Playwright wins fellowship to go to New York to study 9/11's impact

School of the Arts graduate Nur Sabrina Dzulkifli will receive $6,900 as part of the award.
School of the Arts graduate Nur Sabrina Dzulkifli will receive $6,900 as part of the award.PHOTO: ANDRE CHONG

Playwright Nur Sabrina Dzulkifli is the first recipient of the Singapore Unbound Fellowship, which gives her a visit to the US to work on a writing project

When emerging playwright Nur Sabrina Dzulkifli, 20, learnt that she was the first recipient of the Singapore Unbound Fellowship, she let out a scream.

"My mother rushed into the room and checked if I was okay because she thought I was hurt," the second of four siblings recalls.

As part of the award, she will receive US$5,000 (S$6,900), which will enable her to spend two weeks in New York to work on a writing project.

It would be her first time visiting the Big Apple, hence the exuberant response.

Singapore Unbound was founded by New York-based writer and editor Koh Jee Leong to help Singapore writers engage with an overseas audience, express themselves freely and facilitate their artistic development. It organises the biennial Singapore Literature Festival in New York.

The fellowship, funded by an anonymous private donor, was started to "give Singaporean writers an opportunity to experience the imaginative possibilities of New York City", says Koh.

Nur Sabrina was chosen from 20 applicants by a selection committee made up of activist Constance Singam, co-founder of non-profit arts company The Select Centre Tan Dan Feng and National University of Singapore literature professor Philip Holden.

The award will be presented on July 19 at Artistry cafe in Jalan Pinang. Nur Sabrina will also do a reading of her work.

The School of the Arts graduate is doing an internship at Checkpoint Theatre. Theatre productions she has worked on include Bi(cara), a one-woman show with actress Sharda Harrison for last year's M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, and Under My Skin, a play about post-natal depression with Singapore-based director Alessandra Fel for the same festival this year.

Nur Sabrina, who is planning to start her undergraduate studies in a theatre-related course in Britain later this year, hopes to go to New York in April next year during her spring vacation.

Koh says the panel chose Nur Sabrina "for her strong literary promise".

"Sabrina also stood out for her thoughtful understanding of Singapore and the local theatre scene, and what she could learn from New York," he adds.

In her application, she wrote that being a Malay playwright in Singapore "is a politicised space and identity", which made her realise "the importance of telling stories about identity".

While there, she intends to work on a play about how Islam is viewed today, looking at the impact of the 9/11 terror attacks in New York.

"I have a vague idea of the play I want to write, about radicalisation and how Islam has been painted as this face of terrorism, and how people hold on to their beliefs and ideology,"she says.

She also plans to do hands-on research, including talking to war veterans and visiting the 9/11 Memorial.

Koh says her proposed idea is "brilliant", given how the place and role of Islam is "such a contentious issue right now".

"We need a dramatist to illuminate the human aspects of the questions so that we can go beyond news headlines and easy stereotypes," he adds.

Perhaps the best part of the fellowship is that Nur Sabrina is free to plan her two-week stay.

The only requirement is that she has to participate in one event in New York, such as a reading, panel or school visit.

"The best way to help a writer is to trust her," Koh notes.

Says Nur Sabrina with a laugh: "There's no report that I have to write afterwards. I'm just waiting for the other shoe to drop."

•The Singapore Unbound Fellowship award event is held on July 19, 7 to 9pm, at Artistry cafe at 17 Jalan Pinang. Admission is free. RSVP at

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2017, with the headline 'To New York to study 9/11's impact'. Print Edition | Subscribe