Singapore Literature Prize: Marylyn Tan is first woman to win for English poetry

Marylyn Tan's debut collection, Gaze Back, took on taboos from menstruation to sexuality.
Marylyn Tan's debut collection, Gaze Back, took on taboos from menstruation to sexuality.PHOTOS: ST FILE, ETHOS BOOKS

SINGAPORE - It was an evening of firsts for the Singapore Literature Prize, which on Thursday night (Aug 27) virtually crowned its first female winner for English poetry and also gave out an unprecedented pair of double wins for both Chinese and English fiction.

Marylyn Tan, 27, became the first woman in the biennial prize's 28-year history to triumph for English poetry. Her arcane and unapologetic debut collection, Gaze Back, took on taboos from menstruation to sexuality.

Its title draws on French feminist theorist Helene Cixous' essay The Laugh Of The Medusa (translated into English into 1976), which refers to the Greek myth of the Gorgon whose gaze turns men to stone.

The category's judges, led by former Singapore Writers Festival director Yeow Kai Chai, said in a statement: "Gaze Back is unlike any other poetry title this year - a clarion call for gender and linguistic reclamation, searing in its sassy confidence and universal appetite.

"It reminds us of the responsibility of poetry to confront and contest the power of language to determine who we are and what we desire."

The ceremony for Singapore's oldest ongoing literary award in all four official languages was streamed on organiser Singapore Book Council's Facebook and YouTube pages.

Ms Tan said in a thank-you speech over video call that she was “gobsmacked and honoured”.

“Thank you to my fellow artists, writers and everyone who has ever enabled my brand of filthy, pleasurable and purposefully upsetting chaos,” she added. “Especially my parents, who are worried all the time.”

She told The Straits Times: “I wrote Gaze Back to emancipate our bodies and minds from being policed, and hope that continues to inform the discourse.”

Two Epigram Books titles shared the prize for English fiction: Straits Times journalist Akshita Nanda's debut novel Nimita's Place, about two women named Nimita navigating society's expectations in India and Singapore; and speculative short story collection Lion City by Ng Yi-Sheng, who previously won for English poetry.

“I’m really, really surprised to be winning this,” said Ng, 40. “I thought (the books) in this year’s category were incredibly powerful.”

 
 
 

Nanda, 41, recalled how her publisher Edmund Wee had suggested to her 10 years ago that the next great Singapore novel might be written from an outsider’s perspective, thus giving her the idea for Nimita’s Place.

“Thank you to the multitudes who have made space for Nimita’s Place and my narratives,” she said.

The Chinese fiction prize was split between Chia Joo Ming's SG50-centric novel Kian Kok and Wong Koi Tet's short story collection Black Panther.

Wong, 47, also scored a win in Chinese creative non-fiction with Dakota, about the lost housing estate Dakota Crescent, where he grew up.

He said in Mandarin: “There have been people who criticised my work as lacking historical significance and not telling a good story. These wins are the best responseI can give to those criticisms.”

Co-winners will not have to share the cash prize, reduced from the usual $10,000 to $3,000 each due to the Covid-19 economic slowdown. Each winner will get $3,000, as well as a trophy and a 12-month gift subscription to audiobook platform StoryTel.

Artist Shubigi Rao was second time successful in the English creative non-fiction category, winning for Pulp II: A Visual Bibliography Of The Banished Book, the second volume of her decade-long project on book destruction. The first, Pulp I: A Short Biography Of The Banished Book, was shortlisted for the 2018 prize but did not win.

 
 

“I am just overwhelmed,” said Ms Rao, 44. “This book is one of five I’m writing over 10 years. It’s an exploration, as an amateur and non-historian, of the history of book destruction and the radical power of books.

“This book is dedicated to all the readers, and anyone who buys and writes and sells books. This is about the best of our humanity.”

Sithuraj Ponraj, another previous prize-winner, bagged the Tamil poetry prize with his collection It Is Easy To Be An Italian and also tied for the merit prize in Tamil fiction.

There were no winners for Malay and Tamil fiction, but there were double merit prizes for those categories, with each merit winner getting $2,000.

Almost 3,000 members of the public voted in the inaugural Readers' Favourite category, which had four winners including veteran Malay-language writer Peter Augustine Goh.

Each will receive $1,000 in cash, while their voters stand a chance to win book vouchers worth $50.

The Singapore Literature Prize began in 1992. This year, it attracted 224 submissions, a 30 per cent increase from 2018.

Each prize category is judged by a separate panel of three writers and industry experts.

 
 

Chief judges include Esplanade communications and content head Clarissa Oon for English creative non-fiction, Cultural Medallion recipient KTM Iqbal for Tamil poetry and Dr Sa'eda Buang of the Asian Languages and Cultures Academic Group for Malay fiction.

The award is open to any work in the three genres by a Singaporean citizen or permanent resident in the four languages, which must be published in Singapore or abroad in a physical book format between Jan 1, 2018, and Dec 31 last year.

TOP PRIZE WINNERS

Chinese creative non-fiction: Wong Koi Tet, Dakota

Chinese fiction: Chia Joo Ming, Kian Kok; Wong Koi Tet, Black Panther

Chinese poetry: Gabriel Wu, Love Comes Into Shape

English creative non-fiction: Shubigi Rao, Pulp II: A Visual Bibliography Of The Banished Book

English fiction: Akshita Nanda, Nimita's Place; Ng Yi-Sheng, Lion City

English poetry: Marylyn Tan, Gaze Back

Malay creative non-fiction: Mohamed Pitchay Gani Mohamed Abdul Aziz, The Philosophy Of Singapore Malay Creative Writing Process

Malay poetry: Samsudin Said, Dream Shoes

Tamil creative non-fiction: V. Hemalatha, Banana Money

Tamil poetry: Sithuraj Ponraj, It Is Easy To Be An Italian

MERIT PRIZES

Malay fiction: Jamal Bin Ismail, Tunjuk Langit; Noor Aisya Buang, Labyrinth Of Al Maut

Tamil fiction: Sithuraj Ponraj, The Wooden Elephant; Yousuf Rowther Rajid, The Carriage Will Also Board The Barge One Day

READERS' FAVOURITE

Chinese: Lee Leng Kiong, Lee Leng Kiong's Photography Poetry Book

English: Ashwini Devare, Lost At 15, Found At 50

Malay: Peter Augustine Goh, The Colour Of Secret

Tamil: Yousuf Rowther Rajid, The Carriage Will Also Board The Barge One Day