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Singapore Literature Prize gets its first female winner for English poetry

The Singapore Literature Prize virtually crowns Marylyn Tan for her debut collection, Gaze Back.

In an evening of firsts, the Singapore Literature Prize virtually crowned its first female winner last night for English poetry and gave out an unprecedented pair of double wins for both Chinese and English fiction.

Marylyn Tan, 27, became the first woman in the biennial prize’s 28-year history to triumph for English poetry. Her arcane and unapologetic debut collection, Gaze Back, took on taboo topics from menstruation to sexuality.

Its title draws on French feminist theorist Helene Cixous’ essay The Laugh Of The Medusa, which refers to the Greek myth of the Gorgon whose gaze turns men to stone.

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The category’s judges, led by former Singapore Writers Festival director Yeow Kai Chai, said in a statement: “Gaze Back is unlike any other poetry title this year – a clarion call for gender and linguistic reclamation, searing in its sassy confidence and universal appetite.

“It reminds us of the responsibility of poetry to confront and contest the power of language to determine who we are and what we desire.”

The ceremony for Singapore’s oldest ongoing literary award in all four official languages was live-streamed on organiser Singapore Book Council’s Facebook and YouTube pages.

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Tan said in a thank-you speech over video call that she was “gobsmacked and honoured”.

She added: “Thank you to my fellow artists, writers and everyone who has ever enabled my brand of filthy, pleasurable and purposefully upsetting chaos. Especially my parents, who are worried all the time.”

She told The Straits Times: “I wrote Gaze Back to emancipate our bodies and minds from being policed, and hope that continues to inform the discourse.”

Two Epigram Books titles shared the prize for English fiction: Straits Times journalist Akshita Nanda’s debut novel Nimita’s Place, about two women named Nimita navigating society’s expectations in India and Singapore, and speculative short story collection Lion City by Ng Yi-Sheng, who previously won for English poetry.

The Chinese fiction prize was split between Chia Joo Ming’s SG50-centric novel Kian Kok and Wong Koi Tet’s short story collection Black Panther.​

  • Singapore Literature prize

    Marylyn Tan became the first woman in the biennial prize's 28-year history to triumph for English poetry. Judges called her collection, which took on taboo topics, "a clarion call for gender and linguistic reclamation".

Wong also scored a win in Chinese creative non-fiction with Dakota, about the lost housing estate Dakota Crescent, where he grew up.

Each winner will get $3,000, a trophy and a 12-month Storytel audiobook gift subscription.

Artist Shubigi Rao was second time successful in the English creative non-fiction category, winning for Pulp II: A Visual Bibliography Of The Banished Book, the second volume of her decade-long project on book destruction. The first, Pulp: A Short Biography Of The Banished Book, was shortlisted for the 2018 prize but did not win.

Sithuraj Ponraj, another previous prize-winner, bagged the Tamil poetry prize with his collection It Is Easy To Be An Italian and also tied for the merit prize in Tamil fiction.

There were no winners for Malay and Tamil fiction, but there were double merit prizes for those categories, with each merit winner getting $2,000.

Almost 3,000 members of the public voted in the inaugural Readers’ Favourite category, which had four winners, including veteran Malay-language writer Peter Augustine Goh. Each winner will receive $1,000 in cash, while their voters stand a chance to win $50 book vouchers.

There were 224 submissions this year, a 30 per cent increase from 2018. Each prize category is judged by a panel of three writers and industry experts.

Chief judges include Esplanade communications and content head Clarissa Oon for English creative non-fiction, Cultural Medallion recipient KTM Iqbal for Tamil poetry and Dr Sa’eda Buang of the Asian Languages and Cultures Academic Group for Malay fiction.

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This article was originally published in The Straits Times.