Epigram Books sweeps the shortlist for English Fiction at this year’s Singapore Literature Prize

Fifty authors have been shortlisted for this year’s prestigious Singapore Literature Prize (SLP), as announced by the Singapore Book Council today (Jun 19). The number was whittled down from an impressive 172 submissions spanning three genres (Fiction, Creative Non-Fiction, and Poetry) and the four official languages. Of the 50, 32 were first-time nominees.

Local publisher Epigram Books dominated the English Fiction category, having published all five of the shortlisted titles. There’s Sugarbread by Balli Kaur Jaswal, State of Emergency by Jeremy Tiang, The Gatekeeper by Nuraliah Norasid, Death of a Perm Sec by Wong Souk Yee, and short stories anthology Regrettable Things that Happened Yesterday by Jennani Durai. Publisher Edmund Wee, 65, said he was delighted at the shortlist alone.

“We are very honored; and whoever wins, we win right? So to us we’re already the winner.”

Being shortlisted also holds a greater significance for the publisher, who felt that the political content of some of the titles might have caused them to be overlooked earlier.

“It’s a vindication of sorts—some of the books have not been supported by the authorities. It didn’t get a publishing grant; they rejected it,” he shared. State of Emergency, for example, had its grant withdrawn from the National Arts Council (NAC) in 2017.

Editing, designing, printing, rent and salary expenses add up to over $20,000 to publish just one book, according to Wee. Epigram publishes about 50 books a year, costing up to over $1 million in total. A publishing grant from NAC can help ease the financial load by $3,000 to $5,000 per grant, said Wee.

“Some books don’t get the grant; we understand that it’s usually because of the content,” said Wee. “But most of the time when the authorities don’t give you the grant they tell you that there’s a great competition for funds, or that there’s ‘no literary merit.’”

“So in a way, to be shortlisted even though we didn’t get a grant, that means there’s some literary merit lah. Otherwise why would it be a nominated book for the SLP, among the top five in the last two years?”

Past SLP winners include The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew, also famously embroiled in an NAC grant withdrawal scandal. The SLP is a biennial competition that has been around since 1992, and is considered Singapore’s top literary prize. Submissions are only considered if they were newly published within the last two years, though all Singaporean and Permanent Resident writers based locally or abroad are eligible.

This year, everybody’s a winner—or almost. Twelve prizes of $10,000 each will be given out at the awards ceremony happening Aug 6. The 50 shortlisted writers were sorted by language and genre into 12 categories, with one overall winner in each. Correspondingly, 12 panels of 36 judges comprising renowned local and overseas authors were formed to make the decision—including the likes of Alfian Sa’at, Teo Sum Lim, Cheong Suk-Wai, Razif Bahari, Seetha Lakshmi and others as the chief judges.

It’s a lot of numbers for a literary competition, but the detailed categorizing makes SLP the only one where the writers are more fairly judged, and not evaluated across languages. Wee also observed that just within the English Fiction category, there was “quite a wonderful spread of races too”.

Other shortlisted writers in English include second-time nominee Theophilus Kwek for Giving Ground and Euginia Tan for Phedra, both of whom were shortlisted under Poetry; and first-time nominee Charmaine Leung for her Creative Non-Fiction memoir 17A Keong Saik Road, which is currently also being adapted for a play on stories in Chinatown by Drama Box. If it sounds familiar, it might be because Leung personally hosted a series of tours around Keong Saik inspired by her book, during a previous edition of Urban Ventures.

This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the Singapore Book Council. To mark the milestone, the charity is opening the Aug 6 awards ceremony to the public for the first time. It will be held at the Stephen Riady Auditorium at NTUC Centre, and admission is free—so to support your favorite local authors, all you have to do is register here.