National Reading Day

In search of the Great Singapore Novel

Singapore celebrates its first National Reading Day today, part of a concerted push to get more people here reading. But those looking for a book to pick up do not have to go far, there is talent to be found on Singapore's shores.

This year, the spotlight on Singapore literature burns bright, with the works of home-grown authors getting the nod overseas.

Writers such as Balli Kaur Jaswal and Clarissa N. Goenawan have nabbed international book deals, and new books from authors such as Ovidia Yu and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan have hit the shelves both here and abroad.

But is reception still lukewarm on home ground? The results of the National Arts Council's writing survey conducted last year painted a dismal picture: About three-quarters of respondents said they had not read a literary book by a Singaporean writer before.

Change might well be in the air, with new initiatives such as the new Sing Lit Station to grow the local literary community.

Is there a Great Singapore Novel - an iconic book that captures the Singapore spirit and experience - out there? Eight authors tell The Straits Times what they think, and pick their must-read works of Singapore literature.


An exceptional narrative, with exquisite artwork

AUTHOR AND ARTIST DESMOND KON ZHICHENG-MINGDÉ, 45
His poetry collection, I Didn't Know Mani Was A Conceptualist, was a co-winner in the English poetry category of this year's Singapore Literature Prize.

His new collection, Mirror Image Mirage, which delves into Japanese haiku, is slated for publication later this year - the 300th anniversary of haiku master Yosa Buson's birth.

"It's romantic to search for The Great Singapore Novel, but that elusive narrative may arrive in one good poem or short story or dramatic monologue.

"I like to think around such grand labels because the privileging of one narrative may sometimes obscure the need and appreciation of all kinds of texts. The richest story brew comes from a diverse and inclusive one. Experiences of marginalised persons certainly add to the cultural imagination.

"I adore Sonny Liew's The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye because it delivers on its astonishing ambition. The storytelling is exceptional, the artwork exquisite. It's a magnum opus, really, one of staggering polish.

"That it helps us ask questions about narrative as construct - that of truth, history, fiction, memory, biography - only heightens the reader's enjoyment of it. I love narratives that remain conscious of their being, of their own created materiality. The critical intelligence is seductive and alluring."

  • The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (2015, Epigram Books) by Sonny Liew can be purchased at $34.90 from major bookstores and epigrambooks.sg

Delving into human delirium

WRITER PETER AUGUSTINE GOH, 62
His 2014 book Air Mata Di Arafah - an anthology of 19 short stories - won the Malay fiction category for this year's Singapore Literature Prize. Another short-story collection, Bayang-bayang Yang Hilang, made the shortlist too.

Goh, who was born in Malacca but moved here in his teens, has written over 25 books since 1974.

"For me, there isn't a single novel that can be considered the one Great Singapore Novel. Every work has its strengths and weaknesses, and every writer has his or her own style that we can be proud of.

"We have not found an equivalent of A. Samad Said's Salina (a 1961 novel about a woman driven by poverty into prostitution) or Arena Wati's Sandera (a 1971 tale that follows the struggles of escaped detainee Busad, a staunch opposer of the Dutch colonialists) - both from Malaysia. Or The Sinking Of The Van Der Wijck (a 1938 novel about star-crossed lovers Zainuddin, a mixed-race man, and Minang woman Hayati) by Hamka from Indonesia.

"But we can be proud of novels by Isa Kamari, Leyla Shuri, Suratman Markasan and Manaf Hamzah.

"One example is Isa's The Tower (a tale of success and failure built around an architect looking back at his life and achievements on a trip up a tower he designed), which showcases his courage and intelligence. These qualities can be seen from the innovative ideas in his novel, and the way he writes so consciously and scholarly.

"It looks at human delirium in a new millennium, with the tower in the novel serving as a landmark symbol of creation. The book invites the reader to look at humanity, and how it can sometimes be shallow, fractured and rootless."

  • The Tower (2013, Epigram Books) by Isa Kamari, translated from Malay by Alfian Sa'at, can be purchased at $17.90 from major bookstores and epigrambooks.sg

Lesson on Malay community's true identity

POET, LYRICIST AND SCRIPTWRITER HARTINAH AHMAD, 61
She won the Malay poetry category in this year's Singapore Literature Prize for Tafsiran Tiga Alam, which she co-authored with Hamed Ismail and Samsudin Said.

She is now working on a history book chronicling the Perkumpulan Seni Singapura's (Singapore Art Group) 60 years, and a book on Singapore Malay lyricists from the 1950s to the present day.

"I consider Bunga Tanjong, written by Hamed Ismail, the Great Singapore Novel . It is set in Singapore in the 1960s, and follows the lives of women who dance at dance clubs and the struggles they face.

"There is much to be learnt about the true identity of the Malay community, particularly when it comes to evaluating progress, the mistakes we can learn from to improve ourselves and our sense of harmony in a multiracial and multi-religious Singapore.

"This novel taught me about friendship and sacrifice, which go hand in hand and are difficult to evaluate with mere words or material things."

  • Bunga Tanjong (Mediacorp Eaglevision, 2016, in Malay) by Hamed Ismail is available at $12.90 from Glamour Muzika at #01-1031, Joo Chiat Complex.

Not yet - but there's a book that defines the nation

WRITER AND LITERARY CRITIC KIRPAL SINGH, 67

The associate professor of English literature at Singapore Management University has been active in the Singapore literary scene since the 1970s, and has written a number of books - ranging from poetry collections to non-fiction - over the years.

"I believe the Great Singapore Novel will happen in about the next 10 years. There are indications that some of our writers are starting to be truly mature and master the uniqueness that is Singapore in terms of our literary heritage, and there is now a real heritage!

"As far as I can tell, no Singaporean novel as of now merits this grand accolade. But I think there is a defining Singaporean novel: that is, a novel written by a Singaporean and which focuses on our unique nation in a unique way.

"I submit that this novel is also Singapore's first novel written in English, Goh Poh Seng's If We Dream Too Long. He completed it in 1968, and was writing it around the time Singapore was starting to get - and assert - a sense of itself as a nation.

"Merger with Malaysia had come and gone and left in its wake a stark reality which many were trying to analyse, understand and even project. There was anxiety all over the place and many of us were nervous about what was to come and what the future would bring.

MATURING

I believe the Great Singapore Novel will happen in about the next 10 years. There are indications that some of our writers are starting to be truly mature and master the uniqueness that is Singapore in terms of our literary heritage, and there is now a real heritage!

DR KIRPAL SINGH

"Our vulnerabilities were writ large and our capacity for survival yet to be tested. This made for uncertainty taking deep roots and, for the thinking Singaporean, the air was full of both new ideals, hopes and dreams as well as deep and dark worries and preoccupations with a sense of both self and society.

"This is where Kwang Meng, the novel's protagonist, hit it right on the head. He is worried, concerned, anxious, unsure and even, nearly, helpless. But there is something about him that is also very positive - his desire not to give up, in spite of temptation, and struggle on. This 'struggle' is, from one point of view, the 'dream' of the title. The dream is not specific, it is deliberately vague and hinges on the hypothetical. But its firmness comes because of the reality of time.

"We cannot, Poh Seng seems to be positing, wait 'too long' or there might be hell to pay, at the level of the individual, the community and the nation.

"Thinly disguised, the novel is essentially political, an engagement with the nature of the 'polis' and a confrontation with 'polity'.

"Poh Seng was no naive young man when he wrote the novel - he had seen much and experienced much. He was deeply embedded in the shaping of a new vision, a new society, a new nation which would turn dreams into realities and which would impress itself upon the global landscape.

"It is sad that when the novel first came out, the reviews were mainly harsh - indeed one of the main reviews castigated the novel to the toilet bowl.

"Now, looking back, we can be wiser and more reflective and truly proud that the very first novel remains our defining novel, embodying and encompassing the mainstreams of our aspirations, frustrations and realisations."

  • If We Dream Too Long (Island Press, 1972) by Goh Poh Seng is available at $21.19 from Books Kinokuniya.

Stories with classic Singaporean themes

LAWYER ADRIAN TAN, 50
A litigator with Morgan Lewis Stamford LLC, Tan is also the man behind two of Singapore's most beloved books. The Teenage Textbook, an entertaining ride through the life of Mui Ee, a student at the fictitious Paya Lebar Junior College, was the best-selling novel here when it was published in 1988, and was later given the film treatment in 1998.

Its sequel, The Teenage Workbook, was published in 1989 and topped The Straits Times bestseller list for more than a year.

"I pick Catherine Lim's Little Ironies. I realise it is not a novel, but a collection of short stories.

"That aside, it meets all the requirements of classic Singapore literature: Singaporean characters in Singaporean locations dealing with Singaporean issues.

"The themes are familiar to us: materialism, elitism and the gradual erosion of tradition by the modern world. And that arch, sarcastic voice that seeps into each story reminds us that, in laughing at the foibles of others, we are essentially laughing at ourselves.

"Look out for Paper, where a man plays the stock market, in the hopes of building his dream house. The stock market crashes and his paper fortune disappears. His mother, a true Singaporean, builds a paper house for him, which is burnt at his funeral.

"Another favourite is The Teacher. A student commits suicide after writing about her father's abuse. The oblivious teacher fusses over how the student's essay is 'out of point'.

"In Monster, an old woman battles to preserve her ancient furniture from her daughter-in-law. Lo and behold, as the old woman lies on her deathbed, the younger woman's attitude towards that antique bed changes when she realises it may be worth a fortune.

"With each tale, we squirm and smile. We recognise the Singaporean questions that are posed: What do we value? What do we pursue? Do people matter more than things? Are we changing for the better? As our nation matures, these issues can only become more relevant."

  • Little Ironies: Stories Of Singapore (Heinemann, 1978) by Catherine Lim is available at $15.94 from Books Kinokuniya.

Resilience in the face of change

WRITER MEIRA CHAND, IN HER LATE 60s

She was born and raised in south London, and later lived in Japan and India, before moving in 1997 to Singapore, where she now lives.

She has written eight novels, as well as the story for The LKY Musical. Her 2010 book, A Different Sky, which is set in 1920s Singapore, was born from a conversation with former president S R Nathan. At an event at the Istana in 1999, Mr Nathan, who had read A Choice Of Evils, her 1996 book on the Nanjing massacre, suggested the idea of a novel set in Singapore.

"There is something in the phrase Great Singapore Novel that implies the epic and ambitious, a depth and breadth of narrative.

"Suchen Christine Lim is a writer who can embrace that historic span of time and the shifts of social change in Singapore. Taken together, her novels A Bit Of Earth and The River's Song encompass a substantial arc of Singapore history.

"Beginning in 1874, A Bit Of Earth follows the lives in Malaya of two Chinese immigrant families, and one native Malaysian family. There are different dreams for the bit of earth these families live upon, and the source of modern Singapore is embedded in their stories.

"In The River's Song, the Singapore River weaves like a character through the novel. The social upheavals and ecological destruction brought by rapid progress is reflected in the sense of loss and displacement experienced by the characters as they search for identity in a changed world.

"Between them, A Bit Of Earth and The River's Song compress the essence of Singapore's history, and explore the root of resilience and diversity in the face of change, taking strength from the past to face the future."

  • A Bit Of Earth (Times Books International, 2001) and The River's Song (Aurora Metro Books, 2014) by Suchen Christine Lim are available at $19.26 and $21.09 from Books Kinokuniya.

Empowered to tell my own story

GRAPHIC NOVELIST SONNY LIEW, 41
The awards keep piling up for his graphic novel, The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. It won big here this year, emerging as Book Of The Year at the Singapore Book Awards and becoming the first graphic novel to bag the Singapore Literature Prize for English fiction. The book, published in Singapore last year by Epigram Books, won acclaim from international publications such as The Economist and graced international bestsellers lists.

"I haven't read enough of what would be considered Singapore's canonical literary texts, so I can pick only a couple of titles that represent my early encounters - Claire Tham's first book Fascist Rock and Eric Khoo's graphic novel, Unfortunate Lives. I don't think either could be considered the Great Singapore Novel; they were good, but flawed texts.

But encountering works by local authors about local subjects gave me a sense of empowerment, of the possibility of telling my own stories - in Khoo's case, the possibilities of doing so in a comics medium. There's never quite anything like a book that emerges from the culture and people you see around you."

  • Fascist Rock: Stories Of Rebellion (Times Books International, 1990) by Claire Tham has since been reprinted as part of The Claire Tham Collection (Marshall Cavendish International, 2011), which is available at $24.07 from Books Kinokuniya.

Unfortunate Lives : Urban Stories & Uncertain Tales (1989, Times Books International) can be found at the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library at the National Library Building.


A sense of country and people

WRITER LEONORA LIOW, IN HER 50s
She won the first prize in the Golden Point Awards in 2003, and her first collection of stories, Moth, was shortlisted for the English fiction category of the Singapore Literature Prize this year.

"To name 'the' Great Singapore Novel is a judgment call subject to too many variables: the reader, whose sensibilities are the product of his own age, background, cultivation and interests; the critic, whose views are as myriad as his purposes; and the publisher-marketer, who must keep a keen eye out for the vagaries of sentiment.

"The most enduring qualities of a 'Singapore' novel will convey the sense of our country and the character of its people as shaped by time and history. In this context, J.G. Farrell's The Singapore Grip conveys a sense of immediacy and implosion in the climate of colonialism.

"Meira Chand's A Different Sky lays bare the poignancy of human suffering in the fraught years of the Japanese Occupation.

"The consideration of the 'Singapore' novel should also extend beyond confines of geography and nationality. It should equally encompass the breadth of its past.

"I would name Tan Twan Eng's The Garden Of Evening Mists and Tash Aw's The Harmony Silk Factory - both by Malaysian novelists - as powerfully evocative of the time before our independence. As a reader, it is this communion of experience, depicting the essence of life here and the essence of its people's character that will make these works endure."

  • The Singapore Grip (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1978) by J. G. Farrell is available at $20.95; A Different Sky (Random House, 2010) by Meira Chand at $17.95; The Garden Of Evening Mists (Myrmidon, 2012) by Tan Twan Eng at $19.94; and The Harmony Silk Factory (HarperPerennial, 2005) by Tash Aw at $17.12, all from Books Kinokuniya.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 30, 2016, with the headline 'In search of the Great Singapore Novel'. Print Edition | Subscribe