Monday 16 July 2018

Lion City lit: crafting happy endings and the contemporary Singapore novel

Asian Books Blog is based in Singapore. Our occasional column Lion City Lit explores in-depth what’s going on in the City-State, lit-wise.

Here Eldes Tran reports on a recent forum on the novel in contemporary Singapore. Whatever happened to happy endings? was organised by Epigram Books, Singapore’s largest independent publisher of local stories for all ages, and the sponsor of the country's biggest prize for fiction.

Eldes is an assistant editor at Epigram. She mostly edits nonfiction and children’s books, but also some adult fiction. Apart from editing, she also acts as a project manager seeing books through all stages of production.

It appears the Singapore literature community thinks it may be time to take itself less seriously and have a laugh. A recent panel discussion hosted by the National Library Board asked Can Singapore Literature Lighten Up? And last Thursday, July 12, the annual Epigram Books Fiction Prize Forum was titled Whatever Happened to Happy Endings? 

Sebastian Sim, one of the four author panellists at the forum, said his latest book The Riot Act makes fun of everyone—no one is exempt. His novel, a dark comedy, considers an alternate fallout after the Little India riot in 2013 and his three female protagonists are truly flawed.

He believes humour is the best way to get the public to look up from their busy lives and ask bigger questions and to challenge their own world views. His first book, Let’s Give It Up for Gimme Lao!, is known for its hilarious take on Singapore politics. “This is my happy ending,” he says, “if readers can look at themselves and ask why we do things this way or that way.”

Sim was the winner of the 2017 Epigram Books Fiction Prize, while the other speakers Andre Yeo, Judith Huang and Akshita Nanda were the finalists.

Yeo may have been the odd one out when it comes to happy endings. His novel, 9th of August, is about a terrorist attack in Singapore: why and how it happens, and how does the nation react. There is, of course, no happy ending (spoiler alert: people die), but Yeo said he did end on a hopeful note. Such an event can, and will, happen, and the way people may come together could surprise us, Yeo said.

Is too much being made of endings? It’s the journey, not the destination, right? To that end, the authors also took the opportunity to talk about the craft of writing. A majority of them do not write with an ending in mind, letting their characters take shape organically as the plot develops.

“A character in chapter one is like a newborn baby,” Sim said. “The baby then becomes a rebellious teen who is no longer under his control.”

Huang, author of Sophia and the Utopia Machine, which took her six years to finish, said her ending was vastly different from what she had set out to write. She even compiled a spreadsheet of the plot points that surround a teenage girl who unlocks a secret universe and a malicious government plan to further divide the haves and have-nots.

“My writing is animated by social consciousness,” said Huang, who believes that writers have a prophetic role in uncovering questions that reflect on society. Even then, she found herself wrangling with a satisfying ending that would still leave the door open to a sequel.

Nanda, author of Nimita’s Place, quoted Stephen King when she said she wrote her first draft “with the door closed”, that is, to indulge herself and to get her thoughts out of her system: her protagonist, Nimita, buys a flat and lives happily ever after in Singapore. The subsequent drafts were more realistic: Nimita doesn’t buy a flat and lives with uncertainty in Singapore, but she knows herself better.

What Nanda ended up with is an epic novel that looks at themes of marriage, belonging and womanhood through the lives of two Nimitas—during Partition in Lahore, Pakistan, and in current-day Singapore.

“My happy ending is recognising that we can always move, for a new job, a new life, and that we should be kind to strangers everywhere,” she said.

Local authors, local recommendations
The panellists were all asked: Which local books gave you the most satisfying ending? Here are their answers.
Sebastian Sim: Skimming,  by Claire Tham
Andre Yeo: Sugarbread, by Balli Kaur Jaswal
Judith Huang: State of Emergency, by Jeremy Tiang
Akshita Nanda: Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan, and The Teenage Textbook and The Teenage Workbook, by Adrian Tan