Friday, October 07, 2005

The Literary Landscape of Singapore

And talking (as we were) about the problems that writers face locally and elsewhere, a friend (thanks Jes!) very kindly posted me photocopy of an article about Singapore's Literary Scene. It's called Writer's Block by Elaine Meyers, but I'm not sure of the title of the magazine is appeared in (I-S?) I couldn't find an online link to it, so what follows is just selected highlights. I'm posting this because I think that there are interesting parallels with the situation for writers in English in Malaysia. (If you find it a bit boring, save it to read before bed!)

Meyers begins by saying that Singapore is nowhere on the world's literary map and at least "the neighbours to the north" have Tash Aw. (See, Malaysia boleh!)

Then she talks about the various reasons for this beginning with publication. Marshall Cavendish (formerly Times Publishing) is the largest publisher in Singpaore but only publish two to six manuscripts a year. There are only a handful of other publishers who publish local writing. Ethos used to be a key publisher of Singaporean fiction but today does not publish new titles. Goh Eck Kheng of Landmark Books says it has been a long time since he received a manuscript that he wanted to publish. (So are Singaporean authors just not making the grade?)

The only publisher which seems to be thriving and publishing new stuff at the moment is First Fruits which focuses on poetry. Poetry apparently attracts the largest number of new, young and active writers in Singapore. (If you want to know about the poetry scene in Singapore, this article by Alvin Pang is a very good introduction.)

Singaporean literature does not sell well. An average print run is only 2,000 copies (500 for poetry).

The only publisher which appears to have an international outlook is Monsoon Books which published Gerrie Lim's bestseller Invisible Trades. (Non-fiction though.)

Meyers says that Singaporean writers tend to look outside of Singapore for inspiration, both in style and content.

The most common themes are: "A sense of losing something, modernization, a migrant culture and claustrophobia."

Meyer says that Singapore lit is in a woeful state because literature is not a compulsory subject in school and don't grow up to be literary adults. Alvin Pang says "Include local writers in syllabi and everything will change." (The question of the role of literature teaching in schools is one that interests me greatly.)

The article ends on a positive note as Meyer highlights some of the most important recent developments.

The National Arts Council "is pulling its weight". The National Book Development Council has resurrected the Singapore Literature Prize. It also provides support for writers in the form of mentorship, courses, writing grants and scholarships.

Alvin Pang and Toh Hsien Min, started The Literary Centre in 2003, a non-profit centre that promotes the literary arts. Their main activity is the biennnial literature festival, Wordfeast.

Toh also founded and is editor-in chief of Singapore's online literary magazine, the excellent Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore (QLRS).

Meyer concludes: ... the heart of the matter is this: No matter how much money or how many resources we throw at Singaporean literature, we won't cut it unless we understand the value of literature, and make it part of our lives and our education."

I rather think she's right!


starlight said...

It's true. Singaporeans have yet to discover the joys of literature. Last month's Singapore Writer's Festival was largely ignored by the local media (according to a Singaporean friend) and the response was very muted for such a big event.

I suspect Singaporeans haven't discovered the value of literature either. At the talks, many of the front seats were filled by foreigners. The Singaporeans came late, clattered noisily to the back and proceeeded to either whisper among themselves or open a packet of peanuts.

bibliobibuli said...

That's so sad ...

And yet I find the same thing here in KL. We brought in excellent speakers for our litfest and yet the attendance was really disappointing. A Pulitzer winner? So what? A writer twice listed for the Booker? So what?

But I think this writer is correct - the love of literature has to be inculcated in kids. Makes me glad that i was a teacher-trainer ...

Hari said...

Completely off topic here - yes, Malaysia boleh, what with Tash Aw and all. But I just figured out that Gerrie Lim's bestseller is banned in Malaysia. So, really, are we so much better off than Singapore? One has to admit that had Tash Aw chosen to publish his novel here in Malaysia, he would probably not have even got as far as publishing his book; the chances of ever being listed for ANY prizes would have probably been close to nil. Actually, on second thought, nil!

bibliobibuli said...

Not off topic at all. Am very sad and yes, angry (though not at all surprised) to hear that Gerry Lim's book is banned here. How did you discover this? There's seldom any public announcement of waht is banned and waht is not, and certainly no public debate. Your moral welfare is being taken care of by the Big Daddy state!

And *sigh* yes, you're right about the fact that Tash wouldn't have won international recognition if he had been published here. Would it have even been published here? I'm sure raman would have been delighted to ahve a manuscript that good come his way. (Though he has let some promising manuscripts slip through his fingers in my opinion ...).

Fret not though, young Hari. We're alive and fighting and good things are happening. We live in interesting times.

Hari said...

How did I find out about Gerrie Lim? Very simple; first I asked for the book from MPH - got the standard answer of 'out of stock'. Then, I Googled "gerrie lim, monsoon books" and got to read an interview with philip tatham under a post called 'A Publisher with a Passion with Books'.

bibliobibuli said...

Yep, found it on Aneeta's website. Many thanks.

Anisah said...

Singaporeans' lack of passion with literature could perhaps be explained by the republic's dominant kiasu culture? Anybody wants to do a PhD on that? That's my hypothesis. I'm not good with qualitative research methods to offer any advice on that. That also why I didn't / haven't explored this hypothesis further for myself.

In a kiasu culture, that which brings little promise of quick money, or doesn't have potential capital to get a bank lona on, is not worth "enjoying / studying" as a student, and definitely not as a semi-professional pursuit. I don't even dare say professional pursuit.

Malaysians aren't that great either with literature. On average, every Malaysian reads less than one page a day! I think I got that statistic drummed into my head thanks to a National Library (Perpustakaan Negara) "Get reading" campaign which took place when I was in primary school.

I won't say how many years ago, without me wishing to give my age away.

I'm not a women who takes offence when asked about my age, however I take flight when people want to know about me. Psychologists, thanks, but no thanks. This aversion is only limited to the blogosphere.

Sharon, my apologies, I don't mean any stroppiness, I'm just blog-shy, invite me to come to tea, and I'll happily bring scones. See, I wasn't shy to ask to be invited. :)