As #BuySingLit 2020 is lighting up the literary scene, we field the question: Does SingLit matter?
SingLit is more than just a trendy hashtag. The tagline says: “Buy Local, Read Our World”, and the nationwide movement is all about encouraging the community to read books by homegrown authors. It also delves deeper into our roots by exploring Singapore’s past, present and future through stories. With local artists and musicians taking their turn in the spotlight, it’s only natural for their literary counterparts to shine as well.
Now that #BuySingLit 2020 is back for its fourth run, avid readers can immerse themselves in the world of Singapore literature with exciting activities across the island over two weekends (6-8 and 13-15 March). This year, there are over 60 activities to participate in, including a book bazaar at BooksActually, a multi-sensory installation called SingLit Power House and a stage play based on local horror titles. (However, numerous programs have been postponed in light of the Covid-19 situation, so keep tabs on the event for further updates.)
Before we go any further, let’s take a look at the question: What is Singlit?
Singapore literature is us
Essentially, SingLit is an amalgamation of Singapore and literature, and the stories told are by Singaporeans about Singaporeans. “SingLit is like family to me: there are people who I love, and people who I hate, people who I have to accept into my life because I have to,” says local writer Daryl Qilin Yam, whose first novel Kappa Quartet was longlisted for the Epigram Books Fiction Prize in 2015.
Kenny Leck, the co-founder of indie bookstore BooksActually, which prides itself on offering local works, answers the question poetically. “SingLit is a distillation and culmination of our lives 24/7. A place where we grew up in, whether you are born here or a new citizen. It is a reflection of our dreams, perceptions, and convictions on how we measure ourselves to a certain standard as a Singaporean, and as an individual of the entire human race.”
The ebb and flow of the SingLit movement
Powered by the Singapore Book Council, this initiative hopes to bring together people from all walks of life with the written medium. “Through our islandwide programmes, we hope to tap on SingLit’s potential to connect diverse communities – from the young and the old; to writers and artists; people passionate about SingLit, and those new to it,” says William Phuan, executive director of the Singapore Book Council. “We believe that stories have the potential to bring people together.”
“On a looser arrangement, separate entities such as bookstores, publishers, and even self-published authors have been ‘pushing’ SingLit in one form or another for the past decade. It has provided an annual point of pivot for audiences who are either exposed or new to SingLit to come together, and experience literature from a uniquely Singaporean perspective,” says Kenny.
Just head further down the hashtag rabbit hole (try #singlit or #buysinglit) and you’ll see that local titles are slowly gaining popularity among bibliophiles. With that said, as a whole, local books still can’t seem to hold a candle to international titles. According to Kenny, the bulk of the sales numbers for his bookstore over the past two financial years comes largely from international titles at 65%.
Why are Singaporeans inclined to turn a blind eye to local literature? “I feel that locals tend to think of SingLit as ‘not well written’, and to use the local lingo, ‘cannot make it one’. I understand most locals prefer to read books by foreign writers, but I feel that they should try some local titles to see if they like it well enough,” says Pang Hee Juon, who wrote the dystopian novel The Last Server.
Author Mabel Gan, who penned The Ghost Who Pinched Me, remains hopeful: “I believe that Singaporeans are coming into their own and saying, we are important enough to have our own stories, and we want our children to read books from local authors.”
On the other hand, Daryl believes that “there are people who love it, and there are people who hate it, and in between lies a broad swathe of cold indifference.”
The twist and turns local storytellers face
Despite what seems like an unfavourable road for local writers, they are keeping the passion alive by telling their stories. “I notice the trend is for publishers to prefer Singapore themes or settings in a story. The fact that many readers prefer to read books set in other countries should indicate that it’s not the setting that matters so much as the story itself,” Hee Juon explains.
“The challenges have always been the bookstores and the publishers. Inadvertently, we are sometimes more of the stumbling blocks than anything else,” Kenny Leck adds.
That begs the question, what are the elements that give SingLit its local flavour?
We’d say the homegrown literacy scene offers something new to local readers: Relatable stories. Take historical fiction novels like How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee and The Ghost Who Pinched Me by Mabel Gan for example. Both are set during the Japanese occupation and while most of us might not have experienced what it was like then, these books give you a peek into the past as you riffle through the pages.
However, Hee Juon believes what truly matters is that the tale is told well and true to the writer’s heart. “Even if a story is set in a fantastical faraway land the likes of Roald Dahl or J.K. Rowling, as long as it is written by a Singaporean, it is SingLit.”
So why is SingLit significant?
Does SingLit really matter with book publishers and readers pulling the rope in opposite directions? Well, when it comes down to it, SingLit is personal to us. It’s the same as asking, why do we as Singaporeans matter? We posed the question to prominent personalities in the scene, and this is what they had to say.
“The existence of a diverse national canon is necessary for a country to gain a clear perspective of itself as a whole, and of other minority groups and voices within it,” Jing-Jing Lee explains.
Mabel agrees, saying that “SingLit articulates the Singaporean sense of self, which is important for both local writers as well as local readers.”
As for Kenny, to him, SingLit is, simply, us. “When we lament that we have no history or roots, it is because we have no stories. Stories of the people that came before us, the present stories that we foment, and the future stories waiting to be told are what makes us. And these stories are SingLit.”
Meanwhile, Hee Juon believes it’s an expression of ourselves. “People used to not know where Singapore is, let alone what it is, though this is rapidly changing and Singapore is now an international trade hub. I believe that the essence of every country is not simply how well it does in terms of trade, education, and the world’s view, but also how as people we express ourselves and our ideas. This expression can be in the form of fiction, which can be considered a permanent record of our expression as people.”
Finally, as Daryl so succinctly puts it, these are narratives close to our heart. “SingLit matters because our stories should matter to us; SingLit matters because our lives, our communities, our wants and our desires should all matter to us. We deserve to be written about, chided, aggressively loved and fawned over. We deserve to see ourselves in print, in love, embodied in distant pasts and speculative futures, and engaged in epic struggles over issues that matter to us, existential or otherwise. SingLit matters because being Singaporean matters. SingLit matters because we are human too.”
If you’re interested in dipping your toes into the local literary scene, you can also check out titles by other local authors like Cyril Wong, Ng Yi-Sheng and Sebastian Sim.