Step in the Write Direction

Published on 28 November 2017

Epigram Books CEO Edmund Wee (centre) with EBFP 2017 winners, Sebastian Sim, Judith Huang, Akshita Nanda and Andre Yeo (Photo: Epigram Books)

The Epigram Books Fiction Prize was launched, in part, to get a Singapore novel longlisted for the Man Booker Prize within five years. Three years on, how is Singapore’s richest literary prize fairing?

By Pamela Ho

Epigram Book CEO Edmund Wee with EBFP 2017 winner Sebastian Sim (Photo: Epigram Books)

Singapore may not have had a novel longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, but since the Epigram Books Fiction Prize (EBFP) was launched in 2015, almost 180 manuscripts have been submitted. They cover genres as varied as literary, contemporary, sci-fi, speculative, crime, fantasy, and more. “The EBFP was started to get people to write the novel they’ve been thinking about,” says Edmund Wee, CEO of Epigram Books. “Not every novel has to travel. Those that can, we’ll bring to London.”

A UK office has been set up for this purpose. Book prizes – the Man Booker especially – can propel a novel into global consciousness, he believes, and this translates to book sales. To encourage more people to write novels, Wee is dangling an attractive carrot: S$25,000 to the winner and S$5,000 to each of the other three finalists. The EBFP is currently the richest literary prize in Singapore.

One of the fruits of this initiative is that it has birthed many first-time novelists. Some have previously published short stories, poetry or non-English novels, but now continue to write novels in English. Among them, O Thiam Chin, Tham Cheng-E, Nuraliah Norasid, Jeremy Tiang, and EBFP 2017 winner, Sebastian Sim.

The Winning Formula

Sebastian Sim (Photo: Epigram Books)

Sim’s first manuscript, Let’s Give It Up for Gimme Lao!, was shortlisted for the 2015 EBFP but fell short of winning. Undeterred, the office executive – who has published several books in Chinese – kept writing. His latest novel, The Riot Act, beat 46 other submissions to win the 2017 EBFP. So what was the main difference in approaching the writing this time around?

Gimme Lao was character driven, so the early feedback was that the narrative was like wild vines growing in all directions. The Riot Act is plot driven. The characters are created to serve the themes and the narrative development. Thus they are not given the same measure of time and space to develop with backstories,” reveals Sim. “It’s a conscious sacrifice for a faster pace and a tighter plot.”

The novel is a surrealistic retelling of the Little India riot, through the perspectives of three women: Hashwini wonders if she caused the chaos, Jessica deliberates if she should tell the truth about what really happened in the ambulance, and Sharon thinks the incident can boost her political career. “The same event can trigger diametrically opposite reactions. Over time, the truth gets distorted. It is the classic Rashomon effect. And bigger players strategically apply this to serve their organisational or political agenda. I wanted to reflect this in a farcical light.”

Poetry to Prose

Judith Huang (Photo: Epigram Books)

For Judith Huang – a three-time winner of the UK Poetry Society’s Foyle Young Poet of the Year award – Sofia and the Utopia Machine is her first foray into novel writing. Set in futuristic Singapore, the story revolves around 13-year-old protagonist, Sofia, who accidentally creates a new world, using a machine in her mother’s Biopolis laboratory.

“Sci-fi dystopia is one of my favourite genres. Some of the touchstone texts I read growing up were 1984 and Brave New World, and I wanted to contribute to society by sounding the warnings about certain things wrong with it, in that grand tradition,” says Huang, who wanted to challenge herself to write in long-form prose. “A friend challenged me to nanowrimo [national novel writing month] – a worldwide movement to get novels written within a month – and that’s how I got a first draft!”

It is Huang’s hope that readers – especially young readers – will be able to see themselves in her protagonist. “Growing up, I didn’t get to read many Singapore novels about people like me. I hope that will change with a growing canon of literature set in our country. I hope readers will be able to feel that adventure exists here too, and that our city can be as storied as London or New York. As a sci-fi writer, I want Singapore to feature in the imaginative future as much as any other city!”

News to Novel

Andre Yeo (Photo: Epigram Books)

Dealing with hard facts as a journalist hasn’t made Andre Yeo any less imaginative. “The reason I’ve been in journalism for 21 years is because I’m fascinated by why people do the things they do, whether it’s committing a crime or making sacrifices for strangers,” says the deputy news editor with The New Paper. “People are motivated by certain desires, needs and wants; and being a journalist has helped me be more observant of these things.”

His first novel, 9th of August, is set in Singapore in the not-too-distant future. Six suicide bombers have slipped into the country. Their mission is to set off explosives on Singapore’s 55th National Day. The story revolves around Inspector Rahim, Henry (a single parent), and Tun (an Afghan terrorist) – all of whom are fathers. “Being a parent is one of the toughest jobs in the world. I wanted to explore how adversity would push them to the limit and test their characters,” says Yeo, a father of four.

The reality of a terrorist attack on Singapore soil is not inconceivable. “We live in an age where we’re told to report suspicious people or objects, even loved ones who may be radicalised. Those of us growing up in the 1980s or 90s never had to worry about such things,” he reflects. “But we must not be beaten into submission by the threat of terrorism. If we show we’re still determined to live life to the fullest, then that’s the best possible way to show the terrorists they can never win.”

Across Time and Space

Akshita Nanda (Photo: Epigram Books)

Readers of The Straits Times will know Akshita Nanda as an arts writer, but she proves to be a gifted novelist as well, with her first novel Nimita’s Place, a story of two women who share the same name but walk very different paths in life. The Nimita who lives in 1940s India yearns to go to university and be an engineer, but accepts her fate and marries; while the Nimita in present-day Singapore is a microbiologist who runs away from the prospect of marriage.

“It’s a book about alienation and integration, about the evolving economic and social realities of Singapore and the world. This is the story of a contemporary Raffles or Chettiar or Samsui woman. It’s the new immigrant’s perspective on a nation close to forgetting that it was founded by immigrant groups equally wary of each other’s differences,” she elaborates, adding that food as a unifying factor features prominently in her story, as it does in her life.

To create her worlds, Nanda researched extensively about India in the 1940s and Singapore from 2013 to 2016. “I had to immerse myself in the way people thought and behaved in both time zones. But research is done so that it can be eventually discarded. Readers crave empty spaces in the text that they can fit themselves into, but these must be created deliberately. Readers will not forgive a plot hole created by bad research.”

But all the work is worthwhile when readers connect with her story. “We all want to love and be loved. We all want to belong somewhere. Those who read my early drafts recognised themselves at different parts of the story – that makes me happy.”

So while the search goes on for Singapore’s first novel to be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, our canon of literature grows in the process, with Singapore stories told in a myriad of genres. Perhaps that’s more priceless than the prize – what we find along the way as we search.

You can pre-purchase your collection of all four EBFP 2017 shortlisted novels here, or find out more about the Prize here.

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