The Singapore Literature Prize is a biennial award organized by the National Book Development Council of Singapore (NBDCS) in conjunction with the the National Arts Council and the National Library Board that recognizes outstanding literary work written by a Singaporean, or permanent resident, in any of the city state’s four official languages, Chinese, Malay, English or Tamil.
This year saw a record number of prizes awarded, with 22 authors receiving recognition across 12 categories that include fiction, non-fiction, and poetry in each of the four official languages. In the English fiction category, five authors were nominated—along with Liew was Jeremy Tiang’s It Never Rains on National Day, a poignant story following the lives of Singaporeans who have moved to other parts of the world and are trying to figure out how to ‘belong’ in their new homes. Also nominated was Leonora Liow’s Moth: Stories, a collection of tales illustrating the complexities of human existence in order to demonstrate all that humanity can withstand. There was also Audrey Chin’s Nine Cuts is an anthology that matches the cover art – a human heart, with 9 stories that graze science fiction and fantasy to show the beauty and complexity of the human heart. And finally Mohamed Latiff Mohamed’s translation of Alfian Sa’at’s The Widower, a moving tale about Pak Karman, a former political detainee mourning the loss of his wife after she dies in a car accident.
Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, follows the tumultuous life of an aspiring comic book artist in the years immediately following Singapore’s independence from Malaysia. The work gained considerable recognition when the National Arts Council criticized the text saying that its content could ‘undermine the authority and legitimacy’ of the Singaporean government and withdrew its previously promised grant of $8,000.
As they say, there’s no such thing as bad press and this announcement helped push the title to the top of the bestseller list, and not just in Singapore. It became the first Singaporean graphic novel to chart on the New York Times bestseller list. John Powers from NPR’s Fresh Air radio program had high praise for the book calling it ‘A startlingly brilliant tour-de-force…. at once dazzlingly meta and deeply heartfelt. Probably the greatest work of art ever produced in Singapore.’
Sonny Liew was born in Malaysia in 1974 and moved to Singapore at a young age. He got his first job at just 21 years of age, when he contributed to Frankie and Poo in a Singaporean tabloid. His education saw him study philosophy at Cambridge and then illustration in the U.S. His successful career has crossed over to several continents, with projects that include the Southeast Asian comics anthology Liquid City, contributing to the Flight comic anthologies, and work with Disney and Marvel.