For the Love of Local Literature
07 Sep 2012

Lifestyle & Arts - Featured OS

For the Love of Local Literature

“If we don’t publish them (local writers), who will?” asks the owner of publishing company, Math Paper Press, Kenny Leck. The 34-year-old has, to date, published seventeen titles by local authors and continues to source for local works by budding poets and writers.

Sujah Abhilash

In the third of the four-part series Turning Pages, we find out more about Math Paper Press and their efforts to introduce local authors by publishing their works and also speak to writers, Jerrold Yam and Cyril Wong, to hear their thoughts about the local literary scene.

“If we don’t publish them (local writers), who will?” asks the owner of publishing company, Math Paper Press, Kenny Leck. The 34-year-old has, to date, published seventeen titles by local authors and continues to source for local works by budding poets and writers.

Considering rhyming poems to be one of his pet peeves, Kenny – who is also the owner of BooksActually -- makes a conscious effort in recognising and publishing books by local authors. In fact, he prefers to publish an unfamiliar and new author as opposed to a well-known one.

“The ultimate aim is to reach out to as many people as possible. What’s the point of publishing a book if it’s just going to reach out to the same people? I think publishing shouldn’t be so restrictive. Whatever comes along that we think is good content and can be shared with everybody, why not?”  he says.

 Owner of Books Actually and Math Paper Press, Kenny Leck

One new writer published by Math Paper Press is 21-year-old Jerrold Yam. The University College London law undergraduate published his book, “Chasing Curtained Suns”, in May.

Citing veteran poet Cyril Wong as an inspiration, Jerrold has this to say when asked about the challenges he faced as a local writer.

“I feel local writers aren’t getting the attention they deserve. This may be the result of the literature curriculum in Singapore, which overemphasises archaic works from Shakespeare and the Romantic poets. The misinformed perception that local literature is always lousier than foreign ones doesn’t help either.”

He adds: “Other challenges for young writers include visibility and support, (being able to secure) financial schemes and grants that are accessible to teenagers like myself who have a serious passion for writing and the tenuous task of encouraging appreciation from fellow Singaporeans.”

Jerrold Yam, seated with publisher Kenny Leck, at the launch of Chasing Curtained Suns.

Drawing experiences from his childhood at Upper Thomson Road, National Service and even the Merlion, Jerrold says his collection of poems “explores the precarious transition from adolescence to adulthood in modern Singapore, which my generation of youths can relate to”.

Admittedly, local writers face difficulties in getting their work published and appreciated by the Singapore audience. However, the little red dot also has her fair share of luminaries in the literary scene. With names like Edwin Thumboo, one of the pioneers of Singapore literature and best-selling fiction author Catherine Lim, whose works have been published around Europe and Asia, perhaps it isn’t impossible for our local writers to expand their reach internationally.

One local writer who is gaining international presence in the literary circle is 35-year-old Cyril Wong.

Cyril Wong, author of nine volumes of poetry

The author of nine volumes of poetry shares his thoughts about the literary scene in Singapore today as compared to when he first started out.

 “There are more introspective voices now, which lend a greater richness and diversity to the scene now than a decade ago, when most literature here was obsessed with national identity or a social consciousness.”

Adding to the diversity of the scene are writers whose works illustrate distinctly Singaporean traits and quirks. Such literature seems to have an intangible pull that allows Singaporeans to relate to and identify seamlessly with the author.

However, naysayers question the appeal of such localised content to an international audience. But Cyril feels otherwise.  

“Our local literature, by its definition, deals with what it means to live, and exist, meaningfully within this nation-state, with its HDB flats, its Singlish, its unique socio-cultural makeup, its claustrophobic urbanity and limited historical consciousness. By this token, our literature is already unique,” explains Cyril.

“At the same time, literature, if it is good, transcends national boundaries. The human experience goes beyond limiting structures of locality,” he adds.

With the progress seen in the literary scene here, perhaps it is no surprise that more Singaporeans today are supportive of local literature. “It is heartening to see local literature receive an increasing amount of readership, especially in the last five years,” says Jerrold.

Although writers are credited for their work, it is seldom the publishers are recognised for their efforts in willingly pushing forth local literature. These behind-the-scene players are often not given enough credit.

“I salute local publishers who choose to publish a local writer because of the literary merit of his work and not on its profit-generating guarantee. If we can somehow expose Singaporeans to the merits of local literature early on, I believe the literary arts at home will flourish and compete for prestige regionally and internationally,” says Jerrold.

A key player and staunch believer in local literature, Math Paper Press recently republished Cyril’s book, Tilting our Plates to Catch the Light.

Says Cyril, of Math Paper Press: “They are one of those newly minted publishers here far-sighted enough to give a voice to the voiceless, allowing fresh and exhilarating Singaporean perspectives to come to light. We need more of such local publishers.”

With local writers like Cyril, who will be relaunching a book of short stories later this year, and Jerrold, whose second poetry collection ‘Scattered Vertebrae’ is set to be released this August, the next chapter for the local literary scene does look promising.

But there’s always room for improvement, as Jerrold reminds us: “We live in very exciting times! The scene is burgeoning and gathering activity like China to Olympic medals. However, for me at least, it’s still pretty hard to write in Singapore. You’d need a day job if you don’t want to lick ink off your fingers for dinner.”

By Sujah Abhilash

Watch our interview with owner of Books Actually, Kenny Leck, as he shares with us more about his shop. We catch snippets of the knick-knacks he sells too! 

Books Actually is located at No 9. Yong Siak Street, Tiong Bahru Estate.

Tilting our Plates to Catch the Light by Cyril Wong and Chasing Curtained Suns by Jerrold Yam are available at BooksActually and Kinokuniya.

Next week we conclude our series by talking to two book clubs Books and Beer, and the NUS Literary Society, to find out about their efforts in keeping the reading and writing habit alive.

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