One Small Voice: Edmund Wee

Published on 31 March 2015

How do we put Singapore fiction on the world map? We get a novel on the Man Booker Prize shortlist, says publisher Edmund Wee.

I grew up reading Singapore fiction, books like The Adventures of Holden Heng, Spider Boys and Son of Singapore. I realise young people today don’t know what life was like in the past, and they can’t read about it because all these books are out of print.

So when I set up Epigram Books in 2011, one of the first things I did was to approach these authors and ask to buy the rights to their books. I re-edited, re-published and launched them under the Singapore Classics series.

In the early days, we had good fiction writers like Catherine Lim, Gopal Baratham, Goh Poh Seng and Stella Kon. They were brought up under the British system — they could write well, were interested in writing, and they wrote!

But there came a period where few wrote because we were told building the economy was more important than writing our stories. Then, if young people told their parents they wanted to be a writer or artist, they would’ve been hit on the head and told, “Don’t be mad, go and get a proper job!” So we lost that whole generation of stories.

But I think we have moved to a stage now where parents are more open and supportive, so we’re getting a new generation of young writers — like Amanda Lee Koe and Dave Chua — who say, “I want to write!” And they’re actively pursuing creative writing courses overseas.

Two years ago, I declared that one of the goals of Epigram Books is to get a Singaporean writer on the Man Booker Prize shortlist or longlist within five years. Since the Man Booker Prize only considers novels, I’m channelling my energy into acquiring novels. How? Submit your novels and I’ll give the winner $20,000, more than what any publisher will give you, even in the West.

I’m not rich, my company is still in the red, but I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is. I’ll publish your novel and I’ll take it to London. Stop looking for an American or British publisher. We care for your story, more than a foreigner will ever care for your novel.

Fiction is important to a country. It’s all about stories that bond people: For an American, if you talk about the spirit of Tom Sawyer, everyone knows it’s the American spirit of adventure! In England, back in 1837, a writer wrote a novel about an orphan. When I ask kids, “Do you know who he is?” Everyone knows — Oliver Twist! Do you know who wrote the book? Charles Dickens! Then I ask them, do you know who was the Prime Minister of England at the time? What did he do? Nobody knows, nor do they really care.

Dickens wrote Oliver Twist 178 years ago and he’s still remembered today. So I tell students, “Look, 100 years from now, nobody will remember who the fifth Prime Minister of Singapore was. But if you were to write a book that is so fantastic, it will last forever.”

Great books do not die — whether it’s Romeo & Juliet or Dream of the Red Chamber. When you write a great book, it lives on forever.

Edmund Wee is a home-grown publisher and CEO of Epigram Books, which published Amanda Lee Koe’s Ministry of Moral Panic, winner of the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize (English Fiction). He was a psychologist with the civil service and a journalist with The Straits Times before setting up his own design firm, Epigram, in 1991. In 2008, he won the prestigious President’s Design Award for Designer of the Year. Wee’s career took another turn in 2011 when he set up Epigram Books. He publishes almost 50 books a year and is a fierce champion of Singapore Literature.

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