Debut novel wins Singapore's richest literary prize, which opens to Asean writers next year

First-time novelist Yeoh Jo-Ann won $25,000 for her manuscript Impractical Uses Of Cake, in which a man has his life turned upside down after he finds a woman from his past homeless and living in a cardboard box.
First-time novelist Yeoh Jo-Ann won $25,000 for her manuscript Impractical Uses Of Cake, in which a man has his life turned upside down after he finds a woman from his past homeless and living in a cardboard box.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

SINGAPORE - Singapore's richest literary prize went on Thursday (Nov 22) to first-time novelist Yeoh Jo-Ann.

The 36-year-old, a client operations director with a digital marketing agency, won $25,000 for her manuscript Impractical Uses Of Cake, in which a man has his life turned upside down after he finds a woman from his past homeless and living in a cardboard box.

"It is a very unusual novel for the sensitivity and tact with which it handles a very complex human situation with a very interesting narrator and an even more interesting female protagonist.

"It reveals a whole side of Singapore that many people in Singapore may not be aware of, with a dry sense of humour and a deep understanding of human difficulties and the problems faced by Singapore as an urban centre," said one of the judges Professor Rajeev S. Patke, director of the Division of Humanities at Yale-NUS College.

The annual Epigram Books Fiction Prize by local publisher Epigram Books is Singapore's only prize for unpublished English-language novels. 

The prize is currently open to Singapore citizens, permanent residents and Singapore-born authors.

But Epigram founder Edmund Wee, 66, announced at the gala dinner at the Conrad Centennial Singapore hotel on Thursday that next year, the prize will be open to writers from other Asean countries, as a way to reach out to more people.

Participants from these countries must either be citizens or permanent residents of the country they represent.

He added that as long as the submission is in the English language - whether it is written originally in English or translated into English - it is admissible. Should a translated novel win, the prize money will be shared equally between the author and the translator.

This year's shortlist was the award's first all-female one.

 

All four finalists for the fourth award were also first-time novelists, although Yeoh, a former Singapore Press Holdings Magazines features editor, has contributed short stories to anthologies such as In Transit (2016) and The Epigram Books Collection Of Best New Singaporean Short Stories: Vol 3 (2017).

She beat Singapore Management University postgraduate student Lu Huiyi, 28; freelance writer and English literature tutor Anittha Thanabalan, 29; and Channel NewsAsia senior digital lifestyle journalist May Seah, 33.

The three runner-ups will get $5,000 each and also have their novels published next year.

This year's judges included Mr Wee, Singapore Literature Prize-winning author Suchen Christine Lim, Prof Rajeev S. Patke, director of the Division of Humanities at Yale-NUS College, and children's book author Linda Locke.

Prof Patke said: "These novels redefine our sense of reality by presenting us with situations that are outwardly unusual."