Flying Off The Shelves

Published on 30 August 2016

More Singapore books are growing wings and finding new markets overseas. What has sparked this trend?


Books are windows into a country’s soul. Collectively, they tell untold stories not captured by official narratives; but which will matter years into the future, when people try to piece together fragments of fact and fiction to re-create a nation’s journey.


Our stories can add a unique Singaporean flavour to universal themes explored by literary classics through the ages. While authors Catherine Lim and Tan Hwee Hwee have been published by Britain’s Orion Books and Michael Joseph (Penguin imprint) respectively since 1997, it was only recently that Singapore titles have been picked up more consistently by foreign publishers.


Among them, Ovidia Yu’s Aunty Lee’s Chilled Revenge and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan’s Sarong Party Girls by William Morrow (an imprint under HarperCollins), Suchen Christine Lim’s The River’s Song by Aurora Metro Books, Koh Jee Leong’s Steep Tea by Carcanet Press, Alvin Pang’s When the Barbarians Arrive by Arc Publications, and Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh series by Piatkus Books.


Our graphic novels and children’s books are also going places: AJ Low’s Sherlock Sam children’s series — about a Singaporean boy sleuth and his robot sidekick — was released in the United States last month by Andrews McMeel Publishing; while Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye — the first graphic novel to bag the Singapore Literature Prize for English fiction — nabbed a prestigious book deal with Pantheon Books.

THE MYSTERY TRAIL Writing under pen name ‘AJ Low’, the husband-and-wife team of Adan Jimenez and Felicia Low-Jimenez had their children’s series picked up by American publisher Andrews McMeel. 

ON THE SONNY SIDE Singapore Literature Prize winner Sonny Liew inked a book deal with American publisher Pantheon Books for his graphic novel, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.


So what has changed? Poet/literary critic Professor Kirpal Singh believes this recent phenomenon — which he pegs to 2010 and beyond — is due to Singapore taking more proactive steps to secure global attention. “Individual writers themselves are also becoming more confident and reaching out to publishers overseas,” he says. “Several of our writers actually spend real time abroad and this makes it easier for the publishers to make direct approaches.”


May Tan, acting director of sector development (Literary Arts) at the National Arts Council (NAC), adds that Singaporean authors are also writing more novels. “Major publishers are mostly interested in novels as they’re more commercially viable,” she explains. “Our writers and publishers are also more active in selling their rights by attending book fairs and securing representation by literary agents. Agents are particularly important as major foreign publishers tend to rely on reputable ones for their recommendations.”


Singapore-based author Krishna Udayasankar agrees. “Particularly, as a first-time author seeking to break into a market, having a reputed literary agent is crucial. I’ve had the advantage of being represented by Jacaranda,” shares Udayasankar, who has published four novels, including The Aryavarta Chronicles trilogy (Hachette India) and a volume of poetry, Objects of Affection (Math Paper Press). She has also recently signed a two-book deal with Penguin Books.


New York-based Singaporean author Kevin Kwan, whose novels Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend have been published by Doubleday, adds, “In the US publishing world, nothing happens without a literary agent — the major publishers simply do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. I was fortunate that an amazing agent was willing to take a risk on me and go out to the battlefield with my book.


“What American publishers are always searching for is originality,” says Kwan, who was named one of ‘five writers to watch’ in The Hollywood Reporter’s Hollywood’s Most Powerful Authors list. “They want to read a story unlike anything they’ve read before, and they want to be transported to other worlds.”

PHOTO Stephen Gutierrez


The push to internationalise Singapore Literature (Sing Lit) is not just from writers and publishers. Over the past five years, the NAC has invested more on this endeavour than ever before. In the last financial year alone, about S$200,000 was pumped into supporting Singapore writers and publishers reach out to new readers and markets. This is a six-fold increase from five years ago.


“To help Sing Lit gain access internationally, we support publishers to attend fairs such as the London Book Fair, Frankfurt Book Fair, Beijing International Book Fair, Bologna Children’s Book Fair, and Taipei International Book Exhibition,” says Tan, adding that there is strong interest in India for Sing Lit. Singapore was the country-of-focus at the Hyderabad Literary Festival and Chennai Book Fair this year, as well as the New Delhi World Book Fair and Goa Arts & Literary Festival last year.


Cities in Europe such as the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Germany are also key destinations for our writers. Home-grown Epigram Books, for example, has participated in book fairs in Bologna, Frankfurt and London. Says its founder Edmund Wee, “Publishers can tap on the NAC’s Market and Audience Development grant or the Media Development Authority’s Marketing Assistance grant, which supports a pre-approved list of fairs.”


Wee reveals he has plans to break into BookExpo America next year. “For each trip, we bring six months’ worth of new and upcoming releases — that’s a representation of 25 to 50 new authors and illustrators. Once we commit to a book fair, we start making appointments with literary agents and publishers. Our record stands at close to 40 meetings in three days!”


Translating works from Chinese, Malay and Tamil into English has also made Singapore stories more accessible worldwide, providing a rare glimpse into the worlds of Singapore’s minorities. Since 2012, Epigram has translated and published 16 titles. With support from NAC’s translation grant, they translated Malay author Isa Kamari’s book, The Tower, into English; which then enabled him to promote the English version in Edinburgh.

SINGAPORE SHOWCASE The Bologna Children’s Book Fair is one of the many international book fairs Singapore publishers and writers have participated in to actively court foreign publishers. PHOTO Singapore Book Publishers Association

PHOTO Epigram Books


Aside from overseas outreach, capacity building within Singapore has also seen increased fervour in recent years. A good example is a ground-up initiative called Sing Lit Station, a literary non-profit and workshop centre whose key programmes include Singapore Poetry Writing Month (SingPoWriMo), Manuscript Bootcamp, the publishing imprint Ten Year Series, and local poetry resource,


“Many of our writers are regular participants in the workshops. We believe in a peer-driven, broad-based approach; there isn’t much mentorship per se. What we do is gather and critique each other’s works on equal standing. At most, we have a facilitator or moderator to set some ground rules and intervene a bit for the younger groups,” says co-founder and poet Joshua Ip, adding that the moderators include writers Alvin Pang, Pooja Nansi, Ann Ang and himself.


Their signature Manuscript Bootcamp subjects writers’ manuscripts to intensive rigour from multiple sources of professional feedback: from authors Cyril Wong, Alvin Pang, Grace Chia and Ng Yi-Sheng to publishers Kenny Leck (Math Paper Press) and Fong Hoe Fang (Ethos Books), to academics such as Professors Richard Angus Whitehead, Philip Holden and Cornelius Murphy.


“Singapore has always lacked a programme to fine-tune manuscripts. We have plenty of ways to critique poems or stories, but no one really teaches you sequencing, thematic organisation, and all those structural considerations. So this Bootcamp fills a clear gap in the scene,” shares Ip. “My hope is to see the community come together to help each other and nurture the next generation.”

TAKE YOUR PICK Independent bookstore BooksActually gets Sing Lit into public spaces by installing these cool vending machines in various locations around the island. PHOTO BooksActually

As a result of such initiatives, more quality works are surfacing and being picked up by local publishers. “Over the last three years, our publishing arm, Math Paper Press, has steadily put out 30 to 40 titles annually,” reveals BooksActually’s Kenny Leck. To encourage the public to read more Sing Lit, BooksActually introduced book vending machines, which currently dispense books at the National Museum of Singapore, Singapore Visitor Centre at Orchard, and Goodman Arts Centre.

Landmark Books’ Goh Eck Kheng asserts that while major international publishers are driven by trends and commercial considerations, the development of Sing Lit is based on aspects and issues of Singapore that our writers are driven to write about. “The latter has been happening for decades till a canon of Singapore literature — faithful to our culture and history — is now recognised. It’s good that our authors are now being published abroad, but the development of the canon through continued indigenous publishing should also be recognised and valued.”


The role of the Singapore Writers Festival (SWF) and the various literary awards in commending quality cannot be overlooked. The biennial Singapore Literature Prize (SLP), for example, recognises literary excellence in our four official languages — English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil — across poetry, non-fiction and fiction. The winner of each category is awarded S$10,000. With the introduction of the Epigram Books Fiction Prize last year, the bar has been raised for English fiction.


It’s no secret that this new prize — which has doubled from S$20,000 to S$40,000 this year ($25,000 to the winner; $5,000 to each of the three finalists) — was initiated to find the ‘Great Singapore Novel’, one that will bag a Man Booker Prize longlist for Singapore. Already, last year’s finalist Balli Kaur Jaswal, author of Sugarbread, has nabbed a two-book deal with HarperCollins.


“Prizes go a long way to effect change,” states Prof Singh. “Competition enables maturity and depth, and we’re seeing some of our writers embracing serious themes that resonate internationally. One thing which always leads people to want to read literature is the honesty they find in the works they pick up.”


While foreign markets are giving Sing Lit a chance, Singaporeans are slower to warm up to it. In NAC’s National Literary Reading and Writing Survey 2015, it was found that only one in four readers read literary books by Singaporean writers. While schools have included Singapore titles in their English Literature curriculum, the sad truth is that literature as a subject is struggling to gain traction as it’s deemed ‘hard to score’.


Promoting literature in schools with initiatives such as Words Go Round, the SWF’s outreach programme to students, teachers and the community, as well as the teachers-initiated National Schools Literature Festival — which saw some 1,500 students from various schools bring the written word to life through drama, debates, and choral speaking this year — play a vital role in keeping the flame of literature alive.

NEXT CHAPTER The School of the Arts launched its new Literary Arts programme this year to develop students in the art of creative writing in various literary genres.

There’s another silver lining: this year, the School of the Arts launched its new Literary Arts programme, exposing 13- to 18-year-old students to a wide range of literary genres, which they are then guided to experiment with. Meanwhile, LASALLE College of the Arts will be launching its Master’s in Creative Writing programme for 2017.


“As the arts becomes increasingly interdisciplinary, we see a need to take creative writing to the next level. With this master’s programme, we hope to nurture imaginative and flexible writers who can become leading creators of new content: from novels and poetry, to screenwriting, journalism, and even story writing for digital games,” says Venka Purushothaman, provost at LASALLE. “Our collaborative environment is uniquely suited for writers to explore the sheer breadth and depth of genres, styles and opportunities available to them. I think the time is ripe for this next step.”


The ‘Great Singapore Novel’ — whether taken literally as one epic piece of work, or symbolically as an amalgamation of Singapore works that will lead to a tipping point — doesn’t seem so far out of reach, judging from our maturing literary scene. Prof Singh reckons it will happen within the next 10 years.


“The irony is that the greatest literary works are also the most ‘local’. Even the most minuscule of focus, when beautifully described and narrated, gains significant attention because it is new, refreshing and unusual,” he reflects. “So the sooner we forget about our readers and put all our creative energies into writing strong, good stuff, the sooner we will get an international readership.


“There’s so much of deep, keen interest and uniqueness here that we shouldn’t be afraid, but be robust in our exploration and articulation,” Prof Singh adds. “Ultimately, it is the strength and the beauty of our writing, and our imaginative and realistic depth, that will impress — not a pretence, not any slavish imitation of the so-called ‘big themes’. We need to be honest, first and foremost. Then the readers will come — from everywhere.”

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