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: Singapore Book Council, Goodreads

3. “Others” Is Not A Race (by Melissa De Silva) – Creative Non-fiction

Even before it was announced, we knew that Melissa De Silva’s work was the favourite to win. The audience was hooting when they heard her name during the nomination recap video! All this love is shared by the judges of her category, who called “Others” Is Not A Race “a most Singaporean book, from its grapples with life’s purpose and meaning to its scrummy paeans to local food.”

A creative mix of multiple genres (short stories, essays, and oral memories of family members recorded by the author), the slim volume offers important and informative insights into being Eurasian in Singapore. As Joseph Schooling has become our national hero, questions about Eurasian identity is Singapore have risen. What is a Eurasian? Are Eurasians Singaporean? What is Eurasian culture in Singapore? De Silva tackles these questions and more in her debut novel.

We particularly love the personal essays that follow De Silva’s own journey in rediscovering her own heritage, from baking her first sugee cake to learning Kristang, the endangered mother tongue of the Portuguese-Eurasian community in Malacca and Singapore. In addition to uncovering little-known parts of Eurasian history since Singapore’s colonial days, the novel also sees De Silva dipping her toes into speculative fiction in “Blind Date,” a story that imagines the momentous meeting of the last two Eurasians in Singapore.

If you love this work, you’ll be delighted to know that De Silva is currently working on a fiction novel starring a Eurasian protagonist! “The book I’m writing is like a historical fiction from 1906, where I continue and would like to continue to explore identity and race – from different, exciting narratives that would reach out to my audiences better,” she told the Singapore Book Council.

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