Epigram Books Blog
Conducted by Jason Erik Lundberg
On 13 July 2016, Epigram Books hosted a forum called “The Great Singaporean Novel: Fantasy or Reality?” at The Projector in Golden Mile Tower. The discussion was moderated by Adrian Tan (The Teenage Textbook), and featured our 2015 Epigram Books Fiction Prize winning and shortlisted authors: O Thiam Chin (Now That It’s Over), Wong Souk Yee (Death of a Perm Sec) and Sebastian Sim (Let’s Give It Up for Gimme Lao!); I was on the panel as well, representing Balli Kaur Jaswal (Sugarbread) at her request, since I am the book’s editor and she is currently out of the country.
In addition to being a compelling and empathetic portrayal of a young Punjabi Sikh girl growing up in Singapore in the 1990s, Sugarbread is also a celebration of women, and it doesn’t shy away from the complicated relationships between them. Each of the main female characters—Pin, her mother Jini, and her grandmother Kulwant (Nani-ji)—are evoked with such affection that it’s hard to believe after finishing the book that they are fictional. Jaswal shows us how flawed and human they are, and the small (and not-so-small) tragedies that they suffer through, as well as the triumphs that make the reader let out woots of joy.
All of this, plus an examination of Singapore’s endemic racism, especially toward its South Asian community. Pin has to brook taunts by Bus Uncle, an old man who collects money from the students on the school bus (and attempts, and fails, to keep order), as well as vile comments from classmate Abigail Goh and others. Pin’s outrage and how she deals with these encounters illustrate the consequences of this casual racism and how the Chinese majority tends to treat South Asians and Malays, and her endurance of it is a social justice punch right to the gut.
Sugarbread is an important book, especially right now, and I believe that it could easily become Singapore’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
In preparation for the event, I passed along the first four questions below to Balli, which had been sent to us by moderator Adrian, as well as five more of my own.
When did you first start writing, at a professional or serious level?
I started taking writing seriously as an undergraduate student at Hollins University [in Virginia]. Most of the workshops I took were about defining my voice as a writer and figuring out the mechanics of narrative, dialogue and character. Sugarbread was my honours thesis, so it was a bit of a test to see if I had learned how to convey a story successfully. I started making more of a career out of being a writer when I received the David TK Wong Fellowship in 2007. That was my first writer-in-residence position. The daily discipline of showing up to my desk and re-reading old drafts was work, work, work—that was when I started treating writing as more of a profession.
What writers have influenced you?
Judy Blume was a big influence because she told the truth and she spoke to young girls about topics we couldn’t ask adults about. Arundhati Roy is another major influence—the first time I read The God of Small Things, it was a revelation that words could create such movement in the mind. In my adult years, Yiyun Li, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ann Patchett, Anne Fadiman, Marjane Satrapi, Kent Haruf, Nikita Lalwani, Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy and Meera Syal have been major influences.
What is the worst thing about being a writer in Singapore?
It can be challenging to find a quiet space to write in this busy city.
What is the best thing about being a writer in Singapore?
The burgeoning literary scene here holds a lot of promise for writers, with opportunities for us to support and mentor each other. The busy city problem above also works as an advantage—it’s a walkable city, which I find very refreshing when I’m stuck in a story.
How important was it to you to illustrate in Sugarbread the relationships between women in Singapore’s Sikh community?
It was very important because I wanted to explore that tension between traditional and modern mindsets. It was important to have different women representing each mindset so I could demonstrate the clashes between them.
How much of your own life influenced Pin’s in the novel?
I definitely had a racist bus uncle and other people of that older generation say blatantly racist things. I went to a convent primary school, so when I set out to write a coming-of-age novel, these were the details that I really wanted to communicate. My mum’s an excellent cook but I don’t think she ever left hidden messages in her cooking (if she did, I was not astute enough to decipher them). My dad’s a very sweet, kind and gentle man like Pa in the novel.
How much of the blatant racism in the book have you experienced in Singapore?
Oh. See above. That and much more. I should point out that I wasn’t solely the victim of racism—I certainly learned (and consequently unlearned) my own prejudices and stereotypes about other groups of people. We’re hyper-conscious of race in Singapore because we’re not supposed to talk about it for fear that we’ll open a can of worms and there will be riots. But because we don’t talk about it, it’s hard to educate ourselves and others about misconceptions. The majority of us simply know that “saying racist things is illegal” but we practice micro-aggressions towards each other every day and don’t necessarily consider them inappropriate because we’re used to thinking of racism in terms of its most blatant manifestation: rioting against another group, for example, or calling names.
What do you think literary fiction can do that no other genre or medium can do?
Literary fiction is multi-layered. It can use language to engage and ignite a reader’s imagination. Other genres can do this to an extent, but literary fiction’s value is in its precise choices of words to convey a narrative with a powerful message, rather than simply tell a story.
Which book(s) are you reading right now?
I’m reading A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel. It’s one of her earlier works and it really packs a punch (so far).
Sugarbread by Balli Kaur Jaswal is available at all major Singapore book stores and at shop.epigrambooks.sg.
We are pleased to announce that the winner of this year's Epigram Books Fiction Prize is O Thiam Chin, with his manuscript “The Infinite Sea”. He was up against fellow competitors Balli Kaur Jaswal (“Sugarbread”), Sebastian Sim (“Let’s Give It Up For Gimme Lao!”) and Wong Souk Yee (“Expelled”).
This decision was made by a judging panel that consisted of NUS professor Philip Holden, bestselling author Adrian Tan, leading actress Janice Koh and Epigram Books’ CEO Edmund Wee. Described as giving insight into “how little we know the people whom we are in relationships with”, The Infinite Sea drew praise for its compelling plot, the quality of its writing and the strength of its character development.
Thiam Chin beat out a total of 68 other manuscripts submitted over a period of six months. “The Infinite Sea” will be published by Epigram Books and is set to be published early next year.
About the Prize
Making headlines upon its announcement, the inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize is the richest literary award in Singapore. With a prize of $20,000 and a publishing contract with Epigram Books, this award is to be given to a Singaporean, Singaporean permanent resident or Singapore-born author for the best manuscript of a full-length, original and unpublished novel written in the English language.
For more information about the the Epigram Books Fiction Prize, or for any queries, please visit epigrambooks.sg or contact Clara How at firstname.lastname@example.org.
SINGAPORE, 10 March 2015—Epigram Books is pleased to announce the launch of a new literary prize, the Epigram Books Fiction Prize.
The annual prize of S$20,000 is the richest literary award in Singapore. It is to be awarded to a Singaporean, Singaporean permanent resident or Singapore-born author for the best manuscript of a full-length, original and unpublished novel written in the English language. The first winner will be announced at this year’s Singapore Writers Festival in November 2015 and have his/her novel published by Epigram Books.
“We want to reward excellence in contemporary Singapore creative writing and to encourage the readership of high-quality Singapore literature by publishing the winning and shortlisted entries,” explains Edmund Wee, Publisher and CEO of Epigram Books.
The competition is now open for entries. The manuscript must be unpublished and uncontracted to a publisher. Four hard copies of the manuscript and a completed official entry form should be submitted by post or delivered by hand to Epigram Books at Block 1008 Toa Payoh North #03-08 Singapore 318996. The closing date for submissions is August 31, 2015, 6pm.
The judging panel will be chaired by Edmund Wee. The names of the other judges will be announced at a later date. For more information about the inaugural edition of the Epigram Books Fiction Prize, or for any queries, please visit www.epigrambooks.sg.
About Epigram Books
An independent publisher based in Singapore, Epigram Books is known for putting together well-designed and thought-provoking titles. It began as a division of the multiple award-winning communications design firm Epigram but registered as a separate entity in July 2011 to champion Singaporean literature.
It is best known for the middle grade series, The Diary of Amos Lee, which has sold over 240,000 copies worldwide. Other landmark publications include translations of Cultural Medallion winners and new editions of out-of-print classic Singaporean novels.
Epigram Books Fiction Prize
The Epigram Books Fiction Prize promotes contemporary Singapore creative writing and rewards excellence in Singapore literature. The annual prize is Singapore’s richest literary award. S$20,000 is awarded to the Singaporean, permanent resident or Singapore-born author for the best manuscript of a full-length, original and unpublished novel written in the English language. The competition is now open for entries. The first winner will be announced at the Singapore Writers Festival in November 2015 and have his/her novel published by Epigram Books. Please download the official entry form and rules and regulations here.