Epigram Books Fiction Prize

First-time author bags Epigram fiction prize

Nuraliah Norasid credits her years of gaming for teaching her how to craft an "experiential narrative".
Nuraliah Norasid credits her years of gaming for teaching her how to craft an "experiential narrative".ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Author of The Gatekeeper, which won Singapore's richest literary prize, makes the Greek character the heroine in her novel

Medusa, a woman with a head full of snakes, is not usually a figure men or women can relate to.

But when 30-year-old research associate Nuraliah Norasid wanted to write her first book, The Gatekeeper, she chose as her heroine the Greek mythological character who can petrify man at will.

A computer game she played at age 15 - Heroes Of Might And Magic III - ignited her fascination with the character, who was depicted chopping off the head of a petrified man.

"From that moment, she was always this emblem of strong womanhood for me," she says.

Last week, her debut novel clinched the coveted Epigram Books Fiction Prize, whose $25,000 cash advance makes it Singapore's richest literary prize.

A work of speculative fiction blending Greek mythology with Malay folkloric elements, it is set in a kampung and features a young girl with Medusa-like powers who has to guard a community of outcasts. It will be published by the award's organiser, Epigram Books, next year.

Nuraliah, who received the winner's trophy in tears, did not expect to win - she had attended the award ceremony held at Pan Pacific Singapore "rooting so hard for the others on the shortlist".

"I went only for the food," she says in jest during an interview with The Straits Times in the office of Epigram Books.

The other three shortlisted manuscripts - from writer O Thiam Chin, author and translator Jeremy Tiang and architect Tham Cheng-E - will also be published by Epigram Books next year.

Nuraliah had submitted her manuscript for the award to see "where it stands with regard to the literature in Singapore".

"My view of Singapore literature is that a lot of the novels deal with the intricate lives of characters living in urban realities. I did not know where this niche story, with these characters and a fantastical backdrop would fit."

Her journey into the literary world is perhaps as unexpected as her win.

She took mainly science subjects in secondary school and junior college, but a weakness in mathematics led her to switch gears.

When she got into the English Literature course at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), her literary diet changed - from one comprising mainly chick lit and romance novels to books featuring different forms of writing.

She continued on her transformative path, until she completed her PhD in English Literature and Creative Writing at NTU last year with an early version of The Gatekeeper.

Her love of stories runs deep.

The eldest of three children, she was brought up by parents who instilled in them a love of reading. When she and her brothers, aged 28 and 21, were young, their father made sure they read for an hour a day in the evenings - 30 minutes each for a fiction and a non-fiction book.

"No matter how difficult the financial situation was, my parents have never stopped us from going to the library and getting books," says Nuraliah, who declines to provide more details of her family.

She intends to use the Epigram Books cash prize pragmatically - to pay off her tuition fee loans, buy new furniture for her home and supplement her brothers' and her own savings.

The bachelorette credits her years of gaming for teaching her how to craft an "experiential narrative".

She cites, in particular, The Elder Scrolls Online series, which is set in a fictional continent called Tamriel.

Clutching a necklace with a pendant shaped like an ouroboros, or a tail-eating snake, from the series, she says: "People keep thinking that video games are almost this brain-frying thing, but I actually learnt how to create compelling characters and build the world of the novel from games."

She hopes to return to her games and to the regular rhythms of her life soon.

In the meantime, she is busy editing her manuscript further in preparation for its publication next year. There are also piles of research for The Gatekeeper - including books full of scribbles, notes and character sketches dating from as early as 2006 - to put away.

She says: "It is absolutely terrifying that there is going to be this work of mine out there. I'm terrified about how it will be received.

"But at the same time, to have the physical copy out will feel like this chapter is done. I can finally let this work go into the world and she will fend for herself."

 Epigram sets up London arm with Man Booker in mind

Mr Edmund Wee, founder of publisher Epigram Books, is putting his money where his mouth is.

In 2013, he declared his ambitions to get a Singapore book on the longlist of the renowned Man Booker Prize within five years.

But a book must be published in the United Kingdom to be eligible for the prize, which is open to English-language novels.

So on his visits to London to attend the annual London Book Fair, Mr Wee, 64, asked smaller publishers if they wanted to co-publish Epigram's titles, but none were keen. Instead of throwing in the towel, he set up a London arm of Epigram Books last month.

"I thought maybe the only way to do this was to set up my own company, then I don't have to rely on someone else," he says. The small outfit consists of three people - an associate publisher, a marketing and sales staff and a publicist.

He had not planned to set it up so soon. His decision was hastened with the news in April that Singapore writer Balli Kaur Jaswal, 33, had snagged a two-book deal with international publisher HarperCollins.

Epigram published Jaswal's earlier books, Inheritance (2016) and Sugarbread (2016). Her forthcoming third book, Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, will be published by HarperCollins in the UK in March.

He says: "I was thinking, why don't I ride on the coat-tails of that? The timing would be quite good."

Inheritance, about a Punjabi family in Singapore, will be published by Epigram in London in May. The Gatekeeper, the debut novel of Nuraliah Norasid, this year's winner of the Epigram Books Fiction Prize, is also part of the eight to 10 planned titles for the London market.

Mr Wee put in a six-figure sum into the London operations and plans to keep it going for at least two years "before we run out of money".

"If within those two years, we see some success with a few books and some money comes in, then, of course, we will keep going."

Epigram's latest expansion in London is part of his larger goal of producing more quality Singapore novels. He set up the Epigram Books Fiction Prize last year to encourage writers to submit their unpublished manuscripts.

He says: "I think it is critical for countries to have a national novel that people can rally around. You need stories to bind people."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 01, 2016, with the headline 'Inspired by Medusa'. Print Edition | Subscribe