Local fiction book prize goes to novel about women swimming in a condo, judges include Michelle Yeoh

The winning Campbell Gardens Ladies’ Swimming Class is the debut work of dentist Vrushali Junnarkar, an Indian national currently living in Singapore. PHOTO: EPIGRAM.SG

SINGAPORE - A panel of five judges, including Everything Everywhere All At Once star Michelle Yeoh, on Thursday night chose a novel about a group of Indian women learning to swim at a Singapore condominium as the winner of an annual literary award for local fiction.

Titled The Campbell Gardens Ladies’ Swimming Class, the as yet unpublished manuscript was selected as the winner of the Epigram Books Fiction Prize 2023.

It is the debut work of dentist Vrushali Junnarkar, an Indian national currently living in Singapore.

Her work beat 56 other submissions from Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines, earning the nod from the judges, who included Epigram Books chief executive Edmund Wee, NUS Press director Peter Schoppert, Yale-NUS College humanities lecturer Carissa Foo and author Meira Chand.

“I was a little sceptical. Such a modest conceit to support an entire novel. But the verdict was yes, yes indeed! Once you took the plunge... I’m sorry about the water puns,” said Mr Schoppert to laughter at the award ceremony, held at Conrad Centennial Singapore.

He quoted the verdict of a judge, whom he did not name: “It isn’t just water but the subduing of desire. The taming of passions, survival in overwhelming spaces. It becomes a whole world with its power relations and its judgmental watchers from the windows, real and imagined.”

He added: “The anxieties faced by these immigrant women, residents and their domestic workers (are) very much part of the story, balancing cultures and identities that are conveyed with humour and with a gently satirical stance.”

The panel of judges selected the winner from four finalists, whittled down from the larger pool by a group of readers.

“The verdict was not unanimous but neither was it highly contentious. We all valued the achievements of the novels a great deal. We saw the strengths and weaknesses from different vantage points. That’s the great thing about literature,” Mr Schoppert said.

Dr Vrushali was not in Singapore to receive the award. Her manuscript will be published in the second half of 2023 by Epigram Books.

The works of the three other finalists will also be published. They are: Meihan Boey’s sequel to her successful The Formidable Miss Cassidy (2021), The Enigmatic Madam Ingram, the rights to which have already been bought by British independent publisher Pushkin Press; Ally Chua’s mysterious tale of an oil palm family dynasty, The Disappearance Of Patrick Zhou; and John Gresham’s iteration of Planet Of The Apes in Singapore, Gus: The Life & Opinions Of The Last Raffles’ Banded Langur.

The latter two will also be published by Epigram Books.

Yeoh was not in Singapore to attend the ceremony, to some regret from the attendees, who included authors and sponsors. She is currently making her rounds on the media circuit after her Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

The Epigram Books Fiction Prize is in its eighth edition and has seen over 50 manuscripts go to print since its inception in 2015. Winners including Jeremy Tiang and Balli Kaur Jaswal have gone on to be picked up by international publishers.

Meanwhile, during his welcome speech on Thursday, Mr Wee made the surprise announcement that the Epigram Books Fiction Prize will be suspended, at least for 2024.

He said he wanted to direct his resources and attention to an “equally critical part of Singapore literature” – children’s books.

As president of the Singapore Book Publishers Association, he will be working with the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts to organise the first Singapore Children’s Book Festival, tentatively set for June 2024.

He said this stemmed from the success that local children’s books have had. For instance, The Diary Of Amos Lee by Adeline Foo has sold over 200,000 copies worldwide. Typical novels in Singapore have runs of about 800, though the more popular ones might hit a few thousand.

The Sherlock Sam series, written by A.J. Low, has also had a successful run for a decade. It has been translated into six languages and will have a musical based on it to be staged by the Dim Sum Dollies in 2023.

“But really, these are the exceptions,” Mr Wee said. “Many titles struggle to break through into children’s and parents’ and teachers’ awareness... It is time to correct this.”

While details have yet to be worked out, Mr Wee said it is likely to be similar to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair – the largest in the world – with awards and booths set up for illustrators and authors, and an exhibition space for festival-goers to browse and purchase local works.

Epigram Books is one of five Asian publishers nominated to join the Bologna Children’s Book Fair in 2023 – its third nomination, after 2016 and 2017.

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