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SINGAPOREAN WRITING FLAVOUR

31 Dec 2018 [Articles]

By Tan Shi Qin
Diploma in Creative Writing for Television and New Media
Singapore Polytechnic

Award-winning author, Suchen Christine Lim. (Photo Credit: Kelly Hui Wen Ting)

 

Award-winning author Suchen Christine Lim believes that the key to encouraging Singaporeans to pick up a Singapore novel lies in giving them the opportunity to listen to the author’s reading of her work.

“It is a matter of discovery and listening to the voice reading the work to you,” Suchen declares.

She recounts reading an excerpt from her book, The Lies that Build a Marriage, in a secondary school. To her shock, the students revealed it was the first time someone had read to them. After her session, many students expressed interest in her books and even started buying them.

Though Singapore literature may not be everyone’s cup of tea, Suchen believes that book readings help expose people to different kinds of writing, and grow an authentic readership slowly.

 

Paving the path

But if you think Singaporeans today don’t read, Suchen recalls it being worse 25 years ago when local authors were less recognised. Then in 1992  the Singapore Literature Prize was created, and

Suchen’s novel, Fistful of Colours, became its inaugural winner.

She describes it as a “wonderful honour,” saying it was the first time a book of fiction was recognised here with a big prize.

“I think it made everybody sit up and really look at Singapore writing.” 

She does readings of the novel at festivals and new readers from abroad tell her how relevant it is even today.

 

Writing journey

At 70, Suchen’s writing journey continues. Although she is more well-known for her novels, she has also written many children’s stories which have been adopted into the primary schools’ reading programme.

She believes there are many roles for writers.

“The act of writing is as important as building a tower of glass and steel along Shenton Way. Towers of glass and steel remain towers of glass and steel until the poet sings of their beauty and the novelist writes their tale of vaulting ambition. The role of the writer is to dig out the emotional truth in human endeavours and encounters.”

She says writers do not start writing by thinking about the message they wish to convey. Instead, “the artist goes to the edge” and creates imaginary worlds for readers to live through vicariously.

She finds love interesting to write about as it is a universal feeling. This is evident in The River’s Song, where she weaves a love story into the history of the Singapore River and the people who were evicted from its banks during the great clean-up of the river.

However, she has also explored other genres. Her first detective story Mei Kwei, I Love You was published in 2014. The story was final-listed in the short fiction category of The Private Eye Writers of America SHAMUS Award 2015 the following year, which recognises the best in the detective fiction genre.

Like all her other stories, it was set in Singapore. Suchen believes more voices are needed to tell even more stories about the country.

“If our writers do not write about ourselves, about where we are and who we are and hold up a mirror to our society, who will do it?”

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BREAKING AWAY FROM EMILY

31 Dec 2018 [Articles]

By Caitlin Ong

Diploma in Creative Writing for Television and New Media

Singapore Polytechnic

Stella Kon, 74, prepares to set the stage alight one last time, before passing the pen onto the new generation. (Photo Credit: Caitlin Ong)

 

From Malaysia to Scotland, Hawaii to Singapore, Stella Kon’s one-woman play, Emily of Emerald Hill, has wowed audiences worldwide since its first performance in 1984.

Emily won the 1983 Singapore National Playwriting Competition. But even with a major Singaporean cultural piece under her belt, the pioneer in the Singapore literary scene still feels unfulfilled.

“I’ve been writing ever since then [Emily] and I feel unnoticed,” the 74-year-old admits. “I feel unrecognised. You know, it’s like a one-shot wonder, way back when? And I meet people that say [to me], ‘Stella Kon ah? Your Emily, you’re still alive ah?’”

 

Her swan song?

Stella has a long list of works, including plays, short stories, poems, novels and musicals under her belt. Among her awards is the 1994 Singapore Literature Merit Prize for her novel Eston.

However, she says none of her writings has attained the same level of acknowledgement as Emily.

“I kept on working and it didn’t hit the public eye at all,” says Stella.

But, her upcoming work may soon change that.

“I am in the final stages of completing Lim Boon Keng: The Musical,” she confirms with a smile.

It is a busy time for her with the musical expected to be produced in October 2019.

It’s been in the works, “on-and-off for 20 years” because she could not get the format right. Based on the life of Dr. Lim Boon Keng, a national icon and Stella’s great-grandfather, the play carries her hope that it will be the breakthrough she has been waiting for. But she knows better than anyone, that the theatre audience is anything but predictable.

“And then they [the public] would look at Lim Boon Keng,” she muses, “and then they would say, ‘after all these years this is the best you can do?’”

With the pressures of writing constantly, there is only so much a person can take.

“I’m burnt out,” Stella confesses, expressing her desire to stop after Lim Boon Keng.

Her reason?

“Tired la. Very tired. My health is also fading… I have to ration myself more.”

But even with plans to lay down her pen, Stella continues to explore different ways to tell her stories.

 

When technology meets literature

An avid fan of sci-fi, Stella has always been curious about “what a future with technology would become”.

“At first, I wanted [Lim Boon Keng] to be like a ‘TED Talk’,” Stella shares, “with lots of stuff on the screen, but it didn’t work out”.

She explains that “absorbing all that information” would distract the audience from the performance onstage, and make it become “just another multimedia show”.

But Stella says she looks forward to seeing how the new generation of writers integrate technology in their work.

And she believes that the challenge will not be about what kind of technology is utilised, but rather how it is used.

“It’s a question writers must ask themselves,” she says, “what can you do to produce works of art in the media that will thrill, touch, move and research deeply into the human condition without the resources of an entire film studio behind you?”

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THE ILLUSTRIOUS CAREER OF SONNY LIEW

31 Dec 2018 [Articles]

By Lim Jun Rong Terence

Diploma in Creative Writing for TV and New Media

Singapore Polytechnic

Sonny Liew didn’t expect The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye to be so well received internationally. (Photo credit: Terence Lim)

 

Like many of us have done at some point in our childhood, Sonny Liew, too, loved to copy drawings of cartoons and characters when he was young. “The only difference,” he says, “is that I never stopped drawing.”

And it’s a good thing that he didn’t. Sonny is now the recipient of three prestigious Eisner Awards – the equivalent of the Oscars for the comic industry – for Best Writer/Artist, Best Publication Design, and Best US Edition of International Material (Asia). These recognitions are for The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which was also the first ever graphic novel to win the Singapore Literature Prize in 2016. The story of a fictional cartoonist in Singapore from the 1950s to the present day was also on the bestsellers lists at Amazon and The New York Times.

“I didn’t even think it would sell anywhere outside of Singapore,” the 43-year-old says with a sheepish smile. “I really didn’t know whether anybody else would be interested in it.”

The success is bittersweet though. The comic became a subject of controversy when the National Arts Council (NAC) withdrew its grant in 2015, citing politically sensitive content in the book. Sonny’s relationship with the NAC is still shaky after three years.

“They still maintain they will support me as an artist but they won’t support the book itself, which is a strange kind of division,” Sonny says. “I don’t know how it’s going to work out.”

 

One among a Handful

The boyish-looking comic artist’s first step into the industry was when he worked on a daily strip named Frankie and Poo for The New Paper. He then studied illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2001.

Shortly after graduating, Sonny was signed to work on My Faith in Frankie for DC Vertigo, which also published The Sandman.

“I’ve been a big fan of Sandman,” Sonny said, “so the chance to do a story for the same imprint, sort of in the same universe was very exciting for me.”

Sonny mainly worked as a hired illustrator for publishers in the US and has published a few short comics of his own.

He is now one of the few full-time comic artists in Singapore.

He says comics are generally treated as something childish by default in Singapore, but feels that can actually be an advantage.

“You can do very serious things but people don’t approach it with this kind of trepidation,” he explains. “That gives me the opportunity to get under the radar a little bit.”

 

The Next Chapter

It’s a busy period for Sonny. He has been working on the Eternity Girl series for DC Comics. Local media recently reported he will also be contributing to the comic version of Adventure Time, the well-known animated television series from the US. Sonny is also currently doing research for his next comic.

Researching and writing for The Art of Charlie Chan was his chance to learn Singapore history—something he knew little about. Similarly, his next comic, he reveals, will be his curious venture into economics and capitalism.

The challenge? Making the book as engaging, but distinct from The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.

“What I would like to do is to be able to make something…as interesting and yet not repeat the same things I did in this book,” Sonny says. “I’m not sure how it can be done, but I hope I can.”

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