The year 2020 is here and if you are reading this message, we thank you for being with us and wish you a very Happy New Year!

This year has a special significance for Kitaab: we celebrate our 15th anniversary. That’s a relatively long time in the life of a webzine in this day and age of short attention spans, isn’t it?

Well, we are not patting ourselves on the back but please allow us to take us down the memory lane for a while to appreciate why we feel how we feel at this juncture of time.

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By Gargi Vachaknavi

The Singapore Writers’ Festival stretched to ten busy days with events glittering on the literature of Asian diaspora. The opening was by a Booker winner from Jamaica,  Marlon JamesPico Iyer was another major highlight as were local Singapore legends like Edwin ThumbooIsa KamariSuchen Christine Lim and Meira Chand .

IMG_0692One of the attendees caught the excitement of the event. Upcoming writer Elaine Chiew, who just released her debut collection of short stories called The Heartsick Diaspora with Penguin, had a lot to say: “I caught Marlon James’ Festival Prologue and Roxanne Gay’s Lecture: ‘Understanding Identity Through Pop Culture’, and lots of programming in between, including catching the exhibition on Eurasian Singaporean writer Rex Shelley (which I loved, especially Brian Gothong Tan’s stunning multi-media display), ‘Literature and Pioneer Women’, ‘First Dates and So Many Feelings’, ‘What Being Brown In The World Means’, ‘Language and the Body’, ‘Writing in Dialect’, and ‘What’s the Most Versatile Singlish Word’.” Elaine Chiew has been attending the festival since 2016. This year she attended as an author and a panelist.

IMG_0480Aysha Baqir, writer and social activists explained: “This is my first time as a featured author in Singapore Writers Festival. My novel, Beyond the Fields, a fiction about a young village girl (in Pakistan) on a quest for justice, was published earlier this year by Marshall Cavendish. I have attended the last two Festivals and like the previous years I am delighted to listen to and meet the wide diversity of authors and panelists.  This year I am particularly enjoying the relevance of the sessions to current life events and issues — migration, special needs, mental health, and diversity.”

Kitaab also launched three books during this festival: a translation of Isa Kamari’s Kiswah, Shilpa Dikshit Thapliyal’s Masala Chai, a collection of poems and the Best Asian Short Stories (2019).

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Isa Kamari and Zafar Anjum launching Kiswah

Kiswah kicked off the start of the Kitaab launches with Isa Kamari explaining how he conceived the novel as a reaction to the needs of the times. Kamari said in answer to moderator Mitali Chakravarty’s query that he was getting the translations done to be read more widely. Earlier he had been translated even to Urdu by Kitaab. Zafar Anjum, the founder of Kitaab, explained: “Isa’s Intercession was translated into Urdu — the first work of Singaporean and Malay fiction to be translated into Urdu. The plan is also to get it translated into Hindi and we are working on it.”

Thapliyal’s Masala Chai came next. Thapliyal was accompanied by Singapore writer Robert Yeo on stage. Yeo had mentored her collection. Moderated by Dr Pallavi Narayan, the poetry launch was vibrant and interesting.

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Singapore writer Robert Yeo, poet Shilpa Dikshit Thapliyal and moderator Dr Pallavi Narayan

kitaab-living-now-desmond-kon-pink-tee-striped-03The accolades keep stacking up for Singaporean poet and Kitaab’s Poetry Editor, Desmond Kon. With this win, Desmond has become the first writer in the world to have won three awards under the categories of Metaphysical, Inspirational Fiction, and Death & Dying at the US-based Living Now Book Awards.

This year, the anthology Ars Moriendi (Lien Foundation/Squircle Line Press), which Desmond edited, clinched the gold, beating Denna D. Babul and Karin Luise’s The Fatherless Daughter Project: Understanding Our Losses and Reclaiming Our Lives (Penguin Random House-Avery) and Karen M. Wyatt’s What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying (Sunroom Studios).

Last year, his novel Singular Acts of Endearment (Grey Sparrow Press/Squircle Line Press) garnered the Silver award, while the hybrid work Babel Via Negativa (Ethos Books/Squircle Line Press) walked away with the Bronze.

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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”.

By Mandy Pannett

Babel Via Negativa Front Cover Desmond KonThis is a book about language – or rather a slantwise glance at its rich complexity, its failure and futility as a means of expression, the babble and babel of it all.

The first section of Babel Via Negativa has the intriguing title “Tweet Goes the Poplar Tree” and revels in juxtaposition and contradiction via single sentence poems. These defy explanation. Their appeal is emotive and associative, for the imagination alone. Among my favourite examples are the following:

A canzone flying, face half-lit.

Firebirds past sea levels.

Spinning.

A turn, hopscotch into the unknown meadows.

 

Open the bay window.

Like quiet light, Dedalus in a holy hour.

They doused the salted field with iodine and dreams.

Here. Between experience and utterance.

Kitaab USA REBA Desmond Kon Author PixIt’s unprecedented. Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé has walked away with the gold in four out of the five formal regional categories at this year’s USA Regional Excellence Book Awards.

The winning titles include: Phat Planet Cometh (Glass Lyre Press), The Wrong/Wrung Side of Love (Glass Lyre Press), Singular Acts of Endearment (Grey Sparrow Press), Babel Via Negativa (Ethos Books), I Didn’t Know Mani Was A Conceptualist (Math Paper Press), Sanctus Sanctus Dirgha Sanctus (Red Wheelbarrow Books), and Eye/Feel/Write: Experiments in Ekphrasis (Squircle Line Press). In fact, had the anthology Ars Moriendi won under the category of Anthology (Southeast Region) instead of its placing as a finalist – Clay Stafford’s Killer Nashville Noir: Cold-Blooded bagged first place – Desmond would have placed wins in all five territories.

In total, this veritable coup for the author looks at a sweep of seven wins under Adult Fiction, Anthology, Poetry, and Spirituality in four territories (Northeast, West, Midwest, Southwest) at the Awards.

By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé

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Emily Lim, at Singapore Writer’s Festival 2013 with Poetry Editor Desmond Kon & her munchkin (not the Poetry Editor)

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

I struggled with a rare voice disorder for over 10 years. In 2007, when I wrote my debut children’s book Prince Bear & Pauper Bear, I found my voice, both literally and literary-ly. I write because I believe it is what I am meant to do in this chapter in life.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

My latest picture book Tibby & Duckie is about uncovering one’s gifts and talents. Tibby, a bunny with tiger traits, helps Duckie, an ugly duckling of sorts, who is unable to swim like the other ducks. When Tibby helps Duckie to uncover what she is made to be, she soars with wings like an eagle’s.

I was hoping to show that whilst it’s good to put in our best efforts, some of what we do may not work out. That’s fine. I personally don’t think there’s a need to strive to be excellent in everything. Maybe one’s gifts and talents simply lie elsewhere, waiting to be discovered.

By Mandy Pannett

Kitaab Sanctus Dirgha Cover Desmond KonSeveral things about this book suggest a medieval manuscript – not literally of course, for this is a publication designed for a twenty-first century world – but in the sense of it being precious, valued, holy and unique. The title, which translates as Holy, Holy, For a Long Time Holy emphasises this mood as does the epigraph by Allen Ginsberg. An essential part of the atmosphere is enhanced by the quality of the actual publication itself – fine paper, black and white geometric designs, the luxury of a single line per page, the cover with the rising/falling bird.

Plenty has been written about the constrictions of the Sestina form. The demands of its pattern together with the accompanying anxieties and pitfalls involved in finding six words that repeat and develop the overall piece, are well recorded. By focusing on the single line Desmond Kon has freed the sestina from the grip of its rules. Here the pattern is dispersed – or rather it remains the underlying pulse, the energy behind the language, but no longer obviously so. In this author’s hands it is ‘not bottled’.

Each of the four sestinas addresses a different person or thing. Each has its own motifs, references and moods. Together they offer an impression of paths on a journey, words and symbols which deconstruct, musical notes that digress in improvisation but always return to the theme.

By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé

Alvin PangLet’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

To make something meaningful out of nothing.

Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

My latest set of poems all seem to have to do with a sense of endings; they are elegies and aubades and goodbyes – perhaps I am subconsciously trying to come to terms with impending middle age. I also have a couple of anthologies of Singapore writing due for US and UK publication; these are introductory scans of some of our best, more cutting edge work to date. Very SG50!

Describe your writing aesthetic.

Restless.

Desmond Kon
Desmond Kon

It’s unprecedented. The first Singapore writer to bag this gold, Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé is also the first-ever author to place in a winning tie for Poetry at the National Indie Excellence Book Awards (NIEA). That there has never been a tie for the Poetry category in NIEA’s ten years of running makes for an interesting turn, but more compelling is how the tie names as its the citation two of Desmond’s poetry collections: I Didn’t Know Mani Was A Conceptualist (Math Paper Press) and Sanctus Sanctus Dirgha Sanctus (Red Wheelbarrow Books).

Based in Los Angeles, The National Indie Excellence Awards has been a strong advocate for independent publishing, a large sector of the publishing world, with most literary presses falling under its umbrella. The prestigious NIEA is open to all English language books in print. Entries come from small, medium, university, self and independent publishers. The judging panel comprises independent experts from all aspects of the indie book industry, including publishers, writers, editors, book designers and professional copywriters.