For the record – April 2017
A list of recently published Singaporean literature, with some gossip
By Stephanie Ye
In this column, we list all Singaporean literary titles in English that have been published since the last issue of QLRS. Let us know about corrections, omissions, or titles for consideration: email us at the usual address. We reserve the right to reject publications we feel are inappropriate for this column.
There was a time when people said that Singapore… produces more poets than novelists. After all, poems are easier to write on your lunch break, on the MRT, in the office after work while you're waiting for your boss to leave. Poems are so short, after all, whereas novels are, like, long. Who in Singapore has the time, the energy, or the money to spend writing something longer than a Facebook post?
And yet, here we are: all six titles in this edition of For The Record are novels. Much of the credit/blame must go to Epigram Books and its two-year-old Fiction Prize, as four of the six titles are published under its banner.
The Gatekeeper by Nuraliah Norasid (312 pages, SGD 24.90) was the winner of the prize's most recent edition, awarded last year. When she is ten years old, our heroine Ria accidentally turns an entire village to stone – that's her special power, Elsa by way of Medusa. To save her from the wrath of muggles, Ria's elder sister hurries her away to Nelroote, an underground sanctuary peopled by other others. But years later, having become Nelroote's gatekeeper, Ria forms a friendship with a man from above... Nuraliah, who holds a PhD in English Literature and Creative Writing from Nanyang Technological University, works as a research associate at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs. Her short story 'Madam Jamilah's Family Portrait' was published in our July 2016 issue.
Fox Fire Girl by O Thiam Chin (144 pages, SGD 24.90). O was the inaugural winner of the prize in 2015 with his debut novel Now That It's Over; this time, he's a finalist with his second novel, which draws inspiration from the fox spirit of Chinese mythology. Yifan is a 24-year-old woman from Ipoh working in Singapore at a zi char stall. She forms romantic relationships with two troubled men, Derrick and Tien Chin, each of whom is told a different story about her past. Several of O's short stories have been published in QLRS, the earliest being 'Third Eye' in our Jan 2009 issue, and the latest being 'Touching', in this issue.
Surrogate Protocol by Tham Cheng-E (388 pages, SGD 24.90). Also a finalist for last year's prize, this thriller with the Hollywoodish title stars barista Landon Lock-- though he hasn't always been a barista, and hasn't always even been Landon Lock. Instead, our hero has lived for centuries, and changes his identity every 15 years in order to avoid attention. Unfortunately, with longevity comes short-term memory loss, and Landon has to write a journal in order to make sense of his life. This life gets (even more) complicated when a shady organisation called CODEX enters the picture. Tham, an architect, also writes about the special needs community for the online magazine Special Seeds.
Going back to 2015's prize, from the longlist comes Altered Straits by Kevin Martens Wong (384 pages, SGD 24.90). In a mythological 1947, boy soldier Naufal Jazair fights in battle alongside the merlion Bahana. Meanwhile, in a dystopic 2047, Singapore is in danger of falling to a dastardly hive intelligence; its only hope is a merlion, which SAF officer Titus Ang must summon from Naufal's universe. Wong is a linguistics major at the National University of Singapore.
Moving on to non-Epigram releases, from Ethos Books comes Payoh by Jim Tan (236 pages, SGD 15). In the frame story, a retired professor teaches a writing class at Changi Prison, where he reads a tale written by one of his inmate-students. In the tale, a sulphur-crested cockatoo named Lucky lives in a bird sanctuary. When the bird sanctuary's human masters plan to tear it down and build an industrial estate, the birds declare the sanctuary independent and proceed to form their own government. But the birth of a new nation is never peaceful: feathers fly; much cock is talked. This is the debut novel of Tan, a retired contractor; the book also has illustrations by cartoonist Morgan Chua, the former creative director of Far East Economic Review.
Last but not least is Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal (HarperCollins, GBP 14.99). Set in the Punjabi community of Southall, London, Jaswal's third novel centres on Nikki, an idealistic 22-year-old who imagines that the creative writing classes she's organising at her local temple will give voice to its women. However, she faces a major setback when she discovers that her students can barely write their own names, let alone achieve emancipation through self-expression. All seems lost until the class stumbles across a book of erotica intended as a gag gift for Nikki's sister. The women learn to express their dreams and desires through writing erotica; but Nikki also realises that this work is putting the women in danger from conservative elements in the community. Translation rights to the novel have been sold in France, Spain, Italy, Israel, Poland, Germany, Sweden, Greece, China and Estonia.QLRS Vol. 16 No. 2 Apr 2017