For Singapore Poetry’s 3rd Annual Books Round-up, we again asked Singaporean writers, artists, and thinkers, living in Singapore and abroad, for their favorite read of the year. The book does not have to be written by a Singaporean, but if it isn’t, contributors could recommend a second title that is by a Singaporean. We received 32 contributions, offering a delightful diversity of readings, from poetry to memoirs, from Buddhist lectures to political cartoons, from banished books to feminist princesses. We hope you enjoy reading all the contributions as much as we’ve enjoyed compiling them. Please support independent publishers and booksellers by ordering from them directly. As always, we are grateful to our contributors. Thank you!
Alvin Tan, theater director. Heaven Has Eyes by Philip Holden (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2016) is a collection of sensitively written short stories unfurling a range of complex, uneasy and often difficult to define emotions and sensibilities a citizen, permanent resident and otherwise has with a country. There is no huge dramatic plot twist but thoughtful sculptured scenarios, deliciously described with artful simplicity and poetic nuances of the ways in which human beings negotiate between what they wish for and what they are confronted with in life.
Richard Angus Whitehead, literary critic, educator, and assistant professor. Year on year it seems to get harder and harder to choose a Favourite Singapore lit book because authors and presses pragmatically pump out exponentially more and more – this humble critic was swamped years ago! As to prose it has to be Philip Holden’s wonderfully written first book of short stories Heaven Has Eyes (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2016). Rarely have I been so struck and discombobulated on reading stories from and/ or about Singapore – born of a lifetime’s study of Anglophone lit and a half-lifetime in the Chinese inflected tip of a Malay archipelago, inventive, groundbreaking, carefully crafted, haunting, with three imagined incarnations of Harry Lee Kuan Yew to boot! Poetry in Singapore makes for an even harder choice: there have excellent new collections by Theophilus Kwek, and very promising newer poets Amanda Chong, Deborah Emanuel, Daryl Lim, but I choose Marc Nair’s Spomenik (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2016) – a book almost Blakean in its weaving and juxtaposition of arresting images and finely crafted poems inspired by the sacred troubled ground of the former Yugoslavia. It is gratifying to see a local poet travelling quite literally out and away from his comfort zone with awesome, accessible, moving results: five thousand miles from ‘Sing to the Yawn’!
Anthony Koh Waugh, bookseller and writer. Let’s Give it Up for Gimme Lao (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2016) is an outstanding debut English novel from Chinese novelist, Sebastian Sim. I was hooked to the book from the school excursion drama scene onward. Chapter after chapter, Sebastian continues to woo me with colourful characters and familiar events. His clever storytelling is tempting me to read it again and Gimme Lao’s mother is the character I would like to re-examine. Given a chance to name this book, I’d re-title it Let’s Give it Up for Mary Lao.
Boedi Widjaja, visual artist. David Wong Hsien Ming’s For The End Comes Reaching (Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2015). David’s poems are epic and excruciatingly personal. Reading his work is akin to observing the vast, expanding universe from within a mother’s womb, and to hear again and again, the thunderous shout of a star, before it dies.
Christine Chia, poet. My book of the year is Happiness, Love, and Liberation: Insights and Teachings from Buddhist Psychology by Thich Nhat Hanh (Sounds True, 2015). It is actually an audiobook of Buddhist lectures given by Thich Nhat Hanh. It’s not recent but it’s timely soul medicine in the age of Trump and the rise of authoritarianism worldwide. Thich Nhat Hanh speaks with love, wisdom and humor. My Singaporean book of the year is Best Of by Haresh Sharma (Singapore: The Necessary Stage, 2014). It’s a beautiful play devised for the luminous Siti Khalijah. Please catch the play if you can. If not, please read the play. It will make you laugh and cry.
Cyril Wong, poet and fictionist. Now That It’s Over by O Thiam Chin (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2016). Because it’s a book about splintering relationships, as well as death in the wake of a tsunami, that divides readers, making it easier for me to reaffirm which side of the human fence I align myself with, both as a reader and as a writer: the side that exists in denial of the trauma of impermanence, the beautiful horror of dying, or the side that is blithely optimistic. This novel is far from pessimistic, however; it’s a meditation, simultaneously a languishing and a celebration, on time, on erotic attachment and the bewildering heroism of love.
Dan Koh, independent writer and editor. Faith Ng: Plays Volume 1, by Faith Ng, edited by Lucas Ho, with an introduction by Philip Holden (Singapore: Checkpoint Theatre, forthcoming 10 Dec. Photo courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre.). Ostensibly about familial and romantic companionships that love so hard it hurts; broken-down and beautiful adolescence; the nuances plus limits of languages, connection and communication and more, Faith’s plays are often pigeonholed as merely autobiographical or personal. Encountering Faith’s first breath of words on the page—her loose trilogy of full-lengths and five short plays—instead highlights how she has diversely transmuted lived experience into art, which bursts the dams of documentary to traverse everyday and even metaphysical magical realism; challenges so-called universality by zooming in so far beyond hyper-local that this place becomes yours; confronts the political through the private and insistently writes the marginalised back towards the centre—empathetically, uproariously and always truthfully. I prefer her version of humanity and can’t wait for the next volume already.
David Chew, art curator and civil servant. The Birthday Book, edited by Malminderjit Singh (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2016). One year after the nation’s jubilee celebrations have died down, 51 young Singaporeans (all under the age of 45) have come together in Singapore’s 51st year to pen heartfelt but also visionary ideas for how and what will shape Singapore society in the future. From technological advances to our collective identity, the richness of views and opinions in this book all point to one thing – expressing the power of the individual in believing and working towards a collective good. A new volume will be published every year around the time of the nation’s birthday in August, with the number of young Singaporeans contributing corresponding to the nation’s age since independence.
Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé, poet and fictionist. Having come away from teaching the war poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, I was thrilled to encounter the sharp-edged writing within Look by Solmaz Sharif (USA: Graywolf Press, 2016). These texts are searing, unrelenting. Employing an array of terms from a military dictionary, Sharif writes up the vagaries of war through such imaginative architectonics – yet, the work is penetrating, decidedly intimate in how it relates the sheer absurdity of today’s manufactured violence. Other books that create stunningly refreshing lyric out of personal/public history include Loh Guan Liang’s Bitter Punch and Daryl Lim Wei Jie’s A Book of Changes. The luminosity of Lost Bodies (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2016) stands out in particular. This is the second collaborative project from the traveling troubadour party of Heng Siok Tian, Phan Ming Yen, Yeow Kai Chai and Yong Shu Hoong, just a year after their earlier story collection, The Adopted. The first book was borne out of Angkor, and the second out of Portugal. It’s delightful to witness how each author – each possessing such a distinct vocal register – translates a stimulus, gathering poetic suites that turn and twist and yaw and bend and curve along an invisible axis of levered sentiment. It’s the access to such layered sentiment that provides this book its deep shelf of gravitas.
Haresh Sharma, playwright. I had the greatest pleasure of reading Balli Kaur Jaswal’s novel Inheritance (Revised Edition, Singapore: Epigram Books, 2016) and it is simply the best novel I’ve read this year and in recent years. Where do I even begin – the characters, the relationships, the narrative…. From the very first sentence, Balli is able to make me care for her characters. Nothing else mattered after that. I wanted Amrit, the young, rebellious daughter, to overcome her pain, to get a grip on her life; I wished for Narain, her brother, to get stronger, be empowered, break free from the shackles of his family. The journey of these characters, in the context of a recognisably changing Singapore, makes for an incredibly poignant novel – every page opens its arms to you, waiting, hoping, for a hug.
Heman Chong, artist. “I sleep in a bunk bed. One room is for eleven people. The sound of someone passing gas can be heard every night. The smell can make you lose your senses instantly. Sometimes the stench makes me want to do something nasty. I imagine hanging a bag of donkey shit in front of the noses of the ones who are fast asleep, so that they will dream of swimming in a mud hole and they’ll be delirious all night long.” Linda Christianty, “A Dog Died in Bala Murghab” from Afterwork Readings. Afterwork Readings (Hong Kong: Parasite, 2016) is a deep, dense, and complex anthology with a heady mix of short stories and essays from full-time professional writers (like Eka Kurniawan) talking about domestic workers and full-time domestic workers (like Linda Christianty) talking about their lives as domestic workers. It is published in English (for obvious reasons), traditional Chinese (because one of the publishers and initiator of the project, Parasite, is a contemporary art institution in Hong Kong) and Bahasa Indonesia (because the group who produced the processes that led to the anthology is KUNCI and they’re based in Yogyakarta). The kind of dexterity and perseverance required to make a book in three language is unbelievable. Just try it and I can assure you that you’ll be in tears within 5 days. Anyway, I digress. So, I guess what I’m trying to say is: maybe in 2017, instead of picking up another fucking novel that describes, in shitty details, the lives of the rich and privileged (you know exactly which fucking novel I’m talking about), perhaps, you can pick this book up and unpack all the anger, claustrophobia, the longing and the pain of the millions of individuals who have been cleaning up after you and your lavish lifestyles.
Hong-Ling Wee, ceramicist. Malay Sketches by Alfian Sa’at (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2012). Alfian is a great story-teller. It’s easy to identify with the strength and fragility of the characters. Malay Sketches provides a window into the culture without being heavy-handed on stereotypes.
Ian Chung, writer and editor. BooksActually’s Gold Standard 2016, edited by Julie Koh (Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2016). This is an anthology featuring the short fiction of Asian writers from a variety of backgrounds, including works in translation. An exciting addition to the recent spate of poetry and fiction anthologies coming out of the Singaporean literary scene, it will be interesting to see how it continues to develop as a curatorial project in subsequent years.
Jason Soo, filmmaker. The best thing I read this year is from last year. To Our Friends by The Invisible Committee (USA: Semiotext(e), 2015) is a book of joy. A glance at some chapter headings should be enticement enough: “Power is Logistic. Block Everything!”, “Today Libya, Tomorrow Wall Street”, and “Fuck Off, Google”. On the home front, Dr. Poh Soo Kai’s sober and heartbreaking Living in a Time of Deception (Singapore and Malaysia: Function 8 Ltd and Pusat Sejarah Rakyat, 2016) is a milestone in the political history of Singapore.
Jason Wee, visual artist and writer. Some pleasures, like miniature paintings, are savored for their diminution. The NTU-NAC Writing Residencies Chapbooks (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2016) collects five brief works by Grace Chia, Jean Tay, George Szirtes, Timothy O’Grady, and Yong Shu Hoong. The book design – autumnal colors, elegant typesets, a slipcase – makes these tactile delights for the eye and hand. Szirtes’ diaristic impressions of Singapore and Chia’s story of migrant restlessness are particular standouts.
Jeremy Fernando, writer. Shubigi Rao’s Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book, Vol I of V (Singapore: Rock Paper Fire, 2016) is a truly important book. In it, Rao addresses not just the issue of censorships, effacements, prohibitions, but how the notion of an authoritative book, the idea of authorship, functions on those very same exclusions. Never self-important, the text responds to these marginalisations, to the marginalised, through the very margins of — through puncturing — the book itself. Her work is a verifiable wunderkammer of thoughts. A different dossier of resistance — an aesthetic subversion — takes place through a conversation between the poems of Michael Kearney and the illustrations of Djohan Hanapi in Four Letter Words (Singapore: Knuckles & Notch, 2016). Pushing the boundaries of mores, Kearney and Hanapi challenge conventions, morality even, ironically — and one can’t help but chuckle when reading them; keeping in mind that nothing quite ruptures like laughter.
Jeremy Tiang, writer and translator. My book of the year is And The Walls Come Crumbling Down by Tania de Rozario (Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2015). Real estate is a perennial hot-button issue in land-scarce Singapore. Tania de Rozario ingeniously flips this subject on its head in her memoir, asking us to consider how much more it takes to create a home than bricks and mortar. Rather than orderly floor plans and the neat lines of HDB estates, we are presented with the full messiness of human existence. What makes one apartment a safe haven and another a prison? In pellucid, lyrical prose, this heart-wrenching book wanders through the rooms of its author’s memory.
Jinat Rehana Begum, writer and educator. My pick for the year is Heaven has Eyes by Philip Holden (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2016). I love how the characters in Philip Holden’s stories move in and out of reality, of longing and belonging, while all the time describing worlds that are both familiar and unfamiliar. The characters in each story are drawn with such sensitivity that you willingly cross boundaries of time, space and reality with them. This empathy extends effortlessly beyond characters, into wonderful descriptions of the natural world. These are magical tales that I will be returning to often.
Joshua Ip, poet. My recommendation for Book of the Year is Samuel Lee’s A Field Guide to Supermarkets in Singapore from the Ten Year Series imprint (full disclosure: which I edit) (Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2016). The collections in the series represent nearly two years of editing and development – Daryl Lim’s is the most traditionally well-crafted, Jennifer Champion’s the most surprising, and Amanda Chong’s the most likely to reach a wide audience, but Samuel possesses a uniquely wry, whimsical yet wise voice that makes me want to read his collection again and again.
Yeow Kai Chai, poet. Perhaps because of what’s been happening in the world – Brexit, Trump, the terrible rise of the alt-right – I’ve been going back to Terror, a spellbinding first book by a young English poet called Toby Martinez de las Rivas (UK: Faber & Faber, 2014). It’s a terrific collection of incantations primeval and pregnant with premonitions for the fate of humanity. At the same time, it executes some jaw-dropping exercises with syntax and semantics. Fusing the gothic invocations of Ted Hughes and the uncompromising wisdom of Geoffrey Hill, this is one of a kind – shamanistic and stubbornly unfathomable if you want to skim. Read the first poem ‘Twenty-One Prayers for Weak or Fabulous Things’, and gawk. On the Singapore front, I’m most intrigued by Dream Storeys by Clara Chow (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2016). Steeped in journalistic rigour, this is an imaginative tour-de-force with slightly odd fiction pieces set in imaginary buildings by architects. It’s a conceit, yes, but how brilliantly and warmly thought through.
Lydia Kwa, novelist and poet. My pick for 2016 is Tania De Rozario’s And the Walls Come Crumbling Down (Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2016). A lyrical prose memoir that is a combination of searing emotional intensity and powerful literary evocations, it draws you close with intimate yet unsentimental disclosures, and disrupts any or all presumptions you might have about home, family and love.
Marc Nair, writer and editor. We Rose Up Slowly by Jon Gresham (Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2015). This is a carefully framed collection of stories that tread the space between the city and the ether. It takes us into familiar places with characters who often end up walking into dissonance. Gresham’s strength is in the seamless merge of quotidian narrative with an augmented sense of realism; sometimes magic, often dystopia, but always tinged with beauty, and sadness.
Philip Holden, literary scholar and writer. Slow Boat to China and Other Stories by NG Kim Chew, translated and edited by Carlos Rojas (USA: Columbia University Press, 2016). This is a stunning collection of the short stories of one of Malaysia’s most prominent Sinophone writers, who writes out of a profound knowledge of Singapore and Malaysia’s shared histories. Ng’s narratives are complex, allusive, and, at their best, a form of exquisite allegorical and linguistic torture that devastates readers but keeps them coming back for more.
Pingtjin Thum, historian. My favourite book of the year is Living in a Time of Deception by Dr. Poh Soo Kai (Singapore and Malaysia: Function 8 Ltd and Pusat Sejarah Rakyat, 2016). Many of our great nationalist heroes paid a terrible price for their part in the anti-colonial struggle, and it is important we know and learn about them as their experience is integral to our understanding of Singapore today. Dr Poh tells his story in careful, lucid detail, such that when he finally reaches an horrific event that he cannot bear to recount (the fate of his wife), the absence speaks all the more louder and is so much more devastating. Importantly, Dr Poh’s book distinguishes itself from memoirs by other nationalist leaders (e.g. Lee Kuan Yew, Said Zahari, Fong Swee Suan, Eu Chooi Yip) by also being an academic work, with thorough research backed by extensive citations. [Full Disclosure: I provided minor assistance to Dr Poh with background research for his book].
Pooja Nansi, poet. A Field Guide to Supermarkets in Singapore by Samuel Lee (Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2016). There’s a voice in here we have not heard yet, wry, self-aware with the most glorious humour of its own millennial obsessions. The poems range from the joy of the banal to the poignancy that only this poet’s eye can find in a leaf of cabbage. It’s brilliant.
Yong Shu Hoong, poet and freelance writer. I haven’t been too conscientious in keeping up with my reading this year, but out of the few new titles I’ve managed to plough through, one local book sticks in my mind: Written Country: The History of Singapore Through Literature, edited by Gwee Li Sui (Singapore: Landmark Books, 2016). I like the cover, I like the title. And for a non-history buff, I like how the history of modern Singapore is woven together using literary works – prose and poetry – penned by a range of Singapore writers. Beginning with Singapore’s fall to the Japanese during World War II, the book races towards the end of an era marked by the death of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in 2015. A total of 50 defining moments are covered, showing how creative writers – aside from making history in their own ways – can be instrumental in tracking a nation’s history in the making.
Sonny Liew, graphic novelist. Miel has been producing world class editorial comics for quite a while now – Singaporeans probably know him best for his work for The Straits Times and his two “Scenegapore” books. He’s always been a consummate draftsman and visual conceptualizer, able to move from light humour to darker tidings with ease – and his recent postings on social media expressing his thoughts and feelings about developments in the Philippines (his home country) under Durtete reminded me of just how visceral and powerful political cartoons can be, especially when tied to personal expression rather than editorial needs – I hope there’ll be a book collection of them one day soon.
Stephanie Ye, writer and editor. And the Walls Come Crumbling Down by Tania De Rozario (Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2016). Walls separate and walls shelter; walls are insurmountable and yet walls can fall. They are the powerful metaphor at the centre of Tania De Rozario’s slim memoir about the deterioration of a relationship and about growing up lesbian in a restrictive, religious environment. Painful, lyrical, at times darkly funny, and valiantly hopeful. Also: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (UK: Granta Books, 2016). This hefty novel has won a slew of awards and accolades, including being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. An epic that spans China’s turbulent 20th century, it has a Singapore connection, as Thien was writer-in-residence at Nanyang Technological University as she did final edits to the manuscript.
O Thiam Chin, writer. The most fun (what an un-literary word!) I had with a book this year has to be Sebastian Sim’s Let’s Give It Up for Gimme Lao (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2016). From his timely birth to his untimely demise, you get an incredible roller-coaster ride through a life that is never boring or uneventful. With aspects of Lao’s life running parallel to, even intersecting, actual events that occurred throughout Singapore’s history, his is a surreal, terribly-charmed life that bears the best and worst (and funniest) of meritocracy, capitalism, and consumerism. With nary a dull moment, you will be blazing through the novel in no time and LOL-ing to Lao’s exploits, like I did. A very accomplished novel from a deft and talented writer. Reading a Tessa Hadley novel is akin to trekking through a dense, thriving forest: there is life in every object, and every sight is a beauty and a mystery. In The Past (USA: Harper Perennial, 2016), four siblings gather for a holiday at an old family house and things suddenly come to a head, as secrets and past hurts start to surface. On the surface, it seems like any other family drama, but in Hadley’s hands, every facet of each life delves deep into each character’s psyche and motives. Pitch perfect at every level, from craft to characterisation, Hadley takes small, insignificant moments, and transforms them into vignettes of revelation and almost unbearable beauty.
Lee Yew Leong, editor. David Szalay’s Man Booker Prize-shortlisted All That Man Is (USA: Graywolf Press, 2016) presents nine loosely interconnected stories featuring men at different stages of their lives. Each brilliantly realized episode deals with the question of being. Despite publishing some great Singaporean writers (Amanda Lee Koe, Alfian Sa’at, Tan Chee Lay, Teng Qian Xi, Wong Yoon Wah and Theophilus Kwek) this year, I have not caught up with any new book from Singapore in 2016. I am however looking forward to reading the new Math Paper Press anthology, BooksActually’s Gold Standard 2016, edited by Julie Koh, who said she wanted to create “a new center of Asian writing” instead of waiting for publishing in the West to be reformed.
Ng Yi-Sheng, writer. Since last year, Jason Porath’s illustrations of groundbreaking, heroic, villainous and downright strange historical women having been wowing fans at http://rejectedprincesses.com. But more impressive than his drawings are his remarkable gifts for storytelling – he explains the complex and contradictory tales behind Wu Zetian, Elizabeth Bathory and Nzinga Mbande with a real commitment to intersectional feminism and rigorous research, all in an amusing and extremely accessible style. Although a lot of his work is online, his book Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics compiles a lot of new material — and it’d make a great Christmas gift for budding feminists.
Loo Zihan, visual artist. The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara (USA: Doubleday, 2013) and The Black Isle by Sandi Tan (USA: Grand Central Publishing, 2012). There has been a lot of conversation about her second book, A Little Life, but I really enjoyed the magic and moral ambiguity of Yanagihara’s first publication. The People In The Trees paints a lush ‘Gauguin’-like journey of self-discovery with a dose of the heady malady of the tropics and a daringly subversive ending. It is unapologetic and brave, but I guess this is also why people are hesitant to recommend it. For a similar dose of fantasy, I had a memorable time with Sandi Tan’s schizophrenic The Black Isle. There is a distinctly cinematic quality to her writing which probably stems from her previous work as an independent filmmaker. The Black Isle seems ripe to be adapted into a feature film. A fun book that lifts you from the mundaneness of long commuting journeys.