Full-time writer and translator Jeremy Tiang has won the Singapore Literature Prize in the English fiction category for his debut novel, a book about leftist movements and political detentions in Singapore and Malaysia.
Tiang's novel State Of Emergency was the winner from a shortlist that also included The Gatekeeper by Nuraliah Norasid, Sugarbread by Balli Kaur Jaswal, Death Of A Perm Sec by Wong Souk Yee and Jennani Durai's short story collection, Regrettable Things That Happened Yesterday.
Tiang's book, which is told from multiple perspectives, unfolds against a backdrop of events in Singapore's history, from the Hock Lee bus riots of 1955 to the long-drawn guerilla war of the Malayan Emergency between 1948 and 1960.
The awards for what is the oldest ongoing multilingual literary prize in Singapore were announced at a ceremony yesterday by the Singapore Book Council.
The council's executive director William Phuan said Tiang's win was a "unanimous decision" by the judges, citing the quality of the prose and its "historical perspective... weaving together different characters, times and places into a strong and coherent story".
Books Kinokuniya (Pacific Asia Region) senior store and merchandising director Kenny Chan, who was the chief judge for the English fiction category, described Tiang's book as "epic in scope yet so intimate in its depiction of the characters".
He added: "It's like history told in microcosm and macrocosm. He is a brilliant writer."
The book, which took Tiang seven years to write, had made headlines last year after part of a grant given to him to write it was withdrawn.
Tiang, who is based in New York, had previously been awarded a $12,000 National Arts Council grant for the book, but when he sent the council the first draft - he had received $8,600 by then - the remaining sum was withdrawn.
Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu last August said that Tiang's project "did not meet the funding requirements mutually agreed upon as the content in the book deviated from the original proposal".
Fiction in Chinese: Lee Chuan Low, Rescue Frontline; Zhang Hui, Smoker Memories
Fiction in English: Jeremy Tiang, State Of Emergency
Poetry in Chinese: Tan Chee Lay, Landmark Poetics Of The Lion City
Poetry in English: Samuel Lee, A Field Guide To Supermarkets In Singapore
Poetry in Malay: Farihan Bahron (left), Finger-Pointing Expert
Creative non-fiction in Chinese: Liu Su, Roses At The Edge; Weng Xian-Wei, The Second Face
Creative non-fiction in English: Melissa De Silva, "Others" Is Not A Race
Creative non-fiction in Tamil: Bala Baskaran, G. Sarangapany And The Tamil Murasu: A Current Appraisal
Speaking to The Straits Times over the phone, Tiang, 41, said: "I wrote the novel because I felt there were narratives that had been left out of the Singapore story.
"I hope this novel draws attention to them... and, in a small way, helps us as a country to broaden our understanding of what it means to be Singaporean."
First-time nominee Farihan Bahron won the top prize in the poetry in Malay category for Finger-Pointing Expert, as well as a commendation award for his speculative short story collection Avatar's Wrath.
Farihan, 39, said: "I'm elated... For every writer, our dream isn't to win awards but to have our works read.
"But the award is a recognition that our works are being read."
Fifty writers were shortlisted across 12 categories - fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry in Chinese, English, Malay and Tamil.
Each top winner received a cash prize of $10,000 and a plaque.
This year's 36 judges, who include academics and writers, range from former Straits Times senior writer Cheong Suk-Wai for English creative non-fiction, to poet and author KTM Iqbal for Tamil poetry, to Oxford professor of poetry Simon Armitage for English poetry.