Photos: Various sources
Ask a random person on the streets for the first Singaporean writer that comes to their mind, and they will probably name Catherine Lim or Russell Lee of True Singapore Ghost Stories fame.
If they’ve been skimming headlines recently, it might be artist Sonny Liew, whose graphic novel The Art Of Charlie Chan Hock Chye has been lauded internationally.
But there is a whole spectrum of homegrown literature out there that many Singaporeans have yet to get to grips with, something which the recently launched #BuySingLit campaign hopes to get going.
The industry-led movement by bookstores, publishers, and distributors is holding a host of activities from Feb 24 to 26 to get Singaporeans to #buylocal.
If you are among the three out of four people who said in a 2015 National Arts Council survey that they had never read a literary book by a Singaporean writer, you may be looking for a way to get started.
There is no way we can help you swim the entire ocean, of course, but here are some suggestions to help you dip your toes in to test the waters.
FOR THE HIPSTERS
If you’re of a postmodern sensibility looking to stay ahead of the curve, here are some edgy titles to whet your appetite.
Photo: Singapore Book Awards
Ministry Of Moral Panic by Amanda Lee Koe (Epigram, 2013)
This blazing debut of inventive short stories runs the gamut from an ageing Malay Pop Yeh Yeh singer finding his long-lost teenage love in a psychiatric ward, to a transsexual Merlion plying his trade as a “sarong party boy” in Orchard Towers.
Photo: Epigram Books
Kappa Quartet by Daryl Yam Qilin (Epigram, 2016)
There’s more than a tinge of Haruki Murakami’s surrealism in Yam’s eerie, experimental novel in which kappas, Japanese water demons who covet the souls of humans, collide with other lost and lonely characters in Singapore and Tokyo.
Tender Delirium by Tania de Rozario (Math Paper Press, 2013)
De Rozario shifts between sensuality and steel in this poetry collection populated with estranged lovers, vengeful ghosts and more.
We Were Always Eating Expired Things by Cheryl Julia Lee (Math Paper Press, 2014)
Lee strives to shape the vocabulary of solitude in her subtle poems about loneliness and people’s fundamental desire for connection.
FOR THE ANGSTY TYPE
These books will not make you feel any better, but perhaps they can help you make sense of your existential crisis.
Tilting Our Plates To Catch The Light by Cyril Wong (Math Paper Press, 2007)
This painfully intimate and musical collection centres on a pair of lovers living with the HIV virus, mingled with Hindu mythology.
One Fierce Hour by Alfian Sa’at (Landmark, 1998)
Steeped in urban angst, this poetry collection about soulless void decks and vanishing kampungs culminates in the impassioned rage of the monologue, Singapore You Are Not My Country.
The Beating And Other Stories by Dave Chua (Ethos, 2011)
The title story, in which a security guard tries to come to terms with the abuse of his childhood, sets the tone of quiet despair for this short story collection.
Photo: Epigram Books
Now That It’s Over by O Thiam Chin (Epigram, 2016)
This tragic novel, which begins with one of the protagonists washing ashore as a corpse in the wake of a tsunami, charts the slow unravelling of relationships.
FOR THE CULTURE VULTURES
If your tastes run to the high-brow, here are some must-have poetry collections from Singapore’s literary giants.
The Space Of City Trees by Arthur Yap (Skoob, 1999)
This collection of selected works crowns Singlish as a literary language through poems such as the now classic satirical study, 2 mothers in a hdb playground – all in lowercase, of course.
The Best Of Edwin Thumboo by Edwin Thumboo (Epigram, 2012)
This greatest hits collection by the man dubbed Singapore’s unofficial poet laureate include his famous Ulysses By The Merlion, where the Greek hero ponders the local chimera.
Lambada By Galilee And Other Surprises by Lee Tzu Pheng (Times Books International, 1997)
Speaking of lion-fish, Dr Lee gets meta-textual by talking back to Prof Thumboo in The Merlion To Ulysses, which opens this introspective collection on everyday Singapore life.
After The Fire by Boey Kim Cheng (Firstfruits, 2006)
Boey broke a decade of silence with this vivid, elegiac collection, in which he explores serious issues such as the death of his father and his estrangement from Singapore.
FOR THE CLASS CLOWNS
“Why so serious?” you ask the angsty kids and the culture vultures. Here’s something more lighthearted for those who like a little laughter to brighten their days.
Singapore Siu Dai series by Felix Cheong (Ethos, 2014)
Cheong exercises his “Monty Python-esque” sense of humour in this series of funny illustrated stories on everything from “kiasu-ism” to the last General Election. The first book was so successful it spawned two sequels and is now available as a box set.
Who Wants To Buy A Book Of Poems by Gwee Li Sui (Landmark, 1998)
This irreverent collection celebrates the Singlish vernacular in nursery rhymes, jingles and less-than-epic ballads, and features a dinosaur in the Botanic Gardens.
Notes From An Even Smaller Island by Neil Humphreys (Times Books International, 2001)
The British-born Humphreys makes tongue-in-cheek yet loving observations of the quirks and foibles of the country he has come to call home.
Let’s Give It Up For Gimme Lao! by Sebastian Sim (Epigram, 2016)
The Singapore dream takes a ribbing in this rip-roaring tale about the unfortunately-named Gimme Lao, denied his chance to be declared the first newborn of independent Singapore, groomed for success but somehow always thwarted in his ambitions.
FOR THE HISTORIANS
If you’re a history buff, you will revel in the richness of these tomes which dive deep into Singapore’s colourful past.
If We Dream Too Long by Goh Poh Seng (Island Press, 1972)
Considered Singapore’s first novel, this coming-of-age story is about a young ennui-filled clerk’s search for meaning and fulfilment in a rapidly urbanising Singapore.
A Candle Or The Sun by Gopal Baratham (Serpent’s Tail, 1991)
The late neurosurgeon made waves in the 1990s with this controversial novel about a Christian group that gets involved in politics, a subject matter so hot at the time that four Singapore publishers dropped it before it was finally published in London.
Photo: Harvill Secker
A Different Sky by Meira Chand (Harvill Secker, 2010)
This sweeping and often brutal epic follows the tumultuous and intertwined lives of three families, set against the chaotic backdrop of the Japanese Occupation of World War II and the communist riots of the postwar period.
Photo: Aurora Metro Books
The River’s Song by Suchen Christine Lim (Aurora Metro, 2013)
This lush, evocative novel, told through the eyes of a poor courtesan’s daughter, looks at the human cost of cleaning up the Singapore river in the 1970s.
FOR THE ACTIVISTS
If your literary tastes are driven by a sense of social justice, here are some works that look at prejudice and identity politics in marginalised communities.
Photo: Epigram Books
A Certain Exposure by Jolene Tan (Epigram, 2014)
The suicide of a government scholar opens this heartbreaking novel about bullying and the myriad micro-aggressions of junior college life that entrench deeper cracks in society.
Photo: Epigram Books
Sugarbread by Balli Kaur Jaswal (Epigram, 2016)
Ten-year-old Pin is told she must not become like her mother, but never why. Jaswal portrays prejudice and racism unflinchingly in this complex family drama set in Singapore’s Punjabi-Sikh community.
SQ21: Singapore Queers In The 21st Century, edited by Ng Yi-Sheng (Oogachaga, 2006)
Poet Ng spent months getting members of the queer community to share their stories, resulting in this brave, bittersweet non-fiction collection about coming out in Singapore.
The Inlet by Claire Tham (Ethos, 2013)
This thriller opens with the naked body of a karaoke lounge hostess from China floating in the private pool of a rich man. Inspired by a real case in 2010, Tham’s biting social critique tackles tough issues like xenophobia and class.
The original version of this story was published in The Straits Times on Feb 11, 2017.