Malaysian writer Joshua Kam wins fifth Epigram Books Fiction Prize

Winner of Epigram Books Fiction Prize Joshua Kam at the Conrad Centennial Hotel on Jan 16, 2020.
Winner of Epigram Books Fiction Prize Joshua Kam at the Conrad Centennial Hotel on Jan 16, 2020.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - Malaysian writer Joshua Kam, 23, is the youngest winner of the Epigram Books Fiction Prize, which opened submissions to Asean writers for the first time.

The $25,000 prize, which was given out on Thursday (Jan 16) during a gala dinner at the Conrad Centennial Singapore hotel, was previously restricted to Singapore citizens and permanent residents.

Epigram Books founder Edmund Wee said in 2018 that he wanted to extend the prize to writers from other Asean countries as a way to reach out to more people.

The 2018 winner, Yeoh Jo-Ann, was born in Malaysia but is a Singapore permanent resident.

The award, often referred to as Singapore's richest literary prize, is an advance on royalties from book sales.

Kam won for his manuscript How The Man In Green Saved Pahang, And Possibly The World, in which two characters, Gabriel and Lydia, go on a cross-country race against time in an attempt to prevent the end of the world, meeting historical and mythical figures from folklore along the way.

To be published in the second half of 2020, it will be his debut novel.

Kam grew up in Montana in the United States, where his parents studied economics, and later returned to Kuala Lumpur, where he lived for 15 years. He is now pursuing a master's degree in South-east Asian studies at the University of Michigan.

"Part of me is just thankful to be a vessel of the stories, peoples and ancestries I write about," he said. "Receiving a platform through Epigram - for those many ancestries and their tales - is a joy and honour."

The winner was chosen by a panel of judges comprising Mr Wee, author Balli Kaur Jaswal, film-maker Tan Pin Pin, Mekong Review literary quarterly chief Minh Bui Jones and Prof Rajeev S. Patke, director of the Division of Humanities at Yale-NUS College.

Prof Patke called Kam's manuscript "the most exuberant of the four novels".

He added: "It is filled with energy, cheerfulness and a linguistic panache that is a bit rough, but altogether charming."

Kam beat three other finalists, Singaporean Erni Salleh, 31, who manages the National Library Board's Mobile Library Services; California-based Thai writer Sunisa Manning, 34; and Universiti Brunei Darussalam assistant professor Kathrina Mohd Daud, 35.

Each received $5,000 and will also have their manuscripts published by Epigram in the second half of 2020.

The 2020 prize received 62 submissions from eight countries.