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:
Photos: Weekender, Goodreads
Samuel Lee is definitely a Singapore author to watch. At only 26, he’s the youngest to win the Singapore Literature Prize this year with his debut poetry collection, but you wouldn’t have guessed it given his impressive writing credentials. Besides local publications, Lee’s poems have also appeared internationally in the Yale Literary Magazine. “I tried writing other genres,” he told us. “But poetry spoke to me the most.”
A Field Guide to Supermarkets in Singapore puts together poems that Lee worked on for three and a half years, which also involved a lot of revision at Sing Lit Station’s Manuscript Bootcamp alongside fellow Prize nominee Amanda Chong. Lee did not expect to win at all, thinking that not many people would pick up his collection because his writing was “a bit conceptual” in nature. But we think it is precisely the collection’s experiments with style to reveal the everyday absurdities of globalisation, that has drawn so much praise. The Business Times called it “the poetry debut of the year” in 2016, while The Manchester Review pays Lee a high compliment by comparing his poetry to that of Allen Ginsberg, one of America’s most influential and innovative poets.
And if all that’s not enough to make you want to get a copy of the collection, here’s a verse from the poem “Noah,” which blends Christian allegories and modern shopping mall images:
“When the barrage burst and sank all the Malls, the first signs of the disaster to surface were the jelly handbags, which bobbed like water hyacinths resting below a cloud of dragonflies.”