21 years with Ethos Books: Charting reflections and new directions

In this guest contribution, local poet Theophilus Kwek reflects on his time spent with one of the island’s best-loved publishing houses.

21st birthdays are a big deal, especially if you like celebrating with those who have watched you grow up. Last weekend, indie Singaporean publisher Ethos Books toasted their anniversary at the National Library with cheerleaders and colleagues who were there from the start, and took the chance to ring in some momentous changes at the firm: a new team, a new flagship series, and a renewed commitment to their founding ethos.

Started in 1997, Ethos was launched with debuts by poets Alvin Pang and Aaron Lee, who would later co-edit No Other City, the press’s groundbreaking anthology of urban poetry. It’s hard to deny the impact that Ethos has had on Singapore’s literary production since then, with household names who showed up for their birthday bash (from Suchen Christine Lim, winner of the inaugural Singapore Literature Prize, to Teo You Yenn, author of the nonfiction bestseller This Is What Inequality Looks Like) a clear measure of their success.

We were greeted at the door with mysterious brown parcels containing the first three volumes of their brand new series ‘orbits’. According to Associate Publisher Ng Kah Gay, these sleek volumes—niftily branded as “tiny portals to meaning”—were conceived to transport their readers into less conventional, and even less privileged, worlds. One (a tiny space) is a collection of poems by a boy with autism who did not speak for eight years, strung together with reflections by his parents and sisters on the hard-won thrill of watching him learn to read and write. The second (Notes After Terawih, published under a pseudonym) presents fragmentary musings on faith and tradition by a veiled Singaporean woman; while the third (Giving Alms) features three short stories by Khin Chan Myae Maung, a young literary activist from Myanmar and co-founder of the Yangon Literary Magazine.

It’s clear that these titles—which will follow Ethos to the Frankfurt Book Fair this month before their official launch here in December—represent a brave and novel direction for the press. No longer relying on grant money or tried-and-tested authors, the team has decided that the new series will be financially and creatively independent, positioning each ‘orbit’ as an experiment in genre and perspective. The chapbook-inspired format is, after all, ideal for manuscripts which might not fit in with stuffy literary conventions, but still deserve a place on every shelf.

At the celebration, the authors of Notes After Terawih and Giving Alms stepped forward to share some of the stories behind their works. It was impossible not to be swept away by the frankness of their joy; an almost gravitational pull which made the title of the series seem doubly appropriate.

, 21 years with Ethos Books: Charting reflections and new directions
‘orbits’ authors take the stage

The night was marked by another big reveal—a surprise farewell for Ethos publisher Fong Hoe Fang. After more than two decades as its frontman and founder, Fong announced he would no longer helm day-to-day operations at the press. I couldn’t resist a twinge of nostalgia at this point; it was under Fong’s guidance that I’d first taken my own writing seriously. In many ways, it was through Ethos—with him at the wheel—that I’d come of age as a writer. I knew I’d miss dropping into the office to hear his thoughts on the latest manuscripts, share a mug of hot herbal tea, or help brainstorm for titles over bak kut teh.

And what of the future? The ensuing applause when Fong invited the new staff on stage spoke volumes about everyone’s confidence in the firm’s prospects. The release of the first three books came as a timely pledge that Ethos’ younger generation would remain committed to his vision of publishing new and marginal voices; the books themselves a reflection of the team’s willingness to take the necessary risks to persuade readers to widen their own horizons.

Whether the series succeeds remains an open question, but the foundations have long been laid for a bold intervention into Singapore’s fairly homogenous (and often highbrow) literary publishing scene. What’s left is for the team to convince their readership, but if the crowd last weekend was any indication, these changes at Ethos are likely to receive their full support. As Aaron Lee, one of the press’s two ‘founding poets’ put it in a Facebook post, “thank you for [the] encouragement and for keeping promises.” That, in itself, is half the battle won.