Singaporean Graphic Novel creates history, bags Singapore Literature Prize

14 Jul 16, SLP Award
Sonny Liew receiving his SLP Award

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (Epigram Books) by Singaporean writer Sonny Liew has created history in the annals of Singaporean literature. It has won the Singapore Literature Prize (SLP) in the English fiction category. This is the first time when a graphic novel has won the coveted prize.

In its review, The New York Times described the book as “a coffee-table victory lap” and a purported graphic biography of “Singapore’s greatest comics artist,” punctuated by examples of his work from 1944 (a childhood drawing of Donald Duck) to 2012 (an oil painting of Singapore’s prime minister Lee Kuan Yew). In fact, it is a ‘hugely ambitious, stylistically acrobatic work by the Singapore-based cartoonist Sonny Liew’ and Charlie Chan Hock Chye is Liew’s invention. This fictional life story of the artist becomes a ‘vehicle for both a political history of Singapore’s past seven decades and Liew’s visual homages to comics’ most commercially successful innovations’. The novel had come into the spotlight after the National Arts Council (NAC) withdrew its grant for the book just before it was launched last year. The matter was widely reported, making the book an instant bestseller. NAC had said that the book had breached funding guidelines through its “retelling of Singapore’s history (which) potentially underminds the authority or legitimacy of the Government”.

14 Jul 16, SLP Award
All the award winners of SLP 2016

The SLP winners were announced at the SLP ceremony on July 14 evening.

Kitaab’s poetry editor Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingde jointly won the Poetry prize for I Didn’t Know Mani Was a Conceptualist. The prize was shared with the eminent poet, Cyril Wong.

Kitaab's poetry editor Desmond Kon receiving his prize from Professor Kirpal Singh
Kitaab’s poetry editor Desmond Kon receiving his prize from Professor Kirpal Singh

Published by Math Paper Press, I Didn’t Know Mani Was A Conceptualist investigates the fine line between prose poem and microfiction, as the reader witnesses the soft rise and ebb of lyric against narrative in these fine installments. Suffused with cross-cultural tropes, the four lush suites trek their way through a heady array of extended metaphors, drawn out, meandering, rich in tropic density. The opacity heightens with the dizzy plethora of characters, many having less than an ancillary character function. It’s a veritable menagerie, whether it’s the Yellow Emperor, Liuling, Dada, archivist, curator, pilgrim, cellist, graphologist or the various dakinis.

Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé is the author of an epistolary novel, two hybrid works, and seven poetry collections. He has also edited more than fifteen books and co-produced three audio books. Trained in book publishing at Stanford University, Desmond received his theology masters (world religions) from Harvard University and fine arts masters (creative writing) from the University of Notre Dame.

“The awards night was like a wonderful dream,” Desmond told Kitaab. I was already happy to have my work shortlisted alongside such amazing writers and good friends. My writing can be complex and experimental. So, I’m really humbled and grateful for any recognition at all. Now – as with most writers – it’s back to the drawing board and the grind, back to the difficult work of writing. It’s the deep commitment to the writing that’s really at the heart of all this, and I’m happy to be able to keep at it. Immeasurable gratitude to all the kind people who have been there for me through the years.”

The prize money of S$107,000 was shared between all the winners in various categories across Singapore’s four official languages.