50 authors in running for Singapore Literature Prize

Authors Jennani Durai, Balli Kaur Jaswal, Wong Souk Yee and Nuraliah Norasid with their publisher Edmund Wee of Epigram Books (centre).
Authors Jennani Durai, Balli Kaur Jaswal, Wong Souk Yee and Nuraliah Norasid with their publisher Edmund Wee of Epigram Books (centre). ST PHOTO: SONG TAO
(From left) Poet Euginia Tan, writer Charmaine Chan, Ethos associate publisher Ng Kah Gay, poet Theophilus Kwek and writer Charmaine Leung.
(From left) Poet Euginia Tan, writer Charmaine Chan, Ethos associate publisher Ng Kah Gay, poet Theophilus Kwek and writer Charmaine Leung. ST PHOTO: SONG TAO
(From left) Sharifah Mohamed, Farihan Bahron, Hamed Bin Ismail, Adam Bin Fadila and Djohan A Rahman.
(From left) Sharifah Mohamed, Farihan Bahron, Hamed Bin Ismail, Adam Bin Fadila and Djohan A Rahman. ST PHOTO: SONG TAO

SINGAPORE - First-time nominations dominated the shortlist of the Singapore Literature Prize, which will involve the public for the first time in the biennial award's history.

It was also the first time a publisher filled an entire category, with Epigram Books getting five nominations for English fiction.

The shortlist was revealed on Tuesday (June 19) by the Singapore Book Council, which organises the awards, the oldest ongoing multilingual literary prize in Singapore.

Fifty authors are in the running in the 12 categories, which are fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry in Chinese, English, Malay and Tamil. Each winner will receive a cash prize of $10,000 and a plaque.

The council's executive director William Phuan says: "In conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Singapore Book Council this year, we decided to open up the ceremony to the public and invite them to be part of it."

The prizes will be given out on Aug 6 at the Stephen Riady Auditorium at NTUC Centre. While the public will have no role in deciding the winners, they will be invited to guess the winners and also vote for their favourite book covers. They stand to win books and book vouchers.

The council will be organising outreach events such as a display of all previous prize-winning titles at the National Library from July 16 to Sept 8.

This year's 36 judges, with three judging each category, include academics and writers. They range from Books Kinokuniya senior store and merchandising director Kenny Chan for English fiction to poet and author KTM Iqbal for Tamil poetry.

Oxford Professor of Poetry Simon Armitage from Britain was one of the judges for English poetry, alongside local poets Alfian Sa'at and Pooja Nansi.

Of the shortlisted authors, 32 made the cut for the first time, including The Straits Times United States bureau chief Nirmal Ghosh, for his non-fiction book Unquiet Kingdom about Thailand's tumultuous political transition; Charmaine Leung's memoir 17A Keong Saik Road, about growing up as the daughter of a brothel owner; and two books in Malay by Farihan Bahron.

Farihan, 39, has been writing for 20 or so years but these are his first nominations. He was shortlisted for his speculative short story collection Avatar's Wrath and poetry book Finger-Pointing Expert.

"I'm excited just to be acknowledged," says the co-owner of publisher Unggun Creative. "I hope after this to progress to the next level, to work in more fields such as translation."

"It's completely unexpected," says Leung, 46, of the nomination. "It was a personal story about old Singapore. To be shortlisted is like already winning and I feel really privileged."

Publisher Epigram Books, which was responsible for the English fiction winners for the last two awards, published all five nominees in the English fiction category this year. It is the first time a publisher has filled a prize category entirely.

"I am honoured and happy for my authors," says Epigram founder Edmund Wee, 65. "It has not been easy for us recently, but this encourages us to keep moving forward."

The nominees include novels The Gatekeeper by Nuraliah Norasid, State Of Emergency by Jeremy Tiang, Sugarbread by Balli Kaur Jaswal, Death Of A Perm Sec by Wong Souk Yee and Jennani Durai's short story collection Regrettable Things That Happened Yesterday. "I'm overwhelmed," says Durai, 31, a former ST journalist now based in Guatemala. On Epigram dominating the category, she adds: "They've really been putting out a lot of works and this is indicative of the quality of their output."

Ethos Books also has five titles on the shortlist, including three poetry collections and Charmaine Chan's The Magic Circle, about the loss of her sister to a rare cancer.

Chinese publisher Lingzi Media scored the highest number of shortlisted titles at seven, from Chua Chee Lay's poetry collection Melody From Foreign Lands to Xi Ni Er's short story collection The Floating Republic and Ho Yuen's true-crime book Singapore Crime Scene 1.

Ho, 69, says the book is based on his time as a Lianhe Zaobao crime reporter from the 1970s to 1990s, during which he covered cases such as that of notorious cop-killer Lim Ban Lim. "I was never scared," he says. "Just excited to be on the scene."

Retired engineer A. K. Varadharajan, 74, who only began writing seven years ago, scored his nomination in the Tamil poetry category for his self-published collection Lee Kuan Yew Imaginary Childhood, which he wrote to show gratitude to Singapore's late founding premier.

He received a commendation for Tamil non-fiction and a merit award for Tamil poetry in 2016. "Perhaps this time I may win the whole prize, though that is up to the judges," he says.

The prize was begun in 1992. This year, it attracted 172 eligible submissions across genres and languages.

It is open to any work in the three genres created by a Singaporean citizen or permanent resident, which must be published in Singapore or abroad in a physical book format between Jan 1, 2016 and Dec 31 last year.

BOOK IT/SINGAPORE LITERATURE PRIZE 2018

WHERE: Stephen Riady Auditorium, NTUC Centre, 1 Marina Boulevard, #07-01

WHEN: Aug 6, 6.30 to 8pm

ADMISSION: Free, registration required (go to slp2018ceremony.peatix.com)

INFO: bookcouncil.sg