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Why I Read Sing Lit: A Twenty-Two-Year-Old’s Journey

Singapore Literature — written by Singaporeans for Singaporeans. Is there more to reading it than a show of patriotism? I’m a university student doing my internship at the public libraries, and over this three-part series, I will try to order my thoughts on Sing Lit and argue that it deserves a special spot in our national and personal psyches.

True or false: There is no such thing as Singapore literature.

If you’d asked me this while I was anywhere from the ages of ten to sixteen, I would’ve probably responded with the former. Obviously “Singapore literature” didn’t exist — we didn’t have any sort of publishing industry of which I was aware of, there were no locally-written novels decking out the Popular Bookstore shelves, and nobody I knew read such a thing.

Sometimes distantly, I’d catch wind of names like Catherine Lim and Alfian Sa’at, but these weren’t names on books that sparked conversations during recess. No, that honour belonged to titles like Harry Potter and Twilight. But the white faces and multi-coloured eyes of the characters, so different from us Asians, meant that those worlds were made fantastical by their protagonists as much as by the existence of wizards and vampires.

I learnt that people who looked like me were best left in the supporting cast, and anyone who lived in Singapore probably didn’t have a story worth telling. Instead, I found my representation in the strong female leads of books like The Hunger Games and put aside any other thoughts of needing to see myself in my literature.

Lieutenant Kurosawa’s Errand Boy by Warren Kalasrgaran, my first Sing Lit Book. Get it here: eBook [Epigram Books, 2017]

When I was seventeen, I read my first Singapore Literature (Sing Lit) book. The characters in Lieutenant Kurosawa’s Errand Boy by Warran Kalasegaran didn’t really look like me either. The titular errand boy of the novel is eight-years old and Indian, and the novel is set the 1940s, in the heat of the Japanese Occupation. Being that I’m a Chinese girl born just before the turn of the millennia, there’s only one thing that really connects us: we’re both Singaporeans. As it turned out, it was enough.

This first taste of Sing Lit opened my eyes to a whole new world. It was fine when I hadn’t realised there was an alternative, but the moment I became aware, it was impossible not to want more. Like Dorothy Gale taking her first steps in technicolour Oz, I was seeing things anew.

[Image source: Pinterest — Dorothy Gale sees colour for the first time in Oz in The Wizard of Oz]

I couldn’t tell you exactly what it is about Lieutenant Kurosawa’s Errand Boy that struck me so deeply (deeper, I might add, than Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians). The novel drew me in with its exploration of events that were tied closely to my own family’s history, forcing its protagonist into the throes of the war that had happened on our very own shores. I’d never read a story like this: one that puts someone like me at the centre of all things.

But there’s a difference between being a spectator to a protagonist’s life and inhabiting a character in full. Lord of the Rings lets me watch. Lieutenant Kurosawa’s Errand Boy lets me live.

Of course, there’s still the question of why. Why is there a need to be represented at all? There’s a solid argument to be made that the whole point of reading is to put yourself into another’s shoes going through an unfamiliar journey. After all, isn’t it the common refrain that reading lets you travel from the comfort of your own room? With that in mind, it seems silly, almost, to travel from Bukit Batok to Orchard Road in a narrative when you could be heading off to cosmopolitan New York, old-timey Bath, off-planet to outer space or even Middle Earth!

[Image source: HuffPost—Samwise and Frodo embracing in the middle of their journey to Mordor in the Fellowship of the Ring]

In many ways, my answer to this would be simply: why not? Yes, I, too, quiver with excitement of being given a front seat to the adventures of Frodo and Samwise. But there’s a difference between being a spectator to a protagonist’s life and inhabiting a character in full. Lord of the Rings lets me watch. Lieutenant Kurosawa’s Errand Boy lets me live.

Since that first foray into this new world, I’ve come to understand that Sing Lit isn’t a genre, it’s a portal to a whole new library. With the growing maturity of the Sing Lit scene also comes a wider variety of settings, held together by Singaporean earnestness. Sure, I still get a kick out of reading familiar literary fixtures woven into captivating narratives. But just as American or British authors aren’t limited to a single experience or narrative, local authors, too, write from a wide variety of influences and inspirations, producing works ranging from political satires, dystopian features, to chick-lit!

Have you ever wondered what it might be like to see yourself in the stories you read? Whether you’re fourteen or forty, there’s sure to be a book that fits you. So bring an open mind, set aside space in your borrowing quota and pick up a Sing Lit book on your next trip to the library!

No Place Like Home

From left to right:

Sugarbread — Balli Kaur Jaswal | eBook, Physical Copy

The Gods will Hear Us Eventually — Jinny Koh | eBook

17A Keong Saik Road — Charmaine Leung | eBook

Out of This World

From left to right:

Sofia and the Utopia Machine — Judith Huang | eBook

Lion City — Ng Yi-Sheng | eBook

Beng Beng Revolution — Lu Huiyi | eBook

The next part of this series will get you going on your Sing Lit journey with recommendations of local titles, based on books you might have already read!

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Text by
Darienne Sim
National Library Board

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