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Country in Focus: Singapore Literature Prize 2018

By Mitali Chakravarty

 

 

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Past and present SLP winners, judges and organisers of the 2018 gala
(Photo credit: SBC)

The Singapore Literature Prize (SLP) gave out 19 awards for works in English, Malay, Tamil and Chinese across three categories – fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry at a gala organised by the Singapore Book Council (SBC) on August 6th, 2018.

The event included performances by the Nadi Singapura ensemble and the trio of Eunice & Friends. The well-known theatre actress, Karen Tan, compered the event peppering it with bits of humour and anecdotes.

 

 

The Nadi Singapura drummers give festive start to the ceremony

The Nadi Singapura Drummers

The Nadi Singapura band gave a ceremonial and colourful start to the event with their drumming. This was followed by a speech by Claire Chiang, chairperson of SBC and co-founder of Banyan Tree Hotels and Resorts. As she has pointed out in her message, the SLP is ‘arguably the only literary award in the world that recognises such multilingual achievements’.

The awards were presented by former SLP winners, including Suchen Christine Lim.

Farihan Bahron, co-founder of a publishing agency and a much-awarded Malay writer, received two prizes this year, one for his poetry collection and a commendation for Malay fiction.

Farihan Bahron, the Malay writer who won awards for poetry and fiction together

Farihan Bahron

A.K. Vardharajan, one of the award winners for poetry in Tamil said that his book, Lee Kuan Yew’s Imaginary Childhood, had won the award because the book was about a very famous man, the founder of Singapore. However, he is an established writer himself and this book had won an award from the Singapore Tamil Writer’s Association in 2017.

Jeremy Tiang received the award for English fiction for his book State of Emergency, his debut novel mapping the leftist movements and political detentions in Singapore and Malaysia through a family saga spanning a large swathe of time, from the 1940s to the current day.

Lively performances by both the musical groups and video clips of the past winners discussing their reaction to the awards and its outcome punctuated the event.

Eunice and friends

Eunice & Friends

The concluding speech by the executive director William Phuan reflected the history and future of both the awards and of the outreach events organised by them through the year, which include the launch of a Chinese translation of Isa Kamari’s Malay novel Duka Tuan Bertakhta, in September 2018, the launch of a Singapore Literature Prize commemorative book featuring extracts from past SLP winning works in November and the fiftieth birthday celebration of the SBC this December.

The awards this year spanned the diaspora of cultures that thrive in Singapore. From when it started in 1992, the award has evolved to create a platform to recognise excellence in the variety that is iconic of this island. In 1992, the first Singapore Literature Prize went to Suchen Christine Lim and a commendation was given to Tan Mei Ching. Both the works were in the English fiction category. Now the awards span nine different categories in four different languages!

This award is regarded as the top literary award in Singapore. When asked what this award has done for the literary scene in Singapore, Suchen Christine Lim, regarded as a doyen of Singapore Literature, reflected, ‘The Singapore Literature Prize has brought some of Singapore’s best literary works to the attention of readers in Singapore and overseas.’ She added that it has also ‘helped to draw the public’s attention to new writers and new works like Jeremy Tiang’s State of Emergency.’ Suchen Christine Lim’s award winning book, Fistful of Colours was unpublished when she was given the first Singapore Literary Prize in 1992. Now both traditionally published and self-published books by Singaporeans and permanent residents are eligible for the award.

Nominated writers Charmaine Chan and Balli Kaur Jaswal

Nominated writers Charmaine Chan and Shubigi Rao

The evening was a paean to the literary efforts from diverse cultures. It ended with an interesting joint performance by the Malay drummers and the classical trio… a fitting end to a celebration of the evolving potpourri of Singapore literature.

(Photo credits: Mitali Chakravarty)

 

 

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Singapore Literature Prize 2018: Shortlist announced

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. Continue reading


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The 9th Asian Festival of Children’s Content 2018

Singapore Book Council (SBC) Press release: Remembering our children’s literary heritage & becoming future ready at 9th Asian Festival of Children’s Content 2018

Singapore Book Council

SINGAPORE, 30 May 2018 – Early bird ticket sales for the 9th edition of the Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC) kicks off today. Running for three days from 6 to 8 September 2018 at the National Library, its theme is Imagine-Asia with Singapore as its Country of Focus to celebrate local children’s literature.

Over 90 Singapore and international writers, illustrators, publishers, storytellers, educators and media producers from 14 countries such as Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Philippines, the UK and US will be featured. Notable speakers include renowned Japanese picture book author and illustrator Satoshi Kitamura; UK publisher Sarah Odedina, who has worked with authors such as J.K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman, and the husband-and-wife graphic novelists and digital storytellers, Colin Goh and Yen Yen Woo of Dim Sum Warriors,.

This year’s AFCC will celebrate Singapore as the Country of Focus in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of Singapore Book Council (SBC). The festival will showcase Singapore’s literary heritage in children’s books, whilst highlighting the new means of content creation and digital platforms for storytelling.

An exhibition to honour pioneer Singapore illustrator, the late Kwan Shan Mei, will showcase some of her award-winning illustrations. Award-winning author Suchen Christine Lim will be giving the annual Children’s Literature Lecture. To enable the industry practitioners to stay abreast of digital trends that have changed the way readers consume stories, AFCC will be featuring sessions that look at digital and cross-platform storytelling, including AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality) technologies.

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Book Review: A Bit of Earth by Suchen Christine Lim

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.’

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Writing Matters: In conversation with Suchen Christine Lim

By Mitali Chakravarty

Suchen Christine Lim

 

What is homeland
In which we planted
Our hopes, lives,
dreams and memories?
A bit of earth.

— Suchen Christine Lim, Second Fragment, A Bit of Earth

 

She wanted to run a chicken porridge stall in Singapore. Instead, she wrote about the coolies, the illiterate and the chicken porridge stall owners. Meet Suchen Christine Lim, an established voice in ASEAN literature with multiple awards and fellowships to her credit.

The first thing I notice when we meet is her humility. I remember listening to her during a panel discussion on ASEAN literature where Suchen said that she picked up bits of garbage and put them together to make a story. To me, her stories are anything but a bit of garbage. They record the history of Malaya and then, Singapore and Malaysia. Her works have been lauded by The Straits Times as ‘worthy literary landmarks that capture a slice of South-east Asian history’. Mohammad A. Quayum, Professor and Head of the Department of English Language and Literature, International Islamic University, Malaysia, sees her works as ‘brilliant stimulating and a compelling read’; Lily Rose Tope, PhD, Professor, Department of English and Comparative Literature, University of Phillipines, says, Suchen makes ‘history personal… a joy to teach and a riveting read’. Martin Marroni, a Scottish poet wrote to Suchen: ‘Astonishing tour de force. You have created a physical and social landscape and peopled it with characters with real human feelings on issues of political import as well as on the strains of personal and social survival.’ Yet, when I ask her where she sees herself in the ASEAN literary context, her response is that it is for the critics to decide. ‘I don’t see myself as anything except being able to write.’

Her passion for writing developed in the course of her teaching career. The characters she wrote about in her novels and short stories came to life for her as she went about her daily chores. She became the weaver of tales for these imaginary personas who led her through their adventures. She talks of her works in terms of the wayang kulit (shadow puppet theatre in parts of Indonesia and Malaysia) based on the belief that puppets have a life of their own and their needs must be respected. She sees herself as the dalang, the puppet master, not a puppeteer, she emphasises. ‘And to me, the relationship between a novelist and a character is that of the dalang and the puppet, which eventually evolves a life of its own.’

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Book Review: The River’s Song by Suchen Christine Lim

Reviewed by Mitali Chakravarty

River's Song

Title: The River’s Song
Author: Suchen Christine Lim

Publisher: Aurora Metro Books
Total number of Pages: 306
Price: Pounds 9.99
ISBN: 978-1-906582-98-2

The River’s Song is an epic novel by the ASEAN award-winning writer Suchen Christine Lim about people living in and around the Singapore River, from the mid-twentieth to the start of the twenty first century. Published in 2013, it spans an era of change and development in Singapore, which could be compared with the passing of an age as in Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel, Gone with the Wind. The story begins with the portrayal of people who lived by and around the water body for generations prior to the 1977 Singapore River cleanup. The cleanup changed the way of life irreversibly for immigrants who lived by the river, as did the American Civil War for the American settlers.

Most of the river dwellers prior to 1977 are shown to be immigrants from China or Malaya. Among them are the protagonist, Ping, and her mother, the pipa songstress, Yoke Lan. Yoke Lan insists that her daughter address her as Ah-ku, aunt in Cantonese, because she does not want to divulge her maternal status to her fans and customers. Ah-ku’s attempt to rise above poverty and move to respectability defines many of her actions. Ah-ku is more passionate, more like Scarlett O’ Hara, a colourful persona vis-à-vis her timid daughter, who is befriended by Weng, a dizi player. The story revolves around Ping and Weng till Ah-ku, who disappears from Ping’s life for some years, reclaims her daughter as a poor relative. Ah-ku returns to visibility as the wife of a rich and powerful towkay (a rich businessman), moving around in more educated circles.  The ascent to a better life removes both Ah-ku and her daughter from the proximity of the river. Ultimately, Ping goes to university in USA, where she spends the next thirty years of her life away from family and friends. She flits in and out of a marriage with an Indian who wears pink pants and calls himself Jeev. She befriends braless feminists and learns to call their country her home.

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Mapping the literary roots between ASEAN and India

By Mitali Chakravarty

Pic 5

The first ever ASEAN INDIA Pravasi Bharatiya Divas Writers Festival was held in Singapore with great success.

More than 30 writers from Singapore, Malaysia and India participated in the first ever ASEAN Indian Pravasi Bharatiya Divas (PBD) Writer’s Festival on 6-7 January in Singapore.

Many leading literary figures of ASEAN such as Edwin Thumboo, Suchen Christine Lim and Isa Kamari participated in the two-day event held at the posh Marina Bay Sands.

The ASEAN India Writers Festival, an initiative of the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, was organized by Kitaab International, Singapore, on behalf of the High Commission of India in Singapore, with the support of many partner organisations such as The Arts House, and La Salle College of the Arts. De Ideaz, Singapore, were the main event managers for the festival, which had more than 5,000 registered visitors.

Exploring ASEAN and India connections though literary and cultural roots

Pic 2 -- Zafar

Zafar Anjum, the Programme Director and Founder of literary and publishing platform Kitaab, gave the welcome address. He welcomed the participants and reflected on the attempt to bring together writers from diverse cultures and language backgrounds to create an environment of learning and growth.

Edwin Thumboo, a celebrated poet and academic of Singapore, traced how Sanskrit and Indian culture, religion and customs spread through South-east Asia from the start of history. He touched upon Hindu and Buddhist influences in Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia with graphic maps and slides in his talk, ‘A Sense of India in ASEAN’.

The panel discussions were broad-ranging in topic and included all kinds of voices and literary genres – from mythology to novels, and from short stories to children’s literature. There were sessions featuring literary performances too. Four new titles by ASEAN and Indian writers were launched at the festival: The Best Asian Short Stories 2017 edited by Monideepa Sahu and Zafar Anjum; Senserly, Amakoby Anita Thomas; The Sacred Sorrows of Sparrows by Siddharth Dasgupta, and Tawassul by award-winning Singaporean writer Isa Kamari, the first Urdu translation of a work of Singaporean literature.

India in the Imagination of ASEAN

The first panel discussion with prominent award winning ASEAN writers, Suchen Christine Lim and Isa Kamari, focused on “India in the Imagination of ASEAN”.

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The moderator, Nilanjana Sengupta, traced how Nalanda University played a non-confrontational role in spreading the ideas in the region and asked the panelists to talk of Indian influences in their writings. Suchen Christine Lim talked of how her Indian characters grew out of her experience of Indians that she met or read about and how Buddhism, which was born in India, influenced the Chinese and Asian characters she portrays in her books.

Isa Kamari said he realised that both Hinduism and Islam were monotheistic after visiting Bali, where Hinduism had travelled from India around 1st century. He added that Hinduism existed before Islam and spoke of his positive experience of traveling in India. All these experiences are to be found in his novels.

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Kitaab launches ‘Kafka in Ayodhya’ and ‘Loss and Laws’ at Singapore Writers Festival 2015

Book launch

The titles were unveiled by renowned Singaporean writers Suchen Christine Lim and Isa Kamari.

KafkaFC

Singapore-based independent publishing company Kitaab launched two of its latest titles at the Singapore Writers Festival on Saturday, 7 November 2015.

The newly released titles were ‘Loss and Laws and Other Tamil Short Stories’ by Jayanthi Sankar & Usha Nagasamy (translator) and ‘Kafka in Ayodhya and Other Short Stories’ by Zafar Anjum.

The titles were unveiled by renowned Singaporean writers Suchen Christine Lim and Isa Kamari. Appreciating Kitaab’s efforts at translation, Suchen said that Kitaab was doing a great job of connecting Asian writers worldwide. She is on the advisory board of Kitaab.

LossandLaws

Anjum, who is also the publisher and editor-in-chief of Kitaab, has dedicated his book to “the wounded ‘Idea of India’”.

“My dedication is in solidarity with the writers, filmmakers and intellectuals of India who are protesting against the rising tide of intolerance in India,” Anjum said. “I was recently traveling in India, and across cities, I found people disturbed over elements that threatened the harmony of the country. The good news is that people of India are fighting back such elements and they will not allow the secular character of the country to be changed.”

Anjum is the author of many best-sellers such as The Resurgence of Satyam, Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher and Politician, and more recently, Startup Capitals: Discovering the Global Hotspots of Innovation. His earlier collection of short stories, The Singapore Decalogue, was supported by the National Arts Council of Singapore with an Arts Creation Fund grant.

‘In the title story, Kafka in Ayodhya, the legendary German language writer who was born in Prague, travels to Ayodhya at a time when the country was tense and waited for the Supreme Court Judgement on the Babri Masjid-Ramjanambhoomi dispute with bated breath,” Anjum said. “It is a surreal story with a comic touch but it has a serious message of peace in it. The collection has eight stories, some real and some surreal, set in either India or Singapore.”

Sankar, who is a journalist on a local Tamil paper in Singapore, said that ‘Loss and Laws and other Tamil Short Stories’ is based on the observations and experiences of the author’s 26 years of life spent in fast-changing Singapore. The author has been writing for 20 years. There are 17 short stories in this collection–all chosen from the 99 short stories written by the author over a period of 17 years. The title story, Loss and Laws, is based on the experience of a domestic worker from India who comes to Singapore, and unknowingly, becomes the victim of the strict laws of Singapore. Sankar also said that one of the stories in collection, titled ‘The Teahouse’, is based on the experiences of a Chinese old man in Yishun who would share tales with the author.

Usha Nagasamy, a Further Education college lecturer who lives in London, could not attend the launch.

 

 

 


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A River Runs Through It: Review of ‘The River’s Song’ by Suchen Christine Lim

‘The River’s Song’ takes on many themes and it would be worth the reader’s while to step into this absorbing, engaging story, says Anuradha Kumar in this review of The River’s Song by Suchen Christine Lim (Aurora Metro Press, 2014, pp 363).

RIVER'S SONG In Singapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum, there is an entire section of photographs and wall displays that show how the Singapore River was transformed in the 1970s. The river was once famous for the hawker stalls along its banks that drew people from all over the city, the shanties that ran along, the vegetable plots sustained by those who lived by it and the fishing and other bumboats that plied at all hours. Yet all this was to change in the 1970s, soon after Singapore came into being as an independent republic. Now besides the museum, there is the lovely much sought after Clarke Quay area, where people hang around at riverside cafes, the only boats that ply are those that take tourists around, and down the many bridges that cross the river, while glass-fronted tall buildings stare down at all this. But the river changed around the 1970s and Suchen Lim’s book writes of this as a time crucial to Ping and Weng, the two characters whose intertwined story drives much of her book.

Ping’s story begins a decade or so before this. As a young girl she is subjected to routine humiliations by people who refer to her derogatorily; she also realizes that she must refer to her mother as Ah-ku and never acknowledge their relationship, neither openly nor to herself. Yet she also sees a fiery side to Ah-ku, who marches to the house of wealthy state official when he has chosen to insult her despite seeking her favours. Ah-ku, meaning aunt in Cantonese, is a popular songstress who performs in the city’s clubs, and has wealthy clients who she has to please. Ping, though, also knows the terrifying insecurity that haunts her, should her little success vanish. Continue reading


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The River’s Song, Singapore Noir vie for the Popular Readers’ Choice Awards 2014

SuchenOne of the best literary novels of this year, The River’s Song, by award-winning novelist Suchen Christine Lim (who is also one of Kitaab’s Advisory Board members) is in the running for this year’s Popular Bookstore’s Readers Choice Awards.

Cheryl TanThe other important work of fiction that is also vying for the same award is Singapore Noir, a collection of stories edited by Cheryl Tan (read the Kitaab interview with Tan).

Popular is Singapore’s largest bookstore chain, the Barnes & Noble of Singapore, if you will.

Here is the full list of nominated titles (adult category):