SNOW AT 5 PM Won the Singapore Literature Prize
A thrill to be read so enthusiastically and preceptively by Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, one of the three judges of the Singapore Literature Prize English fiction category. She made her thoughts public on her FB page after the award ceremony was over. She has really good things to say too about my fellow nominees, Cyril Wong and Mallika Naguran.
"The Singapore Book Council celebration of the 2022 Prize winners for various genres in different languages was yesterday (Thurday), so I no longer feel bound to discreet silence as one of the three judges for the English Fiction Award. I wrote up my enthusiasm for three of the 33 novels and short story collections mailed to me, and include them here, to share with their readers!
"Jee Leong Koh’s Snow at 5 P.M.: Translations of an Insignificant Japanese Poet
Jee Leong Koh’s Snow at 5 P.M. may be Singapore first global novel. It is multi-genre, with 107 haiku introducing many of the prose passages. Set chiefly in contemporary Manhattan, with Central Park as the jewel in the setting, the fiction flashes off and on, like red warning signals, to a futuristic climate-changed Singapore Island and planet. The novel is multi-civilizational, the protagonist-narrator being a diasporic Singaporean living in New York City, in quest of his speculative protagonist, a Japanese poet immigrant to the same American territory. The novel is a mash-up of sub-genres. It is a mystery story, puzzling a missing poet known only through the half-burnt sheaves of haiku left in the apartment the narrator has moved into. The fiction is thickened, like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick’s whaling information, with empirical botanical knowledge that offers a different discursive dimension to the haiku images of flora and fauna. Asian American scholarship and displays of literary erudition are scored with erotic gay intimacies. Multitudinous digressive language plays, sub-characters’ lineages and histories, suggest unities in the tradition of Joycean epic works. Snow at 5 p.m.’s hybrid literary traditions, genres and sub-genres, generating complex threads, each digressing and spinning other threads, achieve a tour de force, a globalized Singapore imaginary that dazzles."
"Cyril Wong’s This Side of Heaven
The key to Cyril Wong’s apocalyptic, post-(multiple) holocaust novel, This Side of Heaven, is how it draws on Dante’s Divine Comedy, an epic vision of a Christian Heaven, Purgatory and Hell. Wong’s novel creates a de-sacralized version, structured on 31 narrator-souls, gathered in a Garden ironically non-Edenic, and doomed to narrating their earthly lives. The long first section dramatizes in-between consciousnesses. Having to speak and/or listen, to relive failed relationships, inadequacies of love, empathy, compassion, individual sorrows, and more, serve as the novel’s opening major plot. The short second segment, composed of dialogue among three speakers, analogous to the Christian Trinity, here imagined as “Architects,” offers a running commentary, a meta-fiction on the repeated stories and time-trapped subjects in the Garden the Architects have constructed. The novel ends with the reversal of The Divine Comedy plot structure, Dante’s catalytic vision of eight-year-old Beatrice, dramatized in its brief epilogue, “The Girl.” Expressed in pure poetic prose, This Side of Heaven offers its redeeming vision of what comes after the purging of “memories…trauma…suffering”: the return to “the source of creation.” Cyril Wong’s novel, like James Joyce’s Ulysses, challenges with allusions, its sprawling roots in epic and poetic traditions, gritty particularities, and modernist language plays. Its literariness is both performative and moral, written to grow our emotional imaginations."
"Mallika Naguran’s She Never Looks Quite Back,
The thirteen stories in Mallika Naguran’s debut publication, She Never Looks Quite Back, fuse surreal ferocity and sensuous lyricism. The reader is stunned by sexual passions bursting through urban Singapore sociability, by the fusion of incompatible imaginaries of natural landscapes, wild, raw, inhabited by flora and fauna more alive than the humans who enter their domain, and city stories with their brutal histories. The stories’ sequence tracks a stylistics progression, from realistic narratives to surreal hallucinatory imaginaries. “Ode to Joy,” the opening story, exhibits Naguran’s deft use of first-person voice, dialogic action, subtle characterization, and socio-historical contexts to dramatize a young girl’s growing up story, weaving a fresh take on Westernized colonial Singapore. The child on the edge of her parents’ relational tensions intuits without understanding the adult world, just as the father’s execution by a Japanese soldier in an off-stage violence, layered on the soldier’s later kindness to the children, undercuts any simple indictment of the occupiers’ cruelty. Later stories like “Gravity” pose the comfort zones of consumerist domesticity against the counter-gravity of untamed existence, dangerous, feral, and overpoweringly expressive in the stories’ intensities of prose and image."
[Image from the Straits Times: https://www.straitstimes.com/life/arts/wang-gungwu-suratman-markasan-both-91-are-singapore-literature-prizes-oldest-winners]