Twist in Chinese myth helps author nab prize

Dragonhearted (above), the debut novel of Xie Shi Min (left, with the Hedwig Anuar Children's Book Award), tells of a Singaporean-Chinese girl defeating a terrible, ancient monster.
Dragonhearted (right), the debut novel of Xie Shi Min (left, with the Hedwig Anuar Children's Book Award), tells of a Singaporean-Chinese girl defeating a terrible, ancient monster.PHOTO: SYAZA NISRINA

In the myth behind Chinese New Year, a terrible monster called the Nian ravages the land and has to be warded off by loud noises and the colour red.

In the original myth, it is an old man who defeats the monster.

But writer Xie Shi Min wanted a version in which it was a young girl who did the saving.

Earlier this month, her debut novel Dragonhearted (2016) won the fourth Hedwig Anuar Children's Book Award, a national prize for children's literature named for the first Singaporean director of the National Library of Singapore.

Xie, 28, who studied English literature at Nanyang Technological University, has a passion for Chinese mythology.

Growing up, she found that the heroines in books she identified with were invariably white, like British girl genius Matilda in Roald Dahl's book of the same name.

She wanted to counter that with Xin Long, the 10-year-old Singaporean-Chinese protagonist of Dragonhearted, who finds class boring, but loves wushu and listening to her grandmother's tales.

One day, she draws a small blue dragon as the answer to a composition and he comes to life. She and the dragon, Xiao Lan, become fast friends, although most people cannot see him.

Through him, she gets caught up in the tribulations of the heavenly world and ends up having to fight the Nian.

Besides defeating an ancient monster, Xin Long and her friends Shu Ping and Four Eyes also have to deal with everyday school problems, such as tuition, strict teachers and bullying.

The last is something Xie believes many young readers will identify with.

She herself was bullied in her student days and recalls how, in secondary school, she was told to her face that she was "the ugliest girl in school".

"I was upset, of course," she says. "But then I started thinking, perhaps I shouldn't be hinging my self-worth on my looks."

As a child, her favourite assignment was composition, although her parents, an engineer and housewife, found her love of writing a "rather strange habit", one that would not make her much money.

It took her five years to write the book, which she did mostly late at night after her day job as a magazine writer.

She now teaches at an enrichment centre, where her students sometimes come up to her shyly with copies of her book and ask her to sign them.

Her manuscript was shortlisted for the Scholastic Asian Book Award in 2014. Even so, she did not expect to win the Hedwig Anuar prize and, in fact, recalls little of the moment of her win, having been in a daze.

"According to my friend, I just started laughing."

The $10,000 prize, which is for Singaporeans or permanent residents, received 65 eligible submissions this year.

Begun in 2011, it is biennial, but was held back for a year this time round so that it would coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Singapore Book Council, which organises it.

This year's chief judge David Seow, who has published 43 children's books, says Dragonhearted was the unanimous winner.

"Shi Min's command of the language, cleverly crafted plot and universal themes demonstrate the clear power the written word has to engage, entertain and change not only the world of the characters, but also that of her readers."

Xie, who is single, is working on a sequel to Dragonhearted, which will weave in more Chinese myths.

She hopes her book will inspire more young Singaporeans to write themselves into the stories they want to read.

When her students write compositions, she says, they often use foreign names instead of their own.

When she saw a Malay student name her main character "Sally Whitmore" in a composition, she cancelled it out and wrote the girl's name instead.

"We don't realise how important our cultural perspective is," she says. "We don't need to hide behind white names. You can write yourself into your stories."

• Dragonhearted ($8.51) is available from Books Kinokuniya and localbooks.sg.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 18, 2018, with the headline 'Twist in Chinese myth helps author nab prize'. Print Edition | Subscribe