There’s More to Singapore Than Just ‘Crazy Rich Asians’
The founder of literary nonprofit Singapore Unbound recommends 8 books to broaden your experience
Singaporeans joked that after the Trump-Kim summit, Americans finally knew that Singapore is not part of China. Any complacency on that score was shaken when the State Department made a faux pas by implying that Singapore is part of Malaysia. Separated by a narrow strait, Singapore and Peninsular Malaysia were governed together as Malaya by the British, but after achieving independence from colonial domination, both Southeast Asian countries split acrimoniously in 1965 over ideological and personality conflicts, and Singapore was on its own.
Nationalistic observers may date the birth of Singapore literature to the birth of the country, but the literary tradition has far deeper Malayan roots. Some of the most interesting contemporary writers of Singapore draw on that rich tradition. It is a literary culture shaped by a complex indigenous and Malay inheritance and by early Chinese, Indian, Arabic, Jewish, Armenian, and Persian migrations. It is still being shaped by more recent migrations from China, India, Malaysia, and the West. From the outset, the new nation-state instituted four official languages — English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil — designating English as the communication bridge between the different races and ethnicities, and between Singapore and the wider world.
After five decades of nation-wide schooling in English, Anglophone literature in Singapore is flourishing, at the regrettable expense of literatures in the other languages. There is, however, some official support for the other literatures. The biennial Singapore Literature Prize, the highest literary accolade in the country, is given to works of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction in all four official languages. The prize has highlighted well-deserving works of great literary merit, and has attracted, as such prizes do, a considerable amount of controversy for overlooking important authors.
As the founder and organizer of the NYC-based literary nonprofit Singapore Unbound, I seek to bring this exciting literary efflorescence to American attention. The biennial Singapore Literature Festival in NYC brings Singaporean and American authors and audiences together for readings and conversations about literature and society. The 3rd Festival, to be held this year from October 4–6, at Asia Society and the National Black Theater in Harlem, among other venues, features Americans such as Vijay Seshadri, Stephanie Burt, Hari Kunzru, and Chinelo Okparanta, and Singaporeans such as Balli Kaur Jaswal and Ng Yi-Sheng (both in the list of recommended reading below).
In between festivals, we run the Second Saturdays Reading Series, a monthly gathering in private homes around NYC. Over at SP Blog, we publish reviews of American books by Singaporeans and vice versa. Our new imprint Gaudy Boy is dedicated to bringing Asian voices to America.
I hope readers will enjoy the list of Singaporean titles compiled below. These Anglophone authors are who I consider to be some of the most exciting voices in Singapore right now. The presses are all local and independent, and much deserving of our support. While attempting to cover different genres, styles, and perspectives, the list does not aim to be comprehensive. It is a sampler to whet the appetite, and it will have done its job if it encourages readers to explore beyond this list.
The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew
Winner of 3 Eisner Awards (the comics world’s equivalent of the Oscars) and the Singapore Literature Prize, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye does the impossible: it makes Singapore history both educational and entertaining. Written from the point of view of a fictional comics artist, the graphic novel counters the monochromatic official state narrative with a colorful world of neglected truths and plausible imaginings. Alternative facts have never been so well deployed. Inventively the novel interweaves the artistic career of Charlie Chan Hock Chye with the rise and fall of leftist politics in Singapore. Comics aficionados will, additionally, appreciate the interweaving of a history of graphic styles, from both the East and the West, into this very Singaporean portfolio by Sonny Liew.
Sugarbread by Balli Kaur Jaswal
Balli Kaur Jaswal’s third novel Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows was recently selected by Reese Witherspoon for her book club. Female empowerment, and its imperilment by religious, sexual and racial chauvinism, is a common thread through all of Jaswal’s books. Erotic Stories, set in London, is an assured accomplishment. Her first novel Sugarbread, a finalist for the Singapore Literature Prize, paints an intimate and moving portrait of Pin, a young girl growing up as a Sikh Punjabi in supposedly post-colonial and multicultural Singapore. Here are the nuances, the contradictions, the compromises of living as a member of a religious and ethnic minority in a country, all thrown into sharp relief by the alternating narrative of Pin’s mother. Under the winning charm of the writing, Jaswal asks tough questions of our societies and us.
It Never Rains on National Day by Jeremy Tiang
Like the eponymous crazy rich Asians in Kevin Kwan’s novel, Jeremy Tiang’s characters go in and out of Singapore, but unlike Kwan’s complacent and oblivious jetsetters, the Singaporeans who people Tiang’s fictional world are filled with unease, anxieties, and ennui. A teacher leaves her chaperone duty in Berlin to participate in a rave. A young woman marries a rich British banker and is cast into his elite circle in Switzerland. Tiang is the master of the weighted word. In his well-measured style, he probes Singaporeans’ fear of crossing thresholds, what is called schwellenangst, also the title of one of the best stories of the collection. In doing so, he shows that Singaporeans are never more themselves than when they leave Singapore. His first novel State of Emergency won this year’s Singapore Literature Prize.
And the Walls Come Crumbling Down by Tania De Rozario
Written with a poet’s sensibility, this memoir tells the harrowing story of a young woman who leaves home without telling her family that she is never going back. What has driven this young lesbian writer and artist to this decision? What is life like, moving from place to place, living on infrequent and poorly paid freelance work, a life so at odds with the family- and career-focused lives of most Singaporeans? The image of a house, deteriorating in the rain, infested with roaches, becomes the powerful lens through which De Rozario view not only her own life, but also the state of the country. What reads as a moving memoir turns out to be also a stinging critique of Singapore. The style, with its keen ear for the cadences of language, befits the poet of Tender Delirium, shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize.
A Book of Hims by Ng Yi-Sheng
What I admire about Ng Yi-Sheng as a writer is that he does not follow anyone’s dictates, but his own. last boy, his debut poetry collection that won the Singapore Literature Prize, is freewheeling and voracious in subject matter and style. His next book, after a long break, is a collection of spoken-word poetry, which he has performed to some notoriety. Heedless of literary boundaries, Ng has written speculative fiction and a novelization of a film. In his third work of poetry A Book of Hims, he gives us a set of tender love lyrics, as daring as ever in their metaphorical leaps, but also courageous and powerful in their plainspoken eloquence. “I am sick,” he confesses, “of chasing beauty; I will choose/ to love another as one loves/ an ancient cat.”
Ministry of Moral Panic by Amanda Lee Koe
The Ministry of Moral Panic electrified Singapore readers when it arrived on the local literary scene. Here is a voice unlike previous voices of Singapore fiction. It is energetic, knowing, nervy, awkward, brash, in a word, contemporary. Dialogue is not courteously set off with quotation marks, but runs along with and in the text. The stories flirt with sentimentality and stereotype but are usually rescued by verve and style. What are they about? The “hot fuss” of love, between a curator and her artist, between a teenage girl and a much older married woman, between a school boy and a ladyboy in the salty form of the country’s tourism icon, the Merlion. Love is interrogated again and again about its negotiations and negations in order to discover what is real. Amanda Lee Koe is a beguiling storyteller.
Corridor by Alfian Sa’at
Alfian Sa’at’s Malay Sketches, published in the USA this year by my press Gaudy Boy, is named by Electric Literature as one of “7 Short Story Collections to Read This Year.” Alfian thoroughly deserves this accolade as he is one of the finest writers produced by Singapore. In addition to being a short-story writer, he is a playwright, poet, and translator. His first collection of stories Corridor already amply displays his keen powers of observation and sympathy. The title refers to the common space that links neighbors in Singapore’s high-rise apartment blocks. In like manner, the 12 stories in the book explore the ties between Muslim Malays, and between the community and others. Fully inhabiting the living spaces of this densely populated country, the stories rise in the imagination to become symbols of our search for affinities.
The Lover’s Inventory by Cyril Wong
Cyril Wong is, to my mind, the best living Singaporean poet. Two-time winner of the Singapore Literature Prize, Wong has written and published profusely. There are poetic gems in all his books, and his latest collection The Lover’s Inventory is no different. It offers his characteristic lyrical intelligence, emotional honesty and biting sarcasm as the lover takes stock of all his past loves. The newer element is the layer of memory, the working of hindsight, the depth of reflection. Without losing any of its bitchiness, the poetry strikes a note of reconciliation, a chord of gratitude, as in “Thanksgiving”: “Thank you for paying for everything/ from the hotel to the lube to the takeaway/ and also, at times, for making me pay.”