Singapore Unbound Winner Bound for the Big Apple

Published on 18 June 2017

Emerging playwright Nur Sabrina Binte Dzulkifli to spend two weeks in New York City – purely to be inspired.

By PAMELA HO

Photo: Michael Geffner
Singapore Literature Festival in NYC event, co-presented with Asia Society. From l-r: Filipina American author Gina Apostal; Filipina American author Jessica Hagedorn; Singaporean author Alfian Sa'at; Singaporean author Jeremy Tiang; American moderator Harold Augenbraum.
Second Saturdays Reading Series gathering in a Brooklyn home. (clockwise) Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and featured author of the evening Vijay Seshadri, organizer Koh Jee Leong; host Al Rozario-Falcone; Singaporean poet Christine Chia; Singaporean ceramicist Wee Hong-Ling.

The Singapore Unbound Fellowship may just be US$5,000 and two weeks in New York City, but it stands for so much more. Birthed in the United States, Singapore Unbound is a ground-up initiative that exists to build understanding through cultural exchange. Their flagship activities include the biennial Singapore Literature Festival in New York and the Second Saturdays Reading Series, a platform for Singaporean and American writers to share their works in intimate venues around NYC.

Their inaugural Fellowship was launched this year with the intention of cultivating literary talent by immersing a Singaporean author in NYC’s cultural life. From a field of 20 candidates, the judges – Constance Singam, Tan Dan Feng and Philip Holden (respected members of Singapore’s literary circle) – picked 20-year-old Nur Sabrina Binte Dzulkifli, a 2015 graduate of the School of the Arts.

“Sabrina was picked, first and foremost, for her literary talent and promise. She submitted excerpts from two plays: The first, titled Counting, is about the changing friendship between two childhood friends, and is an exploration of marginalised identities in terms of race, religion and sexuality,” says New York-based Singaporean poet Koh Jee Leong, founder of Singapore Unbound. “The second, Under My Skin, tackles the stigmatised topic of post-natal depression through the use of visual imagery and physicality. Sabrina is unafraid of examining controversial topics and committed to doing so in innovative ways.”

While the winner is required to make an appearance at an event (a reading, panel or school visit) organised by Singapore Unbound, she is completely free to design her programme in the Big Apple. There are no other requirements tagged to the Fellowship. “We believe in selecting the best candidate and then letting her free to experience and respond to NYC. We see this approach as aiding a writer’s long-term organic development.”

Sabrina plans to head there next April. “I intend to consume all the art I can there. Catch a show on Broadway, visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and have friends show me around. Urban spaces like New York are much more interesting once you get under its shiny veneer,” says the emerging playwright. “As for developing the play I’m working on, I’ll be collecting stories while I’m there, then sorting through them later. That’s part of my natural process of writing. I also plan to visit the 9/11 memorial, and to set up interviews with a few organisations to begin mining stories and ideas.”

Sabrina’s understanding of the Singapore theatre scene and how she can contribute to it with what she may learn from NYC impressed Koh. “She’s concerned to develop her art, and not merely her career, and to make a contribution to Singapore.”

Sabrina is currently interning with Checkpoint Theatre to learn the production and administrative side of Singapore theatre, as well as involved with Main Tulis Group, a writers’ circle founded by Nabilah Said (playwright/Straits Times arts correspondent). “It’s a space to meet up and exchange our writing and feedback once a month. There’s a good mix of experienced and up-and-coming playwrights in the group; and as a young playwright, it has been an invaluable support system.”

As for what she hopes to achieve as a Singapore writer, Sabrina reflects, “That’s something I’ve been grappling with lately. As of now, I just want to be a better writer. I want to write stories that make people go, ‘oh hey, never thought of it like that before’; stories about the working class and middle-class Singaporeans around me. What I can offer is just writing that has a lot of heart.”

Sabrina will be presenting a reading of her work at the award event held on 19 July, 7pm, at Artistry Gallery Cafe. Admission is free.

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