Singaporean wins regional prize in Commonwealth Short Story Competition

Ms Mariah Ma's The Last Diver On Earth was inspired by her memories of travelling to Indonesia with her family as a child. PHOTO: COURTESY OF MS MA

SINGAPORE - Singaporean Sofia Mariah Ma's The Last Diver On Earth has won the regional prize of the annual Commonwealth Short Story Competition. The prize comes with £2,500 (S$4,300).

The contest is organised by the Commonwealth Foundation, an intergovernmental organisation based in London, to identify writers from Africa, the Americas, Europe and Asia who inspire their communities.

Ms Ma's story is set in the year 2210.

On the coast of a fictional Indonesian metropolis, the lives of the Bajau villagers are ravaged by ocean garbage and poverty.

Due to their natural diving abilities, the Bajau are used by scientific corporations to scour the oceans for new species of plants to aid scientific research.

When a female freediver's body is mysteriously washed to shore, her daughter seeks to retrace her mother's last dive and find closure.

Ms Ma, who is in her 30s, is a part-time English teacher and currently attends the Nanyang Technological University's Asia Creative Writing programme.

She tells The Straits Times over Zoom that she plans to invest her winnings on developing her creative writing craft as well as research trips for a potential novel.

The Last Diver On Earth was inspired by her memories of travelling to Indonesia with her family as a child and seeing the local kids swimming dauntlessly in the sea.

This motivated deeper research into the lives of coastal inhabitants who would experience the impact of rising sea levels and environmental deterioration first-hand.

Ms Ma says: "At the time of its conceptualisation, there was the unusual occurrence of massive floods around the world. We know about climate change, but we don't really assess its impact on people who suffer from it."

She did research into the livelihoods of the Bajau community native to maritime South-east Asia across Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

She was struck by National Geographic magazine's prediction that many coastal communities would have disappeared in 200 years' time.

Ms Ma, who has a master's degree in English Literature, had won second place for the Golden Point Award - English Short Story Category by Art House Limited in 2021 for her work, The Shadow Box.

She says: "I feel that there has been a greater reckoning of different narratives within Singapore literature. It's about having a plurality of voices of people from backgrounds that are not necessarily prominent in the media. As someone of Javanese descent, I wanted to bring those voices to the forefront."

"While most of my family originates from Java, I have a mixed heritage of Chinese and Dutch roots."

Other Singaporean writers previously involved in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition include Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, who was shortlisted for the global prize in 2014, and Evan Adam Ang, who won the regional prize in 2014.

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