Jeremy Tiang wins Singapore Literature Prize in English fiction category for novel on leftist movements

Jeremy Tiang's State Of Emergency (2017) concerns itself with the leftist movements and political detentions in Singapore and Malaysia from the 1940s to the present day.
Jeremy Tiang's State Of Emergency (2017) concerns itself with the leftist movements and political detentions in Singapore and Malaysia from the 1940s to the present day.PHOTOS: OLIVER ROCKWELL, EPIGRAM BOOKS

SINGAPORE - Full-time writer and translator Jeremy Tiang has won the Singapore Literature Prize in the English fiction category for his debut novel, a book about leftist movements and political detentions in Singapore and Malaysia.

Tiang’s novel State of Emergency emerged the winner out of a shortlist that also included The Gatekeeper by Nuraliah Norasid, 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.

Tiang’s book, which is told from multiple perspectives, unfolds against a backdrop of moments in Singapore’s history, from the Hock Lee bus riots of 1955 to the long-drawn guerilla war of the Malayan Emergency between 1948 and 1960.

The awards for what is the oldest multilingual literary prize in Singapore were announced at a ceremony on Monday (Aug 6)  by the Singapore Book Council. 

The council’s executive director William Phuan said Tiang’s win was a “unanimous decision” by the judges, citing the quality of the prose and its “historical perspective... weaving together different characters, times and places into a strong and coherent story”.

Books Kinokuniya (Pacific Asia Region)’s senior store and merchandising director Kenny Chan, who was the chief judge for the English Fiction category, described Tiang’s book as “epic in scope yet so intimate in its depiction of the characters... it’s like history told in microcosm and macrocosm. He is a brilliant writer.”

The book, which took Tiang seven years to write, had made headlines last year after part of a grant given to him to write it was withdrawn. 

Tiang, who is based in New York, had previously been awarded a $12,000 National Arts Council grant for the book, but when he sent the council the first draft – he had received $8,600 by then – the remaining sum was withdrawn. 

 
 
 

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu last August (2017) said that Tiang’s project “did not meet the funding requirements mutually agreed upon as the content in the book deviated from the original proposal”. 

The 41-year-old went on to receive a cash prize of $5,000 for his manuscript when it was shortlisted for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2016.

Speaking to The Straits Times over the phone, Tiang said: “I wrote the novel because I felt there were narratives that had been left out of the Singapore story. 

“I hope this novel draws attention to them... and, in a small way, helps us as a country to broaden our understanding of what it means to be Singaporean.”

This is the second consecutive English fiction top prize that has gone to a book that has had funding pulled. In 2016, the Singapore Literature Prize for English fiction went to the graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew.

First-time nominee Farihan Bahron, 39, won the top prize for poetry in Malay category for Finger-Pointing Expert, as well as a commendation award for his speculative short story collection Avatar’s Wrath.

Farihan said: "I’m elated...For every writer, our dream isn’t to win awards but to have our works read. But the award is a recognition that our works are being read."

Fifty writers were shortlisted across 12 categories – fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry in Chinese, English, Malay and Tamil. Each top winner received a cash prize of $10,000 and a plaque.

This year’s 36 judges, who include academics and writers, range from former Straits Times senior writer Cheong Suk-Wai for English non-fiction to poet and author KTM Iqbal for Tamil poetry to Oxford professor of poetry Simon Armitage from Britain.

The other top winners of the Singapore Literature Prize are:

- Fiction in Chinese: Lee Chuan Low, Rescue Frontline; Zhang Hui, Smoker Memories 
- Fiction in English: Jeremy Tiang, State of Emergency
- Fiction in Malay: No top winner. (Commendation for Adam Bin Fadila, Muezzin In Search Of Light; and Farihan Bahron, Avatar’s Wrath. Merit for Hamed Bin Ismail’s A Dancing Club: Bunga Tanjong)
- Fiction in Tamil: No top winner. (Merit for Chitra Ramesh’s A Drop Of Happiness and M. K. Kumar’s 5.12pm)
- Poetry in Chinese: Tan Chee Lay, Landmark Poetics of the Lion City
- Poetry in English: Samuel Lee, A Field Guide To Supermarkets in Singapore
- Poetry in Malay: Farihan Bahron, Finger-Pointing Expert
- Poetry in Tamil: No top winner. (Commendation for A.K. Varadharajan’s Lee Kuan Yew Imaginary Childhood and M. Segar’s Ravana’s Seethai)
- Creative non-fiction in Chinese: Liu Su, Roses At The Edge; Weng Xian-Wei, The Second Face
- Creative non-fiction in English: Melissa De Silva, “Others” Is Not A Race
- Creative non-fiction in Malay: No top winner. (Commendation for Ahmad Bin Md Tahir’s Colour of Expression)
- Creative non-fiction in Tamil: Bala Baskaran, G Sarangapany And The Tamil Murasu: A Current Appraisal