Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

state of emergency

 

Title: State of Emergency
Author: Jeremy Tiang
Publisher: Epigram Books, 2017
Number of pages: 245

Jeremy Tiang’s State of Emergency won 2018’s Singapore Literature Prize (SLP) for fiction. Kate Griffin, one of the judges for the award, wrote in an article, “Erasing Histories” (https://nationalcentreforwriting.org.uk/article/erasing-histories/): ‘State of Emergency, Jeremy Tiang’s beautifully written first novel, highlights a lesser known side of Singaporean history, exploring the leftist movements and political detentions in Malaysia and Singapore from the 1940s onwards, through the stories and memories of an extended family.’

Focused mainly within the local and Malayan Chinese community, the Communist movement found refuge in the jungles of Malaysia. The novel traces the development and then the quelling of this movement through the stories of three generations of Jason Low’s extended family. Jason’s wife, Siew Lee, chooses Communism over her family and leaves for the jungles of Malaya, partly to save herself and partly to live by her beliefs. Jason loses his sister in the 1965 Konfrontasi terrorist bomb blast in MacDonald House where she worked in a bank. The Konfrontasi was an Indonesian reaction to oppose the colonial decision for the formation of a separate Malaysia (of which Singapore remained a part till August 1966). These political movements in the ASEAN rip through the fabric of the Low family, tearing it apart.  Though his daughter continues to work as a Singapore government official, his son leaves him to immigrate to the United Kingdom and Jason Low finds himself in a ‘C’ class geriatric ward.

By Mitali Chakravarty

Singapore Literature Prize 2018
Singapore Literature Prize 2018

On 19th June, 2018, the Singapore Book Council (SBC) announced 50 shortlisted titles for the Singapore Literary Prize (SLP) 2018.

Twelve judges, including prominent writers like Isa Kamari and Alfian Sa’at were part of the panel of judges who whetted English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil entries by Singaporean or Permanent Resident authors before shortlisting the books. Awards will be given out in twelve categories in a ceremony on 6th  August 2018. The categories span the four official languages of Singapore and three genres — fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry.

shortlisted authors 2018
Singapore Literature Prize 2018 – shortlisted writers

As the SBC turns fifty this year, Mr William Phuan, the Executive Director, announced that the event would be opened to the public for the first time. Admission will be free by registration at http://slp2018ceremony.peatix.com/

William Phuan
Singapore Literature Prize 2018 – William Phuan

A number of outreach events have been planned to create awareness among the public, including talks by shortlisted authors in bookshops, schools and National Libraries. From July 16th to September 8th , former SLP winning titles will be displayed at the Bras Basah National Library on level 9 in an exhibition titled “Celebrating Our Writers: The Journey of Singapore Literature Prize”. Besides reaching out to people on social media, readers will also be encouraged to guess the winners of the awards as well as choose the best cover designs, added Mr Phuan.

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

A Bit of Earth

Title: A Bit of Earth
Author: Suchen Christine Lim
Publisher: Times Marshall-Cavendish, Singapore, 2001
Pages: 420
Price: S$21.40
ISBN: 9812321233

A Bit of Earth is a multi-layered novel by Suchen Christine Lim that explores the history of Malaya under the British regime. The saga stretches from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century. The protagonist, Wong Tuck Heng, journeys from being a poor, hounded immigrant to a rich towkay, a big boss in local parlance, guided by the principle that helped him achieve his dream of growing into a rich and honoured man. He states his viewpoint, ‘Land and properties, you can lose. But if you lose your spirit, then you lose the very thing that makes us human. Courage and loyalty. That’s part of our spirit as human beings…’

We first see Wong in 1874, a teenager on the run with a price on his head, chased out of his homeland Sum Hor in Canton Prefecture, by the Manchu rulers. He considers the Manchus as invaders and intruders into China; the Manchus had wiped out his entire family, loyalists of the preceding Ming dynasty, as rebels. The saga starts with Wong landing in Malaya after a perilous journey, saved by loyalists and brave supporters from the clan of White Cranes. He finds work in the tin mines of Malaya and struggles to become rich. He acquires two wives, a Nyonya (Straits-born Chinese) wife and a Chinese one from the mainland, chosen by his foster mother Wong-soh. His Nyonya wife is thrust upon him by the wealthy Wee family that his foster father married into to upscale himself in wealth and power, after disowning his earlier wife, Wong-soh.

There is a splattering of colourful Chinese, Malay, Indian and British characters in the story with a close look at the Baba culture, an intrinsic part of Singaporean and Malaysian heritage. Wong gives a description of this culture to his son as he talks of his first wife’s family: ‘Your mother’s family is Baba. They’re like the Monkey King. Their ancestors left China and settled in this country a hundred, maybe two hundred years ago. Maybe longer. Married local women and adapted to the life here. They can change themselves seven times seven like the Monkey King. When the Malays were powerful, the Babas spoke Malay, wore Malay clothes and hungered for Malay titles. Then the English barbarians came. The English were more powerful than the Malay kings. So, your mother’s family changed again. They learned to speak English and do things the English way.’

By Aminah Sheikh

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

As is the case with most of us, constant inner exploration with strings and strings of questions ushers me towards the world of fiction, I suppose. And that subsequently widens my imagination more and more.

Fiction always fascinates me, both to read and to write. For me, it is like living one life in reality but tens of thousands in the fictional space.

I write for the creative experience itself more than the politics in, out of and behind the issues although I do appreciate and enjoy them all while reading others’ works. I’ve found myself narrating mostly with an anthropological approach but the characterization and dialogues in my fiction certainly don’t shy away from the political side of the issue. I let them be as political as required. So, naturally I’ve never believed in creating an ideal world through fiction nor have I ever tried to give any solutions to the issue. The characters take my stories forward. This could be one of the reasons for readers and critics’ ‘author is absent in the narration’ experience and comments.

Like I always say it is the creative experience that I always long for that has been helping me evolve spiritually, the person that I am and will be. It’s one of the important byproducts of my reading and writing fiction for twenty two years.

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

With only two or three stories left to be written, ‘Dangling Gandhi and other short stories’ in English, is forming decently well. Although few of them talk of the contemporary issues in Singapore, some of the important stories transcend beyond eras and geographies. Thus the weaves, I hope, would subtly raise many intricate questions on several social issues of not just the modern multicultural societies and human migrations in this shrunken world, but also of the colonial India, Malaya and Singapore.

Zafar Anjum, the publisher cum writer with such a beautiful theme of ‘empowering and connecting Asian readers and writers, everywhere’, has been gracious to have launched ‘Horizon Afar and other Tamil short stories’ of mine, the second of its kind, at SILF16 at Kishanganj. How well he knows about the role of translation in filling the gaps and also in cultural sharing. I owe it very much also to the earnest and enthusiastic translator and writer P.Muralidharan of Chennai, and the editor of the book for her help in improving the text.

It may sound too ambitious or a little pre mature to say I wish to write a novel based on my transit experience at Delhi amidst the first week of demonetization woes, the SILF16 (Seemanchal International Literary Festival 2016), the town of Kishanganj, Bagdogra, Darjeeling but I hope some creative magic really happens.

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”.

CharlieChanFor the first time, a graphic novel has won the Singapore Literature Prize (SLP) – comic artist Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye took the English fiction award at the SLP ceremony on Thursday (Jul 14) evening.

The graphic novel, which also won the Book of the Year accolade at the Singapore Book Awards in May, tells the story of a comic book artist during the formative years of Singapore’s modern history.

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 Cyril Wong.

The prize money of S$107,000 was shared between the winners.

All shortlisted SLP titles are available at MPH Bookstores until October 2017.

2016 SINGAPORE LITERATURE PRIZE WINNERS

235 total submissions across all categories is 53 more than the 182 submissions in 2014: The Book Council

The National Book Development Council of Singapore (The Book Council) has announced that the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize has received the most submissions ever in its 25-year history. 235 submissions were received across the twelve categories encompassing three genres (Fiction, Poetry, and Non-Fiction) and our four national languages.

“We are very excited to see a record-breaking number of works submitted to the SLP,” said Executive Director of the National Book Development Council of Singapore Mr R Ramachandran. “We are very happy to see so many new and established authors writing new works across all genres and languages. We cannot wait for the judges to shortlist the works so that we can begin promoting them across Singapore and beyond. We are also thankful to the government institutions, corporate sponsors, foundations, and individual donors who are supporting the prize, including the National Arts Council, the Little India Shopkeepers and Heritage Association, and the Singapore Press Holdings Foundation. We are very pleased that their continued support of the award has assisted us in promoting the best in Singaporean contemporary writing in all four languages.”