Epigram Books Fiction Prize splits award for the first time

Sebastian Sim (left) and Boey Meihan will each receive $15,000 from the sixth edition of the prize.
Sebastian Sim (left) and Boey Meihan will each receive $15,000 from the sixth edition of the prize.PHOTOS: COURTESY OF EPIGRAM BOOKS

SINGAPORE - The Epigram Books Fiction Prize has announced its first tie, splitting the award between Singaporean writers Sebastian Sim and Boey Meihan.

The two will each receive $15,000 from the sixth edition of the prize, Singapore's only award for unpublished English-language novels.

They were among six shortlisted writers feted in a virtual ceremony live-streamed on Facebook and YouTube on Saturday (Jan 16), in lieu of the usual hotel gala.

It is the second laurel for Sim, 54, who won the prize in 2017 for The Riot Act and was also a finalist in 2015 for Let's Give It Up For Gimme Lao!

He said he was "half-surprised, half-grateful" to be the first two-time winner in the prize's history.

The idea of his winning manuscript, And the Award Goes to Sally Bong!, came about while he was writing Let's Give It Up For Gimme Lao!, a satire about a relentless over-achiever who is born on the night of Singapore's Independence.

"That got me thinking," said Sim, who has a day job as an office executive. "What would the Singapore experience be like for a non-achiever?"

His protagonist Sally Bong, who briefly appears in Let's Give It Up For Gimme Lao! and whose life runs parallel to Gimme Lao's, is kind at heart but not ambitious.

She realises early on that while she is praised by the authorities when her attempts to help others catch the attention of the media, they react with horror when she tries to push the envelope.

Boey, 43, is a newcomer to the prize, though she is no stranger to the book trade.

The community events manager and former Books Kinokuniya bookseller is the vice-president of the Association of Comic Artists of Singapore (Acas) and released her debut novella, space opera The Messiah Virus, in 2019.

Her novel, The Formidable Miss Cassidy, blends historical romance, comedy and horror. She has had the idea percolating in her head for 20 years, she said, but the novel only really came together during the circuit breaker last year.

It is set in 1890s Singapore and follows Miss Lydia Cassidy, a Scottish ladies' companion who discovers the house she is employed in is haunted by a pontianak. Judge Monica Lim described it as "The King And I meets Mary Poppins, with a few hantu (ghosts) thrown in for good measure".

"This is a world which is very much the one I have always secretly believed in," said Boey, who took inspiration from British fantasy writer Neil Gaiman's "gods and monsters hiding in plain sight" and populated her novel with supernatural beings such as the orang minyak, an oily, rapacious ghoul from Malay folklore, and toyols, undead infant spirits.

"From the lines on your palm describing your fortune to the orang minyak coming for your daughter, Singapore's culture has always been a mishmash of Western and Asian. Singaporeans have a remarkable ability to accept that contrasting beliefs can exist in the same space."

Epigram founder Edmund Wee, 68, said the judging panel was divided between the two books and neither camp wanted to concede.

As the judging had to take place over Zoom, he added, it was harder to "bang heads together". Eventually they seized on the idea of following in the footsteps of the Booker and Singapore Literature Prizes, both of which have recently anointed joint winners.

The panel of judges also included Lim, a children's book author; film producer and curator Wahyuni Hadi; Nanyang Technological University associate professor of English Sim Wai Chew; and Mr Gareth Richards, founder of Gerakbudaya Bookshop in Penang.

Sim said he plans to donate 40 per cent of his prize to documentary film-maker Jason Soo, whom he has never met in person but whose work he is a great fan of, while Boey hopes to use some of her winnings to put out a comic book with Acas.

It was a year of many firsts for the prize. As the usual gala ceremony had to be cancelled due to Covid-19, Epigram redirected the savings towards expanding the prize shortlist from four to six novels, increasing the pot from $40,000 to $50,000.

In previous years, the shortlist comprised four novels, with one winner receiving $25,000 and three finalists each getting $5,000.

This year, the other finalists - Singaporeans Daryl Qilin Yam, Pallavi Gopinath Aney and Wesley Leon Aroozoo and Malaysian H.Y. Yeang - will each get $5,000.

All six shortlisted novels will be published in the second half of this year.

The prize, which is a cash advance against future royalties, was started in 2015 for Singapore writers and opened to writers from other Asean countries in 2018.