The author who won the Epigram Books Fiction Prize 2017 for The Riot Act — a retelling of the Little India riot — tells us his choice reads for 2017
What's your best read of 2017? Skimming by Claire Tham. I came across Tham's short stories more than a decade ago, and remembered enjoying them tremendously. This is the first time I am reading her novel, and I must admit I am in awe. The entire narrative centres around three characters, none of them particularly likeable. Yet Tham digs so deeply into their psyche and examines with a surgeon's precision their motives and behaviour, that I find myself drawn to the open surgery with macabre curiosity. Skimming attains a depth in character study that is rare in Singapore writing.
Who's an author you discovered this year and would recommend? My star discovery of the year is Jonathan Franzen. I picked up a hefty copy of his award winning The Corrections, and found myself falling under his spell almost immediately. The writing is technically brilliant. In this story where a family of five struggles to make sense of their lives, the characters are given ample time and space to grow themselves such that they remain embedded in my memory long after I put down the book. Time spent reading good fiction that imparts life lessons is time well invested.
What was a book that really changed your perception on issues in 2017? The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew marks my first foray into graphic novels. The boldness with which the artist challenges the officially sanctioned narrative of Singapore, and the blatant withdrawal of state funding by the authorities shocked me. Yet the graphic novel goes on to enjoy critical and commercial success both within the country and internationally. To witness how the courage of one artist can inspire the masses and how readily the masses show their support for the artist despite the snub by the authorities has given me confidence to push boundaries as a writer.
What's a book that was recommended by someone? A friend insisted that I should read Straight Man by Richard Russo. It turned out to be a great read! Rumours about severe budget cuts and the necessity to axe staff sent an entire team of college professors into panic mode as they scramble to form alliances, scheme character assassinations, and do whatever it takes to save their own asses. This comic satire sparkles with sharp wit and humour, and converts me into an instant fan of Richard Russo. I am sure anyone working in academia would get a kick out of Straight Man.
Was there a book you read in 2017 that made you sad, uneasy or uncomfortable? The one novel that is tough to read is Precious (original title, Push) by Sapphire. A powerful, hard-hitting story about a black teenager who is sexually preyed upon by both parents, and her arduous journey of self discovery. I am especially blown away by the way Sapphire drapes the language around the protagonist, taking bold liberty with grammatical and spelling deviations, so it reads like an unadorned stream of thought from the illiterate teenager.
An excerpt to illustrate how powerful and unsettling the writing is:
"I'm still 7: a boy holds me down under the stairwell that smells like urine (pee I woulda said at seven) tries to push his dick into me.
I am 8: when I put my tongue In Mary-Mae's mouth for the first time (under the same steps)"