Singapore Poetry asked notable Singaporeans in the arts and academia to pick their favorite book of the year, written or translated into English. 26 responded kindly to the request. We are pleased to present what we hope is the first of an annual round-up of books that matter to the intellectual and imaginative life of Singapore’s writers, artists, and thinkers.
Annaliza Bakri, educator and translator. There are evocative poems in Alvin Pang’s When the Barbarians Arrive (Arc Publication), an excellent articulation of issues that alternately warms and chills the soul. The book is full of local flavor but it is also an honest portrayal of not-so-common humanity that strikes the mind without mercy.
David Chew, art curator. Some prominent Singaporean photographers got together to start what essentially feels like a time capsule project to document and archive the ever-changing Singapore landscape, and a snapshot of the Singapore photography scene itself. The founders of Platform–Tay Kay Chin, Darren Soh, Ernest Goh and Leonard Goh–are the photographers behind TWENTYFIFTEEN, a project to celebrate Singapore’s 50th anniversary of her independence. 20 photographers have been selected to create 15 images each, published in individual folios in the months leading up to August 9, 2015. These folios document the everyday, the unusual, the intimate, and the foreign, from portraits of family members to caricatures of the Singaporean psyche, both natural and manmade landscapes, all co-existing on this one island. Seen in totality, TWENTYFIFTEEN is an ambitious but noble art book project that will be remembered for years to come.
Chong Tze Chien, theater director and playwright. I’m so glad to finally get my hands on Haresh Sharma’s Eclipse (The Necessary Stage), which I missed when it was first staged in 2007 in Scotland and subsequently in 2008 in Singapore. The work not only contains the hallmarks of Haresh’s writing such as detailed character portraits and emotional prowess, the theme of lost culture and legacy is also poignantly refracted through the many narrative layers embedded in the protagonist’s journey–an intimate journey of epic proportions.
Ian Chung, editor. Brilliant title aside, We Were Always Eating Expired Things by Cheryl Julia Lee (Math Paper Press) is a quietly confident debut, showing us the ways in which we connect with each other, or do not, or cannot. Of particular interest is the sequence of prose poems interspersed throughout the collection, which build upon each other into an emotional mini-narrative.
Jeremy Fernando, writer. 3 texts called out to me–both in very similar ways in that they moved me, deeply; but at the same time in extremely different ways: one made me chuckle, the other made me almost cry, with another i cried with laughter. But in the singularity of their calls echoed a sincere opening to the possibility of thought, an invitation to read, to walk with. Choosing which path to take–if i had only to choose one–was not only an impossibility, but would have been an effacement of their very invitations. Elfriede Jelinek’s Her Not All Her: on/with Robert Walser, translated by Damion Searls (Sylph Editions), is a beautiful meditation on not only the life and work of Walser, but takes you on a walk with the narrator as she walks with his words, his thoughts. Ostensibly a play–but without any stage direction–it also opens the possibility that it is a tale told through voices, through the movement of sound. Julian Gough’s Jude in London (Old St Publishing) might have been one of the funniest, and smartest, books that I’ve ever read. It channels the madness of Miguel de Cervantes, with the irreverence of Flann O’Brien, on speed. Juli Crockett’s [or, the whale] (Delere Press), a play, is a retelling of Moby Dick from, through, the point of Ahab’s lost leg. So, a love story–a very mad one. With beautiful illustrations by Singaporean artist Ivy Maya, the text is also an intimate conversation between words, actions, drama, and art.
Gwee Li Sui, poet, graphic novelist and literary critic. Last Train from Tanjong Pagar by Koh Hong Teng (Epigram Books). If there is a subgenre of writing Singapore is becoming alarmingly good in, it is the literature of nostalgia. Hong-Teng Koh’s graphic novel Last Train from Tanjong Pagar continues this ascent, crafting a poignant and visually appealing tale that has the now-inoperative Tanjong Pagar Railway Station as both a setting and a silent protagonist. The parallel stories here resemble rail tracks that go on surprising, distinct journeys of discovery while, together, they become something else: a map of the personal endeavours and sacrifices shaping Singaporean life. This book moves me calmly but muscularly, in ways I have not expected.
Haresh Sharma, playwright. My favourite Singapore book I read in 2014 is The Law of Second Marriages by Christine Chia (Math Paper Press). I’m not a big poetry reader but with this book I was captivated from the very first poem. Christine is able to capture moments, relationships and emotions in a way that is both raw and pristine, tragic and transcendental.
Philip Holden, literary scholar. First English translation of Yeng Pway Ngon’s Art Studio by Goh Beng Choo and Loh Guan Liang (Math Paper Press). An unraveling and then retying of many threads of the history of Singapore and Malaysia over the past half century, shot through with a very personal interrogation of the ethical possibilities of artistic representation.
Huzir Sulaiman, playwright. I nominate Amanda Lee Koe’s Ministry of Moral Panic (Epigram Books): a magnificent collection of short stories that are as formally innovative as they are profoundly human, compassionate and insightful.
Joshua Ip, poet. Ministry of Moral Panic, by Amanda Lee Koe, published by Epigram Books. No other work I have read in the last two years has bent my head around in such uncomfortable knots, while simultaneously giving off the comforting aroma of familiarity. It pulls off the contortionist act of being dreadfully Singaporean and unSingaporean at the same time–every story, every sentence is in its improper place.
Anthony Waugh Koh, writer-bookseller. Trivialities About Me and Myself by Yeng Pway Ngon (Epigram Books), translated by Howard Goldblatt. Any struggle with morality and identity is a struggle with reality. Until now, the protagonist lives in me. It’s scary.
Lydia Kwa, fiction writer. My pick is Amanda Lee Koe’s Ministry of Moral Panic (Epigram Books). Exciting, surprising, and so unpredictable in the sense that the stories are never formulaic. At the same time, they are filled with people who get under your skin and move you with their familiar yet eerie tendencies. My second: The Wayang at Eight Milestone: Stories and Essays by Gregory Nalpon (Epigram Books). A wonderful collection edited by Angus Whitehead.
Lee Yew Leong, editor. Recalling Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist and Chu T’ien-wen’s Notes of a Desolate Man, Desmond Kon’s erudite new book Singular Acts of Endearment (Squircle Press & Grey Sparrow Press) is rooted in discovery—with thrilling excursions into post-structuralist theory, fashion, pop culture, religion, film, botany, and Singaporean trivia. Don’t be fooled by the faux modesty of the preface; Kon’s ligature-loosened kueh lapis text is gloriously readable—and a singular work of art.
Donald Low, economist. Francia Fukuyama’s Political Order and Political Decay, published this year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Fukuyama’s three institutions of political development–a strong state, the rule of law, and democratic accountability–are perhaps the clearest and most persuasive articulation of what it takes for fast modernizing countries to become developed ones. Despite being a 600-page tome, its pace is brisk and the writing simple and compelling. I can’t think of a more fulfilling read this Christmas.
Ng Yi-Sheng, poet, playwright and activist. Amanda Lee Koe’s Ministry of Moral Panic (Epigram Books). It really is an incredible collection–the settings of the stories will be deeply familiar to Singaporeans, and yet the emotional territories they explore are vast, and their conclusions devastating.
O Thiam Chin, fiction writer. My choice of best book of the year is Francesca Mariano’s The Other Language (Pantheon). The best stories are those that always full of surprises–of language, of wit, of beauty, and in this brilliantly crafted collection, you have all these, and more–an incisive, bold-faced look into the depth of the human condition that binds us all. As for a Singaporean title, I recommend the Best New Singaporean Short Stories: Volume One (Epigram Books), which showcases the best in contemporary Singaporean writing now, with a diverse multitude of local voices that tackle their subjects with tooth and claw, flair and finesse.
Alvin Pang, poet and editor. My most pleasant book find of the year was We Were Always Eating Expired Things by Cheryl Julia Lee (Math Paper Press). It’s the finest debut collection of poems I’ve read in a while, with an assured, moving voice full of hard-won knowing and heart.
Wena Poon, fiction writer. The best books are clearly labors of love for the authors and publishers and are not mass produced and shoved in our faces by media corporations. Kyoto: The Forest Within the Gate (White Pine Press) is a new 2014 book that can benefit from some word of mouth. It contains black and white photographs of Kyoto temples by John Einarsen, founder of the veteran publication Kyoto Journal. On the strength of some of its photos alone, I consider it a worthy collectible. If you look on the market, there are surprisingly few trade paperbacks outside of Japan dedicated to the photography of Kyoto, let alone of its world-famous temples. This book mirrors the very Japanese appreciation of negative space. Pages are almost blank, but for a line of calligraphy, or a single evocative photo of snow. Yet so much of Kyoto’s teeming history is contained in this silence. Bravo! My second nomination is a 2013 Singapore title, Decoration & Symbolism In Chinese Architecture Understanding Singapore’s Historic Chinese Buildings, (Presentation of Sites and Monuments: National Heritage Board) by the Singaporean art historian and NUS alumni Kang Ger-Wen. Its rather prosaic title hides the fact that this is a lavish and revelatory visual encyclopedia of Chinese architecture in Singapore. If these buildings had all been preserved, Singapore would look like Suzhou or Kyoto today. Weep for our lost buildings, but celebrate our historians who lovingly chart them still. This paperback is beautifully made by Editions Didier Millet and designed for the lay reader. Containing full-color photos on every page, it is very readable, meticulously researched, and on par with the best books on the subject of Asian architecture. It will change your vision of Singapore forever.
Thirunalan Sasitharan, theater critic and educator. Embracing the Strange by Jason Erik Lundberg (Math Paper Press). This little, perfectly elegant essay-talk-hybrid of a book bends genres, challenges convention and dares to dream of the possibilities of prose and writing in a manner that is at once delightful and invigorating. It restores your faith in the imagination.
Alvin Tan, theater director. Chai: Travel Poems by Marc Daniel Nair (red wheelbarrow books). The collection of poems transports me to Asian countries (Bali, North Luzon and India) I have yet to visit but retains a Singaporean perspective. I appreciate this as a theatre director working on original Singaporean plays for 27 years with playwright Haresh Sharma. There is indeed something special when one creates from a buttressed existence. We can contest as well as be contested. Reading Chai: Travel Poems made me think that it’s high time to rid of the concept of the motherland. It is time to put the concept of diaspora to rest. We are at home wherever we are in these post-post colonial times, and we shouldn’t have to define our identity with respect to where we were born.
Joel Bertrand Tan, playwright. I choose Cheryl Julia Lee’s We Were Always Eating Expired Things (Math Paper Press). These are poems of fraught relationships between men and women, poems that speak to a deep, elemental sadness. I found the bones of my old heartbreaks in these poems, and was touched and surprised.
Tan Pin Pin, filmmaker. Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon (Scribner Classics). Food for thought. Reflective essays on the pleasures and terrors of the biological imperative.
Jeremy Tiang, writer and translator. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Random House) is a vivid depiction of immigrant life, and examines how difficult it is for those who left their home countries to fit in once they return. Although this book takes the Nigerian diasporic community as its subject, it will resonate with anyone who’s spent an extended period of time in a foreign land. I also recommend A Certain Exposure by Jolene Tan (Epigram Books), an exciting debut novel that delves beneath the surface of Singapore society, questioning the dominant value systems and asking if there’s a better way for us to live.
Jason Wee, artist and poet. Ryan Teitman’s Litany for the City (BOA Editions) has been steady, rewarding company for the past months. Teitman moves like a hawk, his sight enjoining wonder to spatial wonder. Having a first book out recently, I’ve been attentive to first works by others, and Teitman’s a marvel. Lee Kuan Yew’s The Battle for Merger (Straits Times Press, 1961, 2014) has just been reissued, and in the words of the historian Hong Lysa, is remarkable for ‘its zealousness, kicking an own goal in the process’. For anyone interested in the staging of history as state apologia and spectacle for Singapore’s 50th anniversary next year, this is necessary reading.
Cyril Wong, poet and fiction writer. The book that has touched me the most for 2014 is Gwee Li Sui’s One Thousand and One Nights (Landmark Books). Gwee has never shied from being contrary to any semblance of the norm, whether as a poet, graphic-novelist, critic, etc. From writing funny “nonsense” verses in his first collection, Who Wants to Buy a Book of Poems?, to his latest volume of love poems, one never knows what he is going to write about next, or how he is going to write it. Compared to his first book, as well as any other book of poems published this same year (in my opinion), Gwee’s poems are shockingly tender, even heartbreaking. They represent the best parts of a romance that has actually lasted, curiously enough, one thousand and one nights in total. The trope of storytelling is obvious from the start, but meta-literary aspects are not as worthwhile unpacking as the emotional artistry of the poems. The end of the relationship is always in sight, but never dived into, rendering such moments that have come before as even more precious, miraculous, and poignantly remembered.
Yeow Kai Chai, poet. Nothing thrills me more than picking up a book by an author I have previously never heard of, and be dazzled by its formal virtuosity and audacious heart. Vijay Seshadri’s 3 Sections (Graywolf Press), which won the Pulitzer Prize in the poetry category in 2014, was one such gem. It’s so casually brilliant. It ranges far and wide, without losing sight of humanity. A Singapore title I enjoyed tremendously this year is One Thousand and One Nights by Gwee Li Sui (Landmark Books). His online persona is a smarty-pants humorist, but really he’s a pussycat. The poems chronicle his love and heartache, and you feel the smithereens in every bone-crunching syllable.