When the country’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew famously said in 1969 that “poetry is a luxury we cannot afford”, he surely must not have anticipated the volume of creative work produced by Singaporeans just over 40 years later. Neither could he have foretold that just a few months before his death in March 2015, a compilation titled A Luxury We Cannot Afford: An Anthology of Singapore Poetry was published with contributions from 56 local poets.
In fact, poetry, despite its “high-brow” image, has been a common form of writing in Singapore for a long time. Poet, graphic artist and literary critic Gwee Li Sui attributes the phenomenon to Singaporeans’ love of efficiency. “Some have tied it to how poetry can be written in small pockets of time; others say that our minds are wired for bite-sized approaches to life and art,” he says.
Novelist and poet David Fuhrmann Lim, who launched 99 Stories Dreams Poems in September last year, is a case in point. Admitting that he wrote his novel Sniffing the Equator before there were Internet distractions, he says: “It really is just hard graft, and as a journalist and editor who writes a lot and often, it’s hard to summon the spirit or energy to write something which is long-form. So the micro-fiction format works for me.”
“Writing has gone beyond identity-driven, Singapore-based realism.”
– Poet, graphic artist and literary critic Gwee Li Sui
Against the odds, however, more writers are venturing into prose, resulting in a greater volume of short fiction and novels being published. Kenny Leck, co-founder of Books Actually and its publishing arm, Math Paper Press, says that when the latter started six years ago, it received one or two submissions a month, most of which were poetry.
Today, Math Paper Press sees between five and seven submissions a month split among poetry (40 per cent), fiction (30 per cent) and photography or art-related content (30 per cent). “There is more content than there are publishers,” says Leck. Five-year-old Epigram books, another publisher of Singapore literature, sees an average of 12 submissions a month, across genres. According to its fiction editor, Jason Erik Lundberg, that number represents a more than 80 per cent increase since he started work at the company four years ago.
The surge in submissions offers more possibility of spotting gems. Amanda Lee Koe’s Ministry of Moral Panic, published by Epigram, has made waves both locally and internationally, having been longlisted for the Ireland-based Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award in 2014. The short story collection also won the Singapore Literature Prize for Fiction in the same year, and garnered the award for Best Fiction Title during the Singapore Books Awards in 2016. Sonny Liew’s graphic novel The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which was released earlier last year, has done well locally, as well as in the US, making it to The New York Times’ bestseller list.
“The clearest feature of today’s literary output is its diversity,” says Gwee. “Once, when we thought of popular writing, we would name ghost stories, and when we discussed literary works, we would call up socio-realist fiction. But the high-low divide has become less clear now.”
So, yes, Singaporeans are writing more than ever, and in various formats. An increasing number of individuals of a famously pragmatic nation are putting aside time to pursue their artistic and literary interests, most of whom are doing so while holding down a day job. Fiction writer Claire Tham, for instance, who has published two full-length novels, in addition to three short story collections, is also a practising lawyer. “Writing fiction allows me to create an alternate reality and control it absolutely. I write at night, on weekends and even at work on slow days,” she says.
DEFINED BY DIVERSITY
One would be hard-pressed to pin down exactly what Singapore literature is in a nutshell – and that may be the best thing about it. “We should be celebrating the polyphony of voices here, rather than trying to box it within easily identifiable boundaries,” says Lundberg. Gwee shares: “Writing has gone beyond identity-driven, Singapore-based realism.” To be sure, Singapore’s top writers including Ovidia Yu, Colin Goh and Simon Tay have turned their pens to Bogart-esque crime fiction in a compilation titled Singapore Noir. Edited by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, the author of Sarong Party Girls, the stories set in Singapore’s neighbourhoods deal with issues ranging from maids to mysticism.
We can also see it as a good sign that the question has shifted from “What is Singapore literature?” to “In what way is Singaporean literature truly developing?” Gwee says: “It’s in questioning writing’s purpose and in our awareness of the conditions that shape our literary culture.”
That we have reached the stage where Singapore writers can ponder about such issues is, perhaps, a sign that poetry – and prose for that matter – is not just a luxury we can finally afford, but also one that’s integral to discourse about Singapore society and culture.
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PHOTOGRAPHY Tan Wei Te