These Singaporean writers are talented enough to stay on your radar.
Singapore’s literary scene is stronger than ever, thanks to increased efforts by local art festivals and book publishers to promote local writers, poets and literary artists. There’s the annual Singapore Writers Festival, the Singlit Station, #BuySingLit movement, LocalBooks.sg, which focuses on Singaporean titles, and Huggs-Epigram Coffee Bookshop, the only bookshop selling solely Singapore books, to name a few.
If you’re not in on the action yet, why not get your nose stuck in the pages of books by these homegrown authors? They are equal parts fascinating, intriguing and relatable, and are as good, if not better, than some international works. Most of all, they will make you view your current environment and life in a different light.
1. Cyril Wong
A two-time winner of the Singapore Literature Prize and the recipient of the 2005 National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award, Cyril Wong is considered one of Singapore biggest literary names and needs little introduction. He has several published works under his belt, including poetry collections Unmarked Treasure, Satori Blues and The Dictator’s Eyebrow, short story collections Ten Things My Father Never Taught Me and Other Stories and Let Me Tell You Something About That Night and a novel The Last Lesson of Mrs De Souza.
His confessional-style poetry are known to be refreshingly candid, raw and emotional, often touching on love, family, loss, eroticism and other insightful observations. Cyril, who is prolific on the literary festival circuit and has a doctoral degree in English literature from the National University of Singapore, also sings, edits, critiques and reads voraciously. In an interview with RCGNTN, the 2004 recipient of the Cultural Medallion Young Artist Award says he replies that he does “nothing” when asked by friends what he does for a living. Talented and humble, we couldn’t ask for more.
2. O Thiam Chin
Singaporean writer O Thiam Chin barely passed his O Level English exams and was rejected on several occasions when he applied for writing jobs. However, his desire to tell stories endured, and he went on to dabble in film-making and poetry writing before he embarked on a series of short stories. The self-professed avid reader’s persistence paid off: Free-Falling Man, his debut story collection, published in 2006. He received the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award in 2012 and his first novel, Now That It’s Over, was the 2015 Epigram Books Fiction Prize, snagging a then-$20,000 cash prize from the local publisher which also published the novel.
Set against the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, Now That It’s Over follows two couples who were vacationing in Phuket at the time, detailing the unravelling of both relationships through heart-breaking flashbacks and the aftermath of the disaster. It went on to win the Best Fiction title at the 2017 Singapore Book Awards. Thiam Chin has since published a second novel, Fox Fire Girl, in 2017, as well as a story collection, Signs of Life.
3. Adeline Foo
Previously in public relations and advertising, Adeline Foo has made a name for herself as a best-selling children’s book author. Adeline had received the First-Time Writers & Illustrators Publishing Initiative Award by the then Media Development Authority (MDA) and the National Book Development Council of Singapore in 2006 and now has 28 books. Her most notable work is The Diary of Amos Lee series which has been sold in countries such as India, Malaysia, Indonesia and China and has been adapted for TV in Singapore. The Diary of Amos Lee: I Sit, I Write, I Flush! — which was the first in her series — won the Red Dot award for Best Junior Fiction in 2009 and the MFA graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts Asia has also snagged the inaugural Asian Children’s Book Award in 2017 for her picture book Tiny Shoes, Tiny Feet, a heart-warming tale about home, childhood memories and identity.
Adeline, who is an aspiring scriptwriter too, has also produced a non-fiction book, Lancing Girls of a Happy World, which explores the life and loss of cabaret girls of yesteryears. An omnibus collection housing the first four of Amos Lee’s diaries, titled The World Famous Diaries of Amos Lee, was released by Epigram in October 2019, in celebration of the series’ 10th anniversary.
4. Amanda Lee Koe
New York-based Amanda Lee Koe’s first collection of short stories, Ministry of Moral Panic, was widely acclaimed, thanks to its frank and imaginative exploration of challenging themes that stretch the boundaries of public morality. Her stories are evocative, observational and sometimes uncomfortable, and touch on topics such as sexual exploration, modernism, love and materialism, and people’s desire for human connections. It won the prestigious Singapore Literature Prize for Fiction in 2014 and was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award the same year. It was also shortlisted for the International Literature Prize of Berlin’s House of World Cultures.
Her working manuscript for her debut novel, Delayed Rays Of A Star, won the 2017 Henfield Prize and was just released in July 2019. The story, about the intertwining life trajectories of three ground-breaking women – Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong, and Leni Riefenstahl – has already been gathering buzz, with the novel named a most anticipated book of the summer by ELLE, USA Today and Thrillist, among others.
5. Balli Kaur Jaswal
The CHIJ Toa Payoh alumnus is now one of Singapore’s hottest authors, after her third novel Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows had its rights purchased by publishing giant HarperCollins (apparently for a six-figure sum) and was published in 2017. Ridley Scott’s production company Scott Free Productions and the UK’s Film4 bought the film rights, and it was even selected by Reese Witherspoon’s Reese’s Book Club – talk about Singapore pride!
Balli Kaur Jaswal, whose father worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is known for tackling challenging taboo topics. Her first novel Inheritance (2013) explores mental health issues, homosexuality and the dysfunctional dynamics in a Punjabi family in Singapore, while Sugarbread (2015) is about racism in Singapore. Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows is set in London and is a thought-provoking and teasingly named tale of a protagonist, the daughter of Punjabi immigrants, who encourages her creative writing students – largely Punjabi widows – to express their innermost thoughts about sex in a safe space. Her fourth novel, also with HarperCollins, has just been published, titled The Unlikely Adventures Of The Shergill Sisters. It’s a tale of three sisters who travel to India to perform the last rites of their late mother.
6. Jeremy Tiang
Despite losing part of his grant from National Arts Council – the council withdrew the remaining sum after he sent it the first draft of his debut novel – State Of Emergency, which traces leftist movements throughout Singapore’s history such as the Hock Lee bus riots of 1955 to the guerrilla war of the Malayan Emergency between 1948 and 1960, went on to garner several accolades.
The novel, which took him seven years to write, was shortlisted for the 2018 Epigram Books Fiction Prize and nabbed the Singapore Literature Prize in the English fiction category that same year. One of the judges of the prestigious award said the book was “epic in scope yet so intimate in its depiction of the characters”. Jeremy also has a short story collection It Never Rains On National Day and is known for his translation work, such as such as of Singaporean Yeng Pway Ngon’s Chinese novel Unrest.
7. Sebastian Sim
Sebastian Sim is a late bloomer, in the writing scene that is. Before publishing his first English-language novel, Let’s Give It Up For Gimme Lao!, at the age of 50, the Hwa Chong Junior College-alumnus dabbled in a range of jobs, including bartender, McDonald’s restaurant manager, checkpoint security officer, casino croupier and supervising drug traffickers and gangsters at a maximum-security prison. He also published three wuxia (martial arts) novels in Mandarin, all of which did not sell out their first print run.
Gimme Lao is an accumulation of Sebastian’s life and working experiences, and follows the character who is apparently living the Singapore dream – but his life has actually been marred by quiet tragedies. Let’s Give It Up For Gimme Lao! was among the four finalists for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2015, but the award went to O Thiam Chin’s Now That It’s Over. Sebastians’s next novel, The Riot Act, which is about the aftermath of the 2013 Little India riot from the perspective of three women, won big – snagging the Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2017.
8. Yeoh Jo-Ann
Yeoh Jo-Ann’s debut novel Impractical Uses Of Cake won the 2018 Epigram Books Fiction Prize. The story follows the life of a lonely 35-year-old teacher who meets a woman from his past, who is now homeless and living out of a cardboard box. As they bond over cake, it forces him to re-evaluate his stable but empty life and the choices he has made.
Jo-Ann, who’s a a client operations director with a digital marketing agency, said in a Straits Times interview that turning 35 was a turning point for her, as she could not shake the idea that she might be halfway through her life. She emerged from her melancholy by pledging to finish the novel she had been meaning to write. The story touches on the concepts of materialism and contentment, about having enough and wanting more. One of the judges said the book “reveals a whole side of Singapore that many people in Singapore may not be aware of, with a dry sense of humour and a deep understanding of human difficulties and the problems faced by Singapore as an urban centre”. Besides her novel, Jo-Ann has had short stories published in local anthologies such as In Transit (2016) and The Epigram Books Collection Of Best New Singaporean Short Stories: Vol 3 (2017).
9. Ng Yi-Sheng
A poet, playwright, fiction writer and activist, Ng Yi-Sheng is well known for his controversial works that are critically acclaimed. His debut poetry collection, Last Boy, which deals with identity issues and sociocultural concerns, garnered him the Singapore Literature Prize in 2008.
Prior to that, his book, SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century, was named the best non-fiction work of 2006 by The Straits Times. The Raffles Junior College and Columbia University alumnus was also named as one of the “30 Under 30” promising young people in the arts by the newspaper in 2008. In 2018, Yi-Sheng released Lion City via Epigram, his first collection of fictional short stories which are fantastical and colourful. Exploring themes of colonialism, capitalism and alienation, the speculative fiction book has received rave reviews from critics and fans alike.
Originally by Joy Fang, July 2019