Profile: Amanda Lee Koe

Published on 19 January 2015

Bold and original, Amanda Lee Koe’s voice is a burst of promise for Singapore fiction.

BY PAMELA HO

A male Malay pop yé-yé singer in 1960s Singapore. That’s the first character whose eyes you see through in Amanda Lee Koe’s book, Ministry of Moral Panic. On further reading, it hits you, this girl is different.

Alfian Sa’at, playwright and author, claims Koe’s book is possibly the most exciting debut collection of short stories by a Singapore writer he has ever read. “They deal with uncomfortable subject matters, like rape, or challenging characters, like a self-mutilating, sexually-precocious girl. This is a writer who takes risks.”

When Ministry of Moral Panic (Epigram Books, 2013) clinched the Singapore Literature Prize 2014, Dr Meira Chand, chief judge for the English Fiction category, declared it was “a unanimous choice, a highly original voice in Singapore writing that we wish to acknowledge and encourage”.

By day, the 27 year-old Koe is the fiction editor of Esquire (Singapore), editor of online magazine POSKOD and communications director at studioKALEIDO. She is also co-editor of literary journal Ceriph and Eastern Heathens, an anthology subverting Asian folklore.

By night, Koe writes in her apartment in Brooklyn, New York, where she is currently based while pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree at Columbia University. “To me, writing never means the commercial and editorial, which I call work. Writing is just writing — my writing.”

Her penchant for authors who veer off the conventional explains, in part, her unique voice. Among her literary influences, Nathan Englander, Junot Diaz and Yiyun Li for contemporary short stories; Gilbert Sorrentino and Katherine Mansfield for paradigm shifts in short fiction.

While Koe admits to being in the early stages of writing a novel, she picks the short-story format for good reason. “It’s very well-suited to the contemporary Singaporean reader, and there’s more in terms of breadth that can be covered in a short-story collection than in a novel.”

Her book has been long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award 2014, and her works have appeared in collections in Germany, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom and the United States. While she’s not one to shy away from controversial subjects, is there anything she won’t write about?

“I wouldn’t write about something I don’t feel for,” she says, adding that she dropped two stories from the original manuscript.

It’s tempting to label Koe a Singaporean Murakami. Her stories, while set in our very familiar city-state, transcend time and space. Clearly, she’s forging not just a distinctive literary voice for Singapore’s contemporary condition, but also a different path for a new generation of writers who will take Singapore fiction to its next chapter.

Amanda Koe’s debut collection of short stories, Ministry of Moral Panic, is available in all major bookstores.

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