Singapore Literature Prize to go on but with prize cuts

Cultural Medallion recipient Edwin Thumboo's (left) A Gathering Of Themes is on the poetry shortlist this year. Half the shortlist for the Singapore Literature Prize's English fiction category are novels published overseas, such as Delayed Rays Of A
Half the shortlist for the Singapore Literature Prize's English fiction category are novels published overseas, such as Delayed Rays Of A Star by Amanda Lee Koe (above).PHOTO: ST FILE
Cultural Medallion recipient Edwin Thumboo's (left) A Gathering Of Themes is on the poetry shortlist this year. Half the shortlist for the Singapore Literature Prize's English fiction category are novels published overseas, such as Delayed Rays Of A
Cultural Medallion recipient Edwin Thumboo's (above) A Gathering Of Themes is on the poetry shortlist this year. PHOTO: ST FILE

12 top prizes to be cut from $10,000 to $3,000 each to reflect the tough economic climate

The Singapore Literature Prize (SLP) will go ahead this year despite the Covid-19 pandemic, but with its 12 top prizes cut from $10,000 to $3,000 each.

The biennial award's organiser, the Singapore Book Council, said this was because of the tough economic climate, which has caused funding to fall.

The council's executive director William Phuan said reducing the prizes was a difficult decision to make, but that the alternative would have been to cancel the event altogether.

"We felt it was still important to continue to celebrate the writers and their achievements," he said after the release of the 47-strong shortlist across 12 categories - fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry in Chinese, English, Malay and Tamil - on Wednesday.

"We would like to appeal to the community to keep supporting Singlit in any way they are able to," he added.

"In these challenging times, all are affected, but books are essential."

The council's programmes are supported by a major company grant from the National Arts Council and the prize itself receives funds from various foundations and private and corporate donors.

Singapore's oldest ongoing literary prize in all four official languages will go virtual for the first time on Aug 27 at 8pm, live-streamed from the council's Facebook and YouTube pages.

The public may vote online for their favourite titles in the inaugural Readers' Favourite category, with the winning writers receiving $1,000 in cash.

Voters stand a chance to win book vouchers.

In a reflection of the rise in Singaporean novelists making their presence felt abroad, half the nominations for English fiction are novels published overseas, including former SLP winner Amanda Lee Koe's Delayed Rays Of A Star and Jing-Jing Lee's How We Disappeared.

They face off against locally published works such as Lion City by Ng Yi-Sheng, who previously won for English poetry, and Epigram Books Fiction Prize runner-up Nimita's Place by Akshita Nanda.

  • Singapore Literature Prize shortlist (English) 

  • POETRY

    • A Gathering Of Themes by Edwin Thumboo

    • An Epic Of Durable Departures by Jason Wee

    • Gaze Back by Marylyn Tan

    • parsetreeforestfire by Hamid Roslan 

    • Right Of The Soil by Yong Shu Hoong

  • CREATIVE NON-FICTION

    • Lost At 15, Found At 50 by Ashwini Devare 

    • Hard At Work: Life In Singapore by Ng Shi Wen 

    • Pulp II: A Visual Bibliography Of The Banished Book by Shubigi Rao

    • This Is What Inequality Looks Like by Teo You Yenn

  • FICTION 

    • Bury What We Cannot Take by Kirstin Chen 

    • Delayed Rays Of A Star by Amanda Lee Koe

    • How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

    • Lion City by Ng Yi-Sheng 

    • Modern Myths by Clara Chow 

    • Nimita's Place by Akshita Nanda

Local publishers Ethos Books and Unggun Creative tied for the highest number of titles shortlisted, with five nominations each.

Ethos has This Is What Inequality Looks Like, sociologist Teo You Yenn's best-selling non-fiction book about poverty, in the running for English creative non-fiction.

It also dominates the English poetry category with four out of five titles.

Cultural Medallion recipient Edwin Thumboo's A Gathering Of Themes and two-time SLP winner Yong Shu Hoong's Right Of The Soil are up against edgy debuts Gaze Back by Marylyn Tan and parsetreeforestfire by Hamid Roslan.

Tan, 27, said: "As the only queer woman on the (English poetry) shortlist, I'm utterly pummelled with vindication with this show of establishment recognition."

Unggun Creative co-founder Farihan Bahron said the young publishing outfit, which began in 2016, was "honoured and humbled" to score so many nominations.

Five authors were shortlisted twice this year, including two of Unggun's Malay-language writers, Suratman Markasan and Jamal Ismail, Tamil-language writers A. K. Varadharajan and Sithuraj Ponraj and Chinese-language writer Wong Koi Tet.

Jamal, 68, has a double nomination in the Malay fiction category for his magical realist collection GOD(A) and Tunjuk Langit, a novel about the senior citizens of a soon-to-be-demolished welfare home.

He said he was a bit disappointed by the cuts to the prize, but suggested that the winners be compensated in another form: translation of their works. "Then everyone can appreciate the kind of work we have in Singapore."

Wong, 47, began writing the prose pieces of dakota, about Dakota Crescent where he grew up in the 1970s, in 2000, while the earliest story in his fiction collection Black Panther dates back to 2003.

Sithuraj, who won for Tamil fiction in 2016, said he was thrilled to get nods for both his 80-poem collection It Is Easy To Be An Italian and novel The Wooden Elephant.

"Frankly, very few Singapore writers I know write for the money," he said. "I think the prize means something by itself."

The 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.

• For more information on the prize, go to bookcouncil.sg/singapore-literature-prize

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 24, 2020, with the headline 'Singapore Literature Prize to go on but with prize cuts'. Print Edition | Subscribe