As recommended by Singapore's poets, novelists and non-fiction writers

The three-day BuySingLit festival kicks off on Feb 24, with over 30 organizations, publishers and booksellers pulling out all the stops in support of Singaporean literature. But if you're new to reading the authors of the country that, you know, you live in, you might not know where to start. We reached out to our writer and professor friends for their top recommendations from the past 12 months. Here's where they think you should start.

Kappa Quartet (Daryl Qilin Yam)

Recommended by: Kenny Leck, bookseller at BooksActually

The lowdown: Poet and novelist Daryl Qilin Yam's debut novel Kappa Quartet was on the finalist for the 2015 Epigram Books Fiction Prize and tells the story of a Singaporean without a soul travelling in Japan, where he encounters a kappa, a river demon who lives among humans, like many other kappas who prey on the souls of people. Divided between Singapore and Tokyo, Kappa Quartet is equal parts surreal and existential.

Why Kenny loves it: "The nuances of Daryl's writing is not immediately visible at first reading but his words and thought linger in one's being. His words act like gravity, capturing your attention even when you are done with the book. Definitely a writer to look out for, not just in Singapore but on an international standing as well."

 

Best Of (Haresh Sharma)

Recommended by: Christine Chia, poet, author of The Law of Second Marriages and Separation: a history

The lowdown: Resident playwright of The Necessary Stage, Haresh Sharma wrote this one-woman play for the actres Siti Khalijah Zainal, who first performed it at the M1 Fringe Festival in 2013. The story follows a Malay Muslim woman going through a divorce as she makes her way from a prison in the morning to a hospital at night, encountering all kinds of characters and situations ongs along the way.

Why Christine loves it: "It's a beautiful play devised for the luminous Siti K. Please catch the play if you can. If not, please read the play. It will make you laugh and cry."

 

Professions (Amanda Chong)

Recommended by: Joshua Ip, director of Sing Lit Station, author of “sonnets from the singlish upsize edition”

The lowdown: A lawyer by day and a poet by night, Amanda Chong has a poem engraved on the Helix Bridge at Marina Bay. Professions is her first collection and deals with the pressures of work, the breakdown of relationships and the isolation of heartbreak, in a style that is accessible but searing.

Why Joshua loves it: "A punishing look at romance as careerism in a pithy series of poems." 

 

Me Migrant (Md Mukul Hossine)

Recommended by: Ng Yi-Sheng, writer, author of Loud Poems for a Very Obliging Audience

The lowdown: A construction worker by day and a poet by night, Bangladeshi Md Mukul Hossine's collection, translated from the Bengali, has been one of the most talked about collections in Singapore last year, the first print run of 1,000 copies quickly selling out. His concrete, intimate voice and themes of loss, distance and isolation make it an important book for contemporary Singapore.

Why Yi-Sheng loves it: "In Singapore, migrant workers are too often painted as either troublemakers or victims: faceless laborers without individuality or dignity. This book changes that. Twenty-five year-old Bangladeshi construction worker-poet Md Mukul Hossine's verses of nostalgia and loneliness, beautifully translated from Bengali, remind us that there is genius and spirit in the blue-collar workforce, too—and that we may have to rethink our definitions of what we consider to be SingLit."

 

A Field Guide to the Supermarkets of Singapore (Samuel Lee)

Recommended by: Cyril Wong, poet and fiction writer, author of The Lover's Inventory

The lowdown: Recent NUS grad Samuel Lee's collection deals with both the mundane and the extraordinary. Poly-vocal, mysterious and occasionally cheekily prosaic, the poems feature characters from the heartlands of Singapore, fluorescent lights, bus rides and shopping for fruit, all observed through a speaker you can't help but grow fond of.

Why Cyril loves it: "Lee's poems connect, in intimate ways, the ordinary with the intangible. But unlike a rising tide of airy-fairy millennial artists and 'intellectuals', Lee rises touchingly above the mundanity of pretentious abstraction. In a poem like 'Self Portrait on the Eve of my Birthday', inspired by a painting from the Rococo artist, Francois Boucher, we note a stoicism regarding artistic solitude and existential impermanence, the poet's diet of 'self-pity' as negated gloriously by imagining oneself 'in rooms with flowers'."
 

And the Walls Come Crumbling Down (Tania De Rozario)

Recommended by: Deborah Emmanuel, poet and performer, author of Rebel Rites

The lowdown: In this devastating memoir from one of Singapore's most beloved young poets, the protagonist moves out of her family home to live with a partner and then, when that relationship falls apart, by herself. Through searing prose and loaded descriptions of the domestic and banal, And the Walls Come Crumbling Down is an honest look at difficult relationships and the demands of independence.

Why Deborah loves it: "This book articulated feelings which I have had but was unable to describe myself. It was full of immensely moving observations and artfully painted imagery. I will read it again."


Sarong Party Girls (Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan)

Recommended by: Daryl Whetter, MA Creative Writing programme leader at Lasalle, author of Keeping Things Whole and Search Box Bed

The lowdown: In a bid to find wealthy, Western, expat husbands for herself and all her closest friends, the protagonist of this controversial and wickedly funny novel, Jazzy, scours the seedy clubs, glitzy nightlife, upper-middle classes and gender stereotypes of Singapore.

Why Darryl loves it: "I love Sarong Party Girls primarily for its sustained use of Singlish throughout the entire novel. The voice is contemporary, hilarious, vibrant, real, relevant and, as the author’s note says of Singlish in general, 'deliciously vulgar.' In addition to all those artistic advantages, the unique mash-up that is Singlish is both particular to Singapore but also part of recurrent global forms of artistic resistance, like remixings of English in India and among Latinos in America."

 

Now That It's Over (O Thiam Chin)

Recommended by: Pooja Nansi, poet, author of Love is an Empty Barstool

The lowdown: Winner of the first edition of the Epigram Books Fiction Prize, what is currently the richest literary award in Singapore, O Thiam Chin's novel follows two Singaporean couples on a double date holiday to Phuket, on the eve of the devastating Southeast Asian tsunami. The novel is divided into four narrative strands, one for each character, each a portrait that is gradually revealed in the aftermath of the disaster, when the four friends are separated in the chaos.

Why Pooja loves it: "It is a novel set in the aftermath of a tsunami and deals with loss and impermanence, both things that terrify me and manifest themselves in beautiful and aching ways throughout the language of the narrative. As a reader, I find myself switching between despair and optimism throughout the novel, and as a writer, I am full of admiration for the skillful tightrope-walk this takes to achieve."