O Thiam Chin wins inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize

Author O Thiam Chin won the inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize for his novel The Infinite Sea.
Author O Thiam Chin won the inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize for his novel The Infinite Sea. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - His short stories have won him awards, and just last year landed him on the shortlist for the Singapore Literature Prize for English fiction.

This year, his first novel, a four-year labour of love, has bagged O Thiam Chin the inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize, Singapore's richest literary award.

The prize, announced this March, is for unpublished novels in English written by Singapore citizens, permanent residents and Singapore-born writers, wherever they are residing.

O will receive a $20,000 cash advance against future royalties - the biggest known advance promised to an English-language fiction writer in the Singapore publishing industry - and his book will be published by Epigram Books.

In O's winning novel The Infinite Sea, a tsunami batters a coastal town in Thailand, leaving devastation - both physical and emotional - in its wake, as it tears two holidaying couples, their relationships already showing signs of fraying, from their partners.

O, who started the book in 2010 and completed it in 2014, beat out three other experienced writers on the shortlist for the prize: award-winning author Balli Kaur Jaswal, playwright Wong Souk Yee - who stood in the recent general election, and was just on Saturday elected chairman of the Singapore Democratic Party - and author Sebastian Sim, who has published three Chinese sword-fighting novels under the pen name Yueguan Ming.

"Writing is hard... You hear it all the time from writers of all kinds When I started this novel in 2010, I had no idea how it turned out. It was like a mission to Mars," recounted O, 38, of his glacial progress with the book.

"After four years, all the words are on the page. You never want to see it again. You want to break up with the novel... But at the same time of course you love it."

On his win, he said: "It makes what I do, to write, seem worthwhile."

He has five collections of short stories to his name and in 2012, won the Young Artist Award given out by the National Arts Council. Last year, his short story collection 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.

Between March 10 and Aug 31, Epigram Books received 69 entries sent in by 68 authors - one of whom submitted two manuscripts. These were eventually whittled down to four for the shortlist.

The winner was chosen by a blind reading conducted by a panel of four judges: Professor Philip Holden from the National University of Singapore's department of English language and literature, actress Janice Koh, best-selling author Adrian Tan, and Epigram Books founder Edmund Wee.

"It really shows that, whatever people say, writing is not dead. People want to write - and they can write novels too, not just short stories. We expected maximum 20 novels. We got more than triple that," Mr Wee recounts animatedly.

He plans to make the prize a yearly affair and has his eye on eventually raising the award to up to $50,000.

Epigram Books, he adds, plans to publish the three other books on the shortlist too.

Ms Koh said of the winning book: "It was set at a moment of crisis that enabled his characters to look within themselves in a way I found very honest and authentic. He used that crisis as a very clever platform to show the two strained relationships - a heterosexual marriage on the rocks and a homosexual couple falling apart. And his writing was so beautiful."

Wong's Expelled, what the author calls "a reimagining of the darker episodes of Singapore's nation-building history", is built around the death of a disgraced permanent secretary at the Ministry of Housing, under investigation for high-level corruption.

His overdose sends his wife and four children on a mission to unravel the mystery behind the man, weaving in his family's journey of discovery with Singapore's tale of merger and independence.

Meanwhile, Jaswal's Sugarbread takes on food - so integral to the Singaporean identity - as Punjabi-Sikh Pin, just 10, tries to find out more about her mother's past by observing her cooking.

Sim's Let's Give It Up For Gimme Lao! captures a slice of Singapore life and traces social, economic and political issues through the eponymous protagonist Gimme Lao.