Literature of Singapore

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The literature of Singapore comprises a collection of literary works by Singaporeans in the country's four main languages: English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil.

While Singaporean literary works may be considered as also belonging to the literature of their specific languages, the literature of Singapore is viewed as a distinct body of literature portraying various aspects of Singapore society and forms a significant part of the culture of Singapore. A number of Singaporean writers such as Tan Swie Hian and Kuo Pao Kun have contributed work in more than one language. However, this cross-linguistic fertilisation is becoming increasingly rare and it is now increasingly thought that Singapore has four sub-literatures instead of one.

Literature in English

Singaporean literature in English started with the Straits-born Chinese community in the colonial era; it is unclear which was the first work of literature in English published in Singapore, but there is evidence of Singapore literature published as early as the 1830s. The first notable Singaporean work of poetry in English is possibly F.M.S.R., a pastiche of T. S. Eliot by Francis P. Ng, published in London in 1935. This was followed by Wang Gungwu's Pulse in 1950.

With the independence of Singapore in 1965, a new wave of Singapore writing emerged, led by Edwin Thumboo, Arthur Yap, Goh Poh Seng,Lee Tzu Pheng and Chandran Nair. It is telling that many critical essays on Singapore literature name Thumboo's generation, rightly or wrongly, as the first generation of Singapore writers. Poetry is the predominant mode of expression; it has a small but respectable following since independence, and most published works of Singapore writing in English have been in poetry.

There were varying levels of activity in succeeding decades until the late 1990s when poetry in English in Singapore found a new momentum with a whole new generation of poets under the age of 40 now actively writing and publishing, not only in Singapore but also internationally. Since the late-1990s, local small presses such as Firstfruits and Ethos Books have been actively promoting the work of this new wave of poets. Some of the more notable include Boey Kim Cheng, Alvin Pang, Cyril Wong, Felix Cheong and Alfian bin Sa'at (also a playwright). The poetry of this younger generation is often politically aware, transnational and cosmopolitan, yet frequently presents their intensely focused, self-questioning and highly individualised perspectives of Singaporean life, society and culture. Some poets have been labeled Confessional for their personalised writing, often dealing with intimate issues such as sexuality.

Drama in English found expression in Goh Poh Seng, who was also a notable poet and novelist, in Robert Yeo, author of 6 plays, and in Kuo Pao Kun, who also wrote in Chinese, sometimes translating his works into English. The late Kuo was a vital force in the local theatre renaissance in the 1980s and 1990s, being the artistic director of Substation for years. Some of his plays, like The Coffin is Too Big for the Hole (1984) and Lao Jiu (1990), are now considered classics of the genre. Stella Kon gained international fame with her now-famous play Emily of Emerald Hill: a monologue. About an ageing Peranakan matriach, it has been produced in Scotland, Malaysia and Australia. The sole character has been played by men as well as women.

Fiction

Fiction writing in English did not start in earnest until after independence. Short stories flourished as a literary form, the novel arrived much later. Goh Poh Seng remains a pioneer in writing novels well before many of the later generation, with titles like If We Dream Too Long (1972) – widely recognised as the first true Singaporean novel – and A Dance of Moths.

Although she began as a short story writer, Penang-born Catherine Lim has been Singapore's most widely read author, thanks partly to her first two books, Little Ironies: Stories of Singapore (1978) and Or Else, The Lightning God and Other Stories (1980), which gained prestige by being incorporated into texts for the GCSE. Lim's themes of Asian male chauvinistic gender-dominance marked her as a distant cousin to Asian-American writers such as Amy Tan. She has also been writing novels, such as The Bondmaid (1998) and Following the Wrong Gods Home (2001), and publishing them to an international audience since the late 1990s.

Han May is the pseudonym of Joan Hon who is better known for her non-fiction books. Her science-fiction romance Star Sapphire (1985) won a High Commendation Award from the Book Development Council of Singapore in 1986, the same year when she was also awarded a Commendation prize for her better-known book Relatively Speaking on her family and childhood memories.

Rex Shelley hails from an earlier colonial generation, although he began publishing only in the early 1990s. His first novel The Shrimp People (1991) won a National Book Prize.

Another National Book Prize winner Su-Chen Christine Lim's works are much more feminist-inclined, although she has moved beyond such distinctions in her latest novel A Bit of Earth (2000).

Gopal Baratham, a neurosurgeon, started as a short story writer and later wrote politically-charged works like A Candle or the Sun (1991) and Sayang (1991), which courted some controversy when first published. Augustine Goh Sin Tub who began his writing career writing in Malay, burst on the literary scene after his retirement with more than a dozen books of short stories, most of which were founded on his own personal history, thus making them part fiction and part non-fiction. Works like One Singapore and its two sequels One Singapore 2 and One Singapore 3 have found fans among the different strata of Singapore society and well acclaimed by all.

Around this time, younger writers emerged. Clare Tham and Ovidia Yu wrote short stories, while playwright Stella Kon put forth her lesser-known science-fiction novel, Eston. Of the younger generation, Philip Jeyaretnam has shown promise but has not published a new novel since Abraham's Promise (1995), while Colin Cheong can lay claim to being one of Singapore's most prolific contemporary authors.

List of Singaporean writers

Selected works

English

  • After the Hard Hours, This Rain - Chandran Nair (1975)
  • Army Daze - Michael Chiang (1984)
  • Star Sapphire - Han May (1985)
  • Below: Absence - Cyril Wong (2002)
  • The Bondmaid - Catherine Lim (1995)
  • The Brink of an Amen - Lee Tzu Pheng (1991)
  • Eight Plays - Huzir Sulaiman (2002)
  • First Loves - Philip Jeyaretnam (1988)
  • Fistful Of Colours - Su-Chen Christine Lim (1993)
  • Foreign Bodies - Hwee Hwee Tan (1997)
  • Frottage - Yong Shu Hoong (2005)
  • I Chose to Climb - Colin Tan (2001)
  • I Remember May - Yim Kein Kwok (2001)
  • If We Dream Too Long - Goh Poh Seng (1973)
  • Mammon Inc. - Hwee Hwee Tan (2001)
  • Man Snake Apple - Arthur Yap (1988)
  • ''Once the Horsemen and Other Poems' - Chandran Nair (1972)
  • Ricebowl - Su-Chen Christine Lim (1984)
  • Singapore Accent - Ivy Goh Nair,aka B J Wu (1980)
  • The Sea is Never Full - Jeffery T.H. Lee (1994)
  • The Shrimp People - Rex Shelley (1991)
  • The Space of City Trees - Arthur Yap (2000)
  • The Stolen Child - Colin Cheong (1989)
  • A Third Map - Edwin Thumboo (1993)
  • City of Rain - Alvin Pang (2003)
  • Unmarked Treasure - Cyril Wong (2004)
  • The Visage of Terrorism - The Hounds of Hell - James Villanueva (2006/2004)
  • A Visitation of Sunlight - Aaron Lee (1997)

Chinese

Malay

  • Jangan Tak Ada (collection of poems) - Muhammad Ariff Ahmad (1990)
  • Diari Bonda (Mother's Diary) - Rohani Din (1997)
  • Anugerah Buat Syamsiah (An Award for Syamsiah) - Rohani Din (2001)

Tamil

  • Cantana Kinnam - I Ulaganathan (1966)

See also

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