Singapore Literature Prize Talk panelists at the HSS Library, on the evening of 23 Feb

On 23 February 2017, Thursday, four authors who have been shortlisted in the Singapore Literature Prize participated in a panel discussion about writing and Literature in Singapore in the HSS Library. Throughout the 90 minute-long panel discussion, the authors spoke on a wide range of topics, sharing their deeply personal experiences with writing, also giving advice about becoming a published author in Singapore for students and members of the public.

Authors Sithuraj Ponraj, Shelly Bryant, Peh Shing Huei and Audrey Chin were joined by Prof Divya Victor from the Creative Writing Programme. The discussion was, by turns, both light-hearted and sombre, and at times, with a touch of self-deprecation as well as wistful reflection on being an author in Singapore. Four interesting points from the panel talk have been chosen from the deeply thoughtful discussions to be highlighted in this blog post:

1. Don’t rush to publish your first book

One of the advice given by the authors was about how to decide when to publish. Don’t rush to publish – do it when you are ready. That was the general consensus amongst the speakers. However, the exact point in time in which a prospective writer would be “ready” was less straight-forward. Age was one consideration that was raised. One suggestion was to wait until around 30 years old or so, as a general ballpark figure of what could be considered as being old enough. Of course, as Mr Sithuraj Ponraj quipped, “no one likes to admit when they’re old enough.”

Ms Shelly Bryant’s advice was that, at the end of the day, a writer will want to be able to revisit what was published in those early years and to be able to be proud of what was written, if possible. If not, then at least, to not be ashamed of it – and to be able to stand by it.

Instead of publishing books early, instead look for journals, magazines and other channels to submit your writing to. Publishing a book in Singapore is not difficult, as the publishing industry is supportive in today’s environment, but rushing into it will mean not being able to reach out to a wider audience. First getting your work published via periodicals or other channels before publishing, will help more in the long run, and the experience will also be invaluable later on in life.

2. Don’t stop reading and writing

Of more importance, especially at the start, is to continue to write. During the panel discussion, multiple speakers chipped in to support this sentiment, drawing from their personal experiences, and of how they felt their own progress had been supported by an unrelenting passion for their craft that drove them to continue to write. Ms Shelly Bryant said that while she loved her job of being a translator, her passion was in poetry, and she has always regarded herself as a poet first and foremost.

Similarly, the speakers encouraged the audience to read widely. It is through the act of reading and writing that one can improve, not just as a writer, but also as a person. There will surely be times when a writer hits a wall, or becomes stuck. But having the heart to continue, to continue to read and write, is what eventually leads to success. Many “failed” works written in the past can evolve and change in the future – and continuing to write despite feeling insecure about the quality of the writing is important.

3. Don’t be discouraged by what may seem to be failures, build a community of like-minded friends and colleagues

In response to a question from the audience about how they dealt with the stress of writing that was previously described – or rather, of not being able to write to their own satisfaction – many of the authors joked that they are all strict on themselves and are very critical of their own works. Sometimes, to the point of self-loathing, even. Turning inward to reflect and draw on their personal experiences again, the speakers talked about living with the strong emotions that accompanied the act of writing. Being able to take it in stride is important, as the speakers all attested to the fact that the feeling of insecurity about one’s own work is not likely to go away, even after many years of experience.

Instead, building strong, lasting friendships with other writers and colleagues, with whom you can share your sentiments and support together, is one way to keep it together.

4. Write for people who care about you – and who you care about

From left to right: Mr Sithuraj Ponraj, Ms Audrey Chin, Ms Shelly Bryant, Mr Peh Shing Huei, and Prof Divya Victor

At the end of the day, one cannot hope to please everyone. When talking about the impacts, positive and negative, of the Singapore Literature Prize on the local writing scene, the speakers emphasized that writing, at the end of the day, shouldn’t only be a political act to score points with judges, or even with the public. Writing for that single goal will likely not be very enjoyable as well. Mulling the question of whether the Singapore Literature Prize has the potential to stifle creativity by creating a “canon” of prize-winning texts from which other writers start to emulate, the speakers noted that none of their own works, shortlisted for the prize or not, have been written specifically with a criteria based on past winners.

Readers too, shouldn’t look at the prize in that lens. Like all literary prizes, the Singapore Literature Prize can end up being very subjective. Ms Audrey Chin attested to the fact that her own favourite short story from her collection was different from the favourite short stories of her editor and also her friends.

Don’t imagine that you are writing for a panel of judges – instead, actually write for people who care about you as a person. Writing for friends, relatives, family – and to get feedback from them – that is what is important. Write stories that they would love to read – write so that they will enjoy reading it. What results will be genuine, heartfelt, and most of all, meaningful.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, the speakers agreed that Singapore Literature Prize has the potential to highlight interesting new titles and introduce new texts to a wider audience – but it is important for Singaporeans to also look at it with the right attitude. The Singapore Literature Prize is a way to celebrate our literary achievements and progress, and to give recognition to our authors, old and new.