Balli Kaur Jaswal, O Thiam Chin, Wong Souk Yee on shortlist for Epigram Books Fiction Prize

Edmund Wee, founder of Epigram Books.
Edmund Wee, founder of Epigram Books.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Singapore publisher Epigram Books has announced the shortlist for its $20,000 Epigram Books Fiction Prize and all four contenders are experienced writers: Wong Souk Yee, Balli Kaur Jaswal, O Thiam Chin and Sebastian Spore.

The winner will be announced on Nov 5.

The prize is Singapore's richest literary award and the only one for unpublished novels. Announced this year, it is open to Singapore citizens and permanent residents, as well as Singapore-born writers, wherever they are residing.

The $20,000 for the winner is a cash advance against future royalties and guarantees a publishing contract with Epigram Books.

It is the biggest known advance promised to an English-language fiction writer in the Singapore publishing industry. Publisher Edmund Wee of Epigram Books currently offers authors 5 per cent of the recommended retail price for every copy sold, so it would take selling 20,000 copies of a book priced at $20 for an author to make $20,000. This is unlikely for adult fiction here where 2,000 copies sold in a year marks a book as a bestseller.

"We are really pleased with the number of entries and we are really pleased with the quality," says Mr Wee, whose in-house team chose the top four manuscripts from 69 entries sent in by 68 authors - one submitted two manuscripts - between March 10 and Aug 31.

Epigram Books is not releasing the synopses or titles of the submitted manuscripts as the winner will be chosen by a blind reading conducted by three external judges: Professor Philip Holden from the National University of Singapore's department of English language & literature, actress Janice Koh and bestselling author Adrian Tan.

Mr Wee says he will only step in in case a tie-breaker is needed and that he would be happy to publish all four entries on the shortlist.

Perhaps the most intriguing name on the shortlist is playwright and former political detainee Wong, 57 this year, who contested the recent General Election as a member of the Singapore Democratic Party but did not win. An adjunct lecturer at the National University of Singapore, she co-founded the now-defunct theatre group Third Stage, was detained in 1987 for allegedly taking part in a Marxist conspiracy against the government, and turned part of her experience into the play Square Moon, staged in 2013.

Then there is Istanbul-based teacher Jaswal, 32 this year, whose first novel Inheritance (Sleepers Publishing, 2013) was begun while on the £25,000 (S$54,000) David T.K. Wong Fellowship for writing at the well-known University of East Anglia. She was based in Sydney for several years and was last year among four writers named The Sydney Morning Herald's choice of best young Australian novelists.

Also on the Epigram Books Fiction Prize shortlist is well-known short story writer O Thiam Chin, 38 this year. In 2012, he won the Young Artist Award given out by Singapore's National Arts Council. His collection of short stories Love, Or Something Like Love (Math Paper Press, 2013) was shortlisted for last year's Singapore Literature Prize for English fiction, but lost to Amanda Lee Koe's Ministry Of Moral Panic.

The final contender according to Epigram Books is Sebastian Spore, the pen-name of a 49-year-old former prisons officer and current community club executive who has published three Chinese novels under the penname Yueguan Ming.

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