisted titles in English. These three award-winning works especially challenge any assumption that our literature is boring, and here’s why you should be reading them:

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Photos: Oliver Rockwell, Epigram Books

1. State Of Emergency (by Jeremy Tiang) – Fiction

Jeremy Tiang’s debut novel made headlines when the National Arts Council suddenly withdrew the remainder of the agreed grant after the first draft he sent apparently “deviated from the original proposal.” It’s not hard to see why the novel would ruffle a few feathers, as the New York-based author challenges official narratives about leftist movements during the Malayan Emergency. But that’s also not a story we haven’t heard before, though. In fact, Sonny Liew experienced almost the exact same thing when his NAC grant was revoked for The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which also went on to win the Singapore Literature Prize for Fiction in English in 2016.

The judges of his category shared that it was “torturous” to choose between all the excellent nominees, but they finally made a unanimous decision to give the award to State of Emergency for its “compelling alternative history of Singapore” and “beautiful prose” that put Singapore politics in context.

Tiang’s political urgency also permeated his acceptance speech: he emphasized that the novel aims to give space to certain narratives not often told in Singapore, serving as a “tribute to individuals who refuse to be silenced.”

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