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A new chapter for SingLit

The Singapore literary scene is moving into an evolutionary stage, with much new talent emerging and publishers willing to take them to market. But it hasn't been easy, and sales are slow. What are the challenges they face, and what could the future hold? Local writers and publishers share their Singapore stories.

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Edmund Wee is the founder of Singapore's leading publisher, Epigram Books, which prints and sells only Singapore work. Despite its growing roster of writers and rapidly expanding list of published titles, the firm faced financial headwinds last year, after opening its London branch.

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"I think there is a prejudice that maybe, justifiably from years ago, that Singapore books are not so good - maybe it was badly designed, or written... and I think that prejudice has remained." Epigram founder Edmund Wee. His firm printed one of Balli Kaur Jaswal's works, Sugarbread. Ms Jaswal's Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows is now slated to be published in 11 countries.

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"SingLit is our stories, our life, our history, our past, present, future." Kenny Leck (above), founder of indie bookstore BooksActually and its publishing arm, Math Paper Press, stressing the importance of reading local literature.

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Launch of Malay poetry anthology "Sikit-Sikit Lama-Lama Jadi Bukit" by Math Paper Press at Singapore Writers Festival last year.

OPEN the door and you're instantly hit by the scent of paper - one book lovers would probably associate with joy as they crack open yet another book. Inside, distinctly Singaporean titles take centre stage, the most recent releases lovingly displayed on stands. More titles are painted across the walls, the bright colours of children's book characters standing out against the white background. But I'm not in a book store - instead, it is 3.30pm and I've just walked into the office of Epigram Books, Singapore's leading publishing firm, to see founder Edmund Wee and talk about SingLit.

Singapore literature, affectionately termed "SingLit", is on the rise. From book prizes to government campaigns (think the #BuySingLit movement), it's clear that the SingLit scene is growing. Singaporeans have something to say, and you can be sure writing is a medium they are beginning to explore. From well-established poets such as Cyril Wong to newer talents such as Topaz Winters, as well as best-selling novelists Balli Kaur Jaswal and 2018 Singapore Literature prize winner Jeremy Tiang (see amendment note), the list of writers is steadily growing.

Stories about Singapore

To write a story about SingLit, one must first define it. Kenny Leck, founder of indie bookstore BooksActually and its publishing arm, Math Paper Press, says: "SingLit is our stories, our life, our history, our past, present, future."

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Market voices on:

In the words of Epigram's Edmund Wee: "Vaguely, it's stories about Singapore, written by Singaporeans."

SingLit is special simply because it is Singapore literature, written by Singaporeans. These perspectives and ideals are what we, as Singaporeans, grew up with, in a uniquely multicultural landscape.

"I think we need SingLit," says Mr Leck, stressing the importance of reading local literature. "You're learning about your own roots and your own culture, and I think that most of the time, when we always complain that there are not enough roots, there is not enough culture here, but we're not making an effort to learn more about it, to learn more about one another, or even to learn about our own culture."

Yet, Singapore's literature scene is also young, much like the country is young. Says 19-year-old Topaz Winters (a pen name): "I think that SingLit is very much pushing literature into directions that are unexplored and experimental," and describes SingLit as "one of the communities at the forefront of the literature community in Southeast Asia, and Asian literature". Ms Winters has three books to her name: poetry chapbook Heaven or This, a collection of essays entitled Monsoon Dreams published by Platypus Press, and a full-length poetry collection titled Poems for the Sound of the Sky Before Thunder published by Math Paper Press.

Writers are highly experimental, and pen and paper is not the only medium they are using as forms of expression. Critically acclaimed poet and two-time Singapore Literature Prize-winner Cyril Wong says: "Literature doesn't necessarily mean writing that's on the page. It can be writing that is performed or even writing that is translated into video or images or photographs. I see SingLit as writing ahead but also including writings that are less tangible. Writings that are expressed through other mediums." These include artist-writer Sonny Liew's The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, and also a film by Ms Winters, entitled Supernova, which was released in 2017.

Not an easy journey

It's no secret that the Singapore literature scene has faced plenty of struggles. Maths, science and technology have always been a priority in Singaporean education and careers. The artistic community is often overlooked, and an artistic education underrated - although this is changing with degrees in creative writing now being offered.

At the publishing end, things are tough. Publishers often face prejudice against local literature from the Singaporean audience themselves. Both Math Paper Press and Epigram have had to deal with the perception that Singapore literature is not on the level of literature from countries such as the United Kingdom and United States.

"I think there is a prejudice that maybe, justifiably from years ago, that Singapore books are not so good, for whatever reason - maybe it was badly designed, or badly produced, or badly written, and I think that prejudice has remained," says Mr Wee.

Marketing manager of BooksActually, Raemae Kok, says: "With Singapore, especially, there's this impression that the work we produce is not good enough, or the art we produce is not good enough, and to have that idea of something that is from your country, that's really sad."

While locally written book sales have improved, it is by a marginal amount, says Mr Wee. A book is considered to have "done well" in Singapore when it has sold 1,000 copies. However, a publisher such as Epigram would need to sell 3,000 to 5,000 copies of the book to break even.

"I think Singapore is the only place, where nine times out of 10, the bestselling book is a foreign one," says Mr Wee.

Epigram publishes and sells only Singapore work. Despite its growing roster of writers and rapidly expanding list of published titles, the firm struggled last year, as it had just opened a London branch as well.

Last year, Epigram's sales totalled S$1.29 million of SingLit titles, up from S$1.08 million in 2016. At BooksActually's Math Paper Press, total book sales to date comes close to S$380,000. This makes up about 38 per cent of gross sales for the BooksActually store, with the rest coming from international and local titles from other publishers. Over the past four years, sales have been steadily growing about 2 to 3 per cent every year. Major bookstores such as Kinokuniya too are staunch supporters of SingLit, with prominent shop space dedicated to local works and titles such as Cheryl Tan's Sarong Party Girls and Rachel Heng's Suicide Club making it to Kino's bestsellers list.

Both Epigram and Math Paper Press distance themselves from funding through government grants, which are awarded to writers, publishers and for marketing purposes, and aimed at supporting Singapore literature.

For Math Paper Press, grants are not a part of the business. While some may suspect it is because of censorship, Mr Leck chooses not to take grants to ensure that his business does not become overly reliant on them. Instead, he does what a bookstore ought to be doing - sell books.

"Isn't that what a bookstore is supposed to be, selling books?" says Mr Leck. "Wouldn't it be weird if I said the bookstore derived most of its income from design work or selling plants? I think that is the oddest thing. When you're a bookstore you should be selling books and only books."

For Epigram, the number of grants given has dwindled, especially since the firm has published controversial works such as The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, which had its S$8,000 grant withdrawn in 2015. The National Arts Council said the financing was withdrawn because of "sensitive content". They declined to elaborate.

Jeremy Tiang also had part of his S$12,000 funding withdrawn after he submited his draft for a novel tracing leftist movements in Singapore's history. The author was last week awarded the 2018 Singapore Literature prize for that novel: State of Emergency.

For young writers, there is another challenge: fitting in. Ms Winters says: "On a deeper level, there is very much a stereotype on what Singaporean literature should look like, and there is a style that Singaporeans are supposed to use. The words, the syntax, the style, the genre, all of that have become markedly very Singaporean." She describes this style as a "far more nuanced and subtle style" that is beyond SingLit.

She adds that newer and younger writers may find it difficult to integrate into the SingLit scene if they come in with a different form of poetry that does not adhere to the styles set before them.

Mr Wong, whose work also deals with gay themes, cites "censorship and conservatism" as his challenges. He adds: "I think that will always be the problem for at least the next 50 years or so."

And as SingLit moves into a new, evolutionary stage, there is a need for different writers with varied voices. Mr Wong says:"There are not enough of different kinds of writers. People who dare to push the envelope for what is prose, what is poetry, what is considered acceptable writing." He also adds that he wishes there were more confessional poets like himself.

Then, to put it bluntly, there's the issue of money. Being a writer in Singapore is not a sustainable job on its own. For Andre Yeo, the news editor of The New Paper, whose book 9th of August, was shortlisted for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize (see amendment note), his challenges stemmed from juggling different roles - namely editor, husband, father and writer.

He would often write at 10pm, after his children had gone to bed, and continue into the wee hours of the night. Furthermore, he had to write after a long and hectic day at the newsroom. Mr Yeo says of the experience: "I just had to push on, because I really believe in this story, and I wanted to meet the deadline for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize."

A turning tide

Does this mean that the future of SingLit looks bleak? Perhaps not.

Things are changing, gratifyingly. Mr Wee cites authors such as Balli Kaur Jaswal (Sugarbread) and Sonny Liew (The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye), calling them "world class" examples of literature. Balli Kaur Jaswal's earlier work Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows is to be published in 11 other countries. And Rachel Heng's newly released Suicide Club is said to have sparked heated bidding between international publishers last year. UK house Hodder and Stoughton's Sceptre won the Commonwealth rights, while New York-based Henry Holt & Co acquired the US rights for six-figure sums.

What's also encouraging is that writers are continuing to write. On average, Math Paper Press receives two manuscript submissions per week; in a year, they get one hundred manuscripts. Out of those, they publish about 10 per cent. Epigram too has received more submissions in recent years. When it first started the Epigram book prize in 2015 to encourage more Singaporeans to write novels, the firm received 70 submissions. Since then, the number has stabilised to about 40 submissions a year.

Excluding the book prize, Epigram receives more than 10 submissions per month. It takes in all forms of writing, from picture books to contemporary fiction. In contrast, Math Paper Press has a foundation in mostly poetry, and does not publish picture books or young adult fiction.

Mr Yeo says: "I do believe that as more Singaporeans pick up the courage to write stories, they would invariably inspire other Singaporeans to also take up that challenge. And once you accept that challenge to write your own book, you would want to spur yourself to, perhaps, be the best that you can be."

He adds that Singaporeans are getting more "vocal" and daring, taking on difficult topics. Mr Yeo himself wrote about terrorism in his book, 9th of August.

There is always room to grow, and a budding literature scene like Singapore's is no exception. Ms Winters says: "I do believe that if we want the SingLit scene to go out, we do have to make room for those voices that don't necessarily sound the same."

She adds: "I think that if we were to move forward, if we want to improve our craft and our writing and our style, we have to be open to understanding forms beyond what we have now."

Mr Wong seems to agree with her. He says: "There are a lot more themes that are coming into the picture, like what is reality, playing with language, dystopian futures, there are a lot more concerns that are coming into poetry and into fiction. I find that very exciting, because it means that more and more voices are speaking out in an imaginative way, within a very small space like Singapore."

As the small writing space becomes more crowded, one would think that the writers would regard others as their competition.

Yet, it seems to be the opposite. "Only a writer can understand what the other writer has gone through to get the book published," says Mr Yeo. "You face a lot of self-doubt, which you have to overcome, you have to find the time to write it, and you have to find the courage to get it published. Only a writer who has been through all that will understand how difficult it can be. If I meet another Singaporean writer, I have nothing but respect for that person, because that person has gone through what I have been through."

And perhaps, in due time, SingLit will find its place overseas. Already, it is beginning to happen. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye clinched three Eisner Awards at the San Diego Comic Con.

As our interview concludes, Mr Wee has some advice for hopeful writers: "Just write. Read a lot, and write a lot... The craft of writing is no different from the craft of playing a musical instrument. You need to practise and practise."

Amendment note:

A previous version of this story spelt the 2018 Singapore Literature prize winner's name as Jeremy Thiang, when it should be Jeremy Tiang. Epigram's prize should also be called the Epigram Books Fiction Prize. The article above has been revised to reflect these changes.