Singapore's literary scene enjoying revival

While home-grown authors are gaining attention from readers and publishers abroad, readers here may not have read their works

It would not be a stretch to say Singapore literature has been enjoying a renaissance in recent years.

The Straits Times has reported on more home-grown authors winning acclaim and picking up lucrative publishing deals abroad and Singapore stories making their way into literature courses in prestigious universities worldwide.

At home, the literary scene has flourished as well. The annual Singapore Writers Festival has grown in strength from year to year, drawing an audience of about 19,700 for its previous edition.

Last week, the biennial Singapore Literature Prize, organised by the National Book Development Council, unveiled its shortlist.

It received a record 235 submissions, the highest since the award's inception in 1992. The $10,000 prize is dwarfed by the $20,000 Epigram Books Fiction Prize, which was started last year by home-grown publisher Epigram Books and is Singapore's richest literary award.

Recently, 29-year-old Singaporean Sharlene Teo Wen-Ning beat 884 writers from the British Commonwealth and Ireland to win the £10,000 (S$19,650) inaugural Deborah Rogers Writers' Award for her unpublished work Ponti, a coming-of-age novel set in Singapore. The award is named after the late British literary agent.

They say it is so fledgling that we must wait decades before we can achieve what others have done. This is wrong. If our writers are not read by us, it is easy to see why the international community remains sceptical.

DR KIRPAL SINGH, a poet, writer and literary critic, on how some Singaporeans wrongly deride their own country's literature

Award-winning British novelist Ian McEwan, who presented her with the prize, said he "read her extract longing for more".

However, even as Singapore writers have become more acclaimed and prolific, reception to their works among Singaporeans remains lukewarm, if the results of the National Arts Council's National Literary Reading And Writing Survey last year are anything to go by.

About three-quarters of respondents said they had not read a literary book by a Singaporean writer before. Of this group, 44 per cent said they had not been exposed to, or were unaware of, Singaporean literary works.

Poet, writer and literary critic Kirpal Singh, 67, who has been active on the literary scene since the 1970s, tells The Straits Times that in the earlier decades, Singapore writing did not gain a foothold overseas because of the small volume of output and the country's poor reputation for its stranglehold on freedom of expression.

The associate professor of English literature at Singapore Management University says: "Of late, Singapore has become more high-profile in the world in many ways, so there's more interest in the country from abroad, including our literature."

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in books from South-east Asia, coupled with the rise of literary stars such as Malaysia-born author Tash Aw, whose book Five Star Billionaire made the 2013 Man Booker Prize longlist.

  • Popular Singapore books

  • The Straits Times asked bookstores and the National Library Board for their most popular Singapore titles. Here is what Singaporeans have been buying and borrowing:

    KINOKUNIYA SINGAPORE

    Best-selling title

    The Teenage Textbook by Adrian Tan

    Popular children's titles

    True Singapore Ghost Stories series by Russell Lee, Mr Midnight series by James Lee, The Diary Of Amos Lee series by Adeline Foo, Sherlock Sam series by A.J. Low, Sasha series by Shamini Flint, Ellie Belly series by Eliza Teoh, Sam, Sebbie & Di-Di-Di series by David Seow, Lion City Adventures by Don Bosco, RunHideSeek series by Gabby Tye and Prince Bear & Pauper Bear by Emily Lim

    Popular adult's titles

    The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew, Malay Sketches by Alfian Sa'at, Singapore Siu Dai by Felix Cheong, Ministry Of Moral Panic by Amanda Lee Koe, Written Country edited by Gwee Li Sui, Aunty Lee series by Ovidia Yu, The Beating And Other Stories by Dave Chua, Emily Of Emerald Hill by Stella Kon and What Gives Us Our Names by Alvin Pang

    MPH DISTRIBUTORS

    Best-selling titles

    Mr Midnight series by James Lee (three million copies•), True Singapore Ghost Stories by Russell Lee (more than 1.5 million copies), The Twinkletoes series by Thomas Koh and Titian (more than 60,000 copies), Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan (18,000 copies combined), Squirky The Alien series by Melanie Lee (8,000 copies), Aunty Lee series by Ovidia Yu (7,000 copies), Lions In Winter by Wena Poon (5,000 copies)

    NATIONAL LIBRARY BOARD

    Adult's title

    Kampung Spirit by Josephine Chia

    Children's titles

    Diary Of Amos Lee series by Adeline Foo, Sherlock Sam series by A.J. Low and Danger Dan series by Lesley-Anne and Monica Lim

In March, Indonesian writer Eka Kurniawan's novel Man Tiger was longlisted for this year's Man Booker International Prize.

While no writer here has managed such a feat yet, there has been a healthy appetite for works coming out of the Republic.

Last month, Singapore-born author Balli Kaur Jaswal, 32, scored a two-book deal with publishing giant HarperCollins. The first of these two novels, titled Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, will be its lead title for summer next year in the United Kingdom, and for its imprint, William Morrow, in the United States.

Her 2013 debut novel, Inheritance, which tells the tale of a multigenerational Sikh family living in Singapore in the 1970s and 1980s, was well-received in Australia, where it was published.

Now based in Istanbul, she was named one of four best young novelists in Australia in 2014 by The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper. She says in an e-mail interview: "The novel was pitched as a universal story of identity, family and belonging. Despite its specific locale and cultural context, I think audiences were able to relate to it as it touched on those themes."

Building home support for local writers

Another author who is flying Singapore's flag high is Ovidia Yu, 55, who has two series being brought out by imprints overseas.

Her Aunty Lee detective series, about a nosy food-loving Peranakan sleuth, has been published by William Morrow, an imprint under HarperCollins, since 2013. The first book of her Frangipani Tree mystery series will be published by Constable & Robinson, an imprint under publisher Little, Brown, in September next year .

Yu says: "I've met people in New York who tell me Aunty Lee is like their Jewish aunt, which was surprising. When I was in Britain, someone told me, 'She's like my Indian mum.'"

Her agent, Ms Priya Doraswamy, 46, says: "The fact that the books are Singaporean makes them delectable. Readers love to learn about new cultures and Ovidia's authenticity in creating a true Singapore makes her books appealing. While the setting may be exotic, her characters and their motivations are universal."

Yu says being published overseas has raised her profile. For instance, this year marks her fourth time at BoucherCon, an annual mystery and crime fiction event, where she has been invited to give talks.

Children's authors here are not behind the curve either.

Singapore publisher Bubbly Books has had two of its English series - Eliza Teoh's Ellie Belly series, about a girl who can speak to animals, and Gabby Tye's RunHideSeek trilogy, a dystopian story of children trying to survive in a world with food shortages and botched genetic experiments - picked up by publishers in China.

In November, the first three books of the child detective Sherlock Sam series, by husband-and- wife duo Adan Jimenez, 33, and Felicia Low-Jimenez, 37, were picked up by American publisher Andrews McMeel Publishing.

Children's author Adeline Foo, 45, has also had her The Diary Of Amos Lee series published in countries such as China, India, Indonesia, Turkey and Slovakia. The Sherlock Sam and The Diary Of Amos Lee series were initially brought out by Epigram Books.

Foo says: "My book editors told me kids fell in love with Amos Lee and his irreverence. Beneath his cocky facade, he's an unsure kid who's trying to fit in, who inevitably makes mistakes and learns something about himself.

"It was the character and resonance with readers that drew them. Being set in Singapore wasn't a real consideration."

Despite encouraging interest from the rest of the world, Singapore literature has not caught on with the public here, possibly because of fierce competition from international titles and a lack of a reading culture, say industry observers and those in the literary community. This is exacerbated by hectic lifestyles which leave little time for reading, distractions aplenty and a tendency to read for knowledge and self-improvement rather than leisure and pleasure, they add.

The arts council survey found that about 56 per cent of respondents had not read a literary book in the past year, due mainly to lack of time and interest.

The latest Singapore Cultural Statistics, released last year, showed physical visitorship at libraries decline to 25.8 million in 2014, from a peak of 38.7 million in 2009.

Dr Singh thinks the problem stems from how some Singaporeans have often "derided" their own country's literature.

He says: "They say it is so fledgling that we must wait decades before we can achieve what others have done. This is wrong. If our writers are not read by us, it is easy to see why the international community remains sceptical."

Poet Loh Guan Liang, 31, says: "When you don't read what Singapore writers have to offer, what you create becomes a pale copy of Western voices. We need to do more to shift the collective agreement on what 'good' writing is, as 'good' is often synonymous with Western in Singapore."

Artist and author Desmond Kon, 45, who has had more than two decades of experience in writing and publishing, says it is unsurprising that Singaporeans are "more critical of work produced in our own backyard".

"We're more familiar with the contexts and we set high standards for writing that attends to our collective experience."

But the president of the Singapore Book Publishers Association, Mr Peter Schoppert, 54, who is director of NUS Press, says the danger lies in branding Singapore literature as a "nation-building tool" or "something that is good for you and you better read it or else".

He adds: "From a punter's perspective, there's a whole world of entertainment before you. We should avoid feeling like Singapore readers and writers are obligated to engage with Singapore literature. We've to come up with good books and make sure they're rewarding, challenging and pleasurable."

Writers, publishers, booksellers and the authorities are pushing ahead with efforts to promote Singapore literature.

The Singapore Writers Festival, organised by the arts council, is continuing its approach of reaching out to audiences through multidisciplinary events that incorporate other art forms such as film, music, dance and drama, says its director Yeow Kai Chai.

The festival's community outreach programme Words Go Round, which brings writers to schools for talks and workshops, hosted 129 school events this year, up from 91 last year, he says.

Author O Thiam Chin, 38, who was a participating writer at Words Go Round this year, says he and fellow authors Suchen Christine Lim and Cyril Wong "felt like rock stars" when they went to schools such as Dunman High School and Greenridge Secondary School. He said he was "amazed by the quality of questions".

The arts council's acting director for literary arts sector development, Ms May Tan, 38, notes the emergence of ground-up efforts such as the Singapore National Poetry Festival and poet Joshua Ip's Sing Lit Station, which runs a series of literary initiatives such as writing boot camps and workshops, both of which received funding from the arts council this year.

The Select Centre, a non-profit arts organisation that runs intercultural programmes, has seen a healthy interest in its literary events. Its Literally Speaking talks, which invite guest speakers to discuss Singapore literature, have been fully subscribed, with about 80 people turning up for each session, says co-founder William Phuan, 44.

In May last year, it organised workshops in Myanmar to translate works by playwright Alfian Sa'at from English to Burmese. The writer's book, Malay Sketches, will be published in Myanmar this year.

Mr Phuan says: "We look at Singlit as the crisscrossing of cultures and languages that should reflect our multicultural and multilingual society."

The Ministry of Education has introduced local texts into its reading programmes at different levels. In primary schools, students read and discuss stories by writers such as Suchen Christine Lim, Ho Lee- Ling and Sharon Ismail.

A ministry spokesman says Singaporean works are also used in the literature curriculum in secondary school and junior college levels, and are included as part of the O-level and Normal (Academic) examination syllabuses. Some examples are playwright Jean Tay's Boom and Everything But The Brain, Haresh Sharma's Off Centre, Ho Minfong's Rice Without Rain, and Philip Jeyaretnam's Abraham's Promise.

The National Library Board's (NLB) SG Author Series programme, which includes meet-the- author sessions and school visits, has featured 24 Singapore authors so far, says its deputy director for service development Ian Yap, 43.

Next month, the NLB will launch the National Reading Movement, which will feature Singapore writers at talks and workshops.

Others, such as Ethos Books' publisher Fong Hoe Fang, 61, and founder of independent bookstore BooksActually Kenny Leck, 37, believe more can be done to raise the visibility of Singapore literature.

Mr Leck, who owns the imprint Math Paper Press, which brings out Singapore titles, suggests that the authorities set up racks in the heartland, stocked with local books for the public to take home and read.

"If we don't make Singlit accessible, how do we expect people to come across it?... Years later, it will pay off."

Mr Fong feels more space is needed for bookstores in high-traffic areas such as Orchard Road and the CBD.

He says: "Small shops like Booktique are getting killed by high rentals and the market. In every zone, the authorities should have a quota of at least one bookstore."

Copy editor Natalie Pang, 28, who has read Singapore writers such as Alfian Sa'at, Edwin Thumboo, Felix Cheong and Catherine Lim, does not count their works among her favourites. Instead, she puts Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 100 Years Of Solitude and Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita on that list.

But she recalls the joy of discovering Singapore stories in secondary school, after having been inundated by books from the West as a child.

She says: "I still remember thinking after reading Catherine Lim's books, that wow, this is really relatable. Like, I can picture the characters and I can see these things happening right by my place.

"Reading Singapore literature made living in Singapore a lot more interesting."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 17, 2016, with the headline 'Singapore's literary boom'. Print Edition | Subscribe