My Book of the Year 2015

From the archives (December 7, 2015):

Asked for their Book of 2015, not necessarily by a Singaporean, but written or translated into English, 33 Singaporean writers, artists, and scholars recommend their favorite read. The list below will provide a useful holiday guide. Please support independent presses and booksellers by ordering directly from them. If you are in Singapore, you will enjoy visiting Booktique and Books Actually. If you are in New York City, you can find many Singapore titles at St. Mark’s Bookshop. If you are in another city, ask your local bookshop to stock them! We hope you enjoy reading the recommendations as much as we have enjoyed compiling them. Grateful thanks to all our contributors.

Boedi Widjaja, visual artist. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew (Epigram Books, 2015). Sonny masterfully combined words and pictures to tell a compelling alternative story of Singapore’s early years, in stark contrast to her official narratives, as she celebrates her fiftieth year of independence. The sheer scale of his creative ambition is staggering. Sonny’s meticulous attention to visual details enabled the picture panels to establish a tangible reality, hence freeing up his words to subtly explore the invisible realm of human emotions. The book shows a comics author at the top of his game.

Grace Chia, writer and editor. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew (Epigram Books, 2015). The 320-page sepia-tinged postmodern, postcolonial graphic novel is about the self-ref(v)erential protagonist, Charlie Chan, an unknown comics artist, who narrates his life story paralleling the history of modern Singapore. There is a dizzying blend of autobiography, archival journalism, history and fiction in this allegorical epistolary narrative. I like that Liew is trying to say (or not say) something complex in a multi-layered or as Charlie himself admits ‘manipulative’ way, as self-censoring writers sometimes do. This tension is what’s intriguing about this book, while at the same time, I feel the author’s genuine trust and endearment towards his readers and his creative material.

Ian Chung, writer and editor. Deeds of Light by Tse Hao Guang (Math Paper Press, 2015) and For the End Comes Reaching by David Wong (Math Paper Press, 2015). These debut collections from Math Paper Press’s Ten Year Series imprint are also the first titles to emerge from the Manuscript Bootcamp organised by Joshua Ip earlier in 2015. The rigorous process, which saw the poets engaging with literary and publishing heavyweights, has yielded two remarkably cohesive bodies of work that announce the arrival of new, important voices on the Singapore poetry scene.

Tania De Rozario, artist and writer. History’s Malcontents: The Life and Times of S.Raoul, written by Shubigi Rao, published by the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore. Part artwork, part biography, part literary endeavour, part practical joke, this book has everything I love it in: beautiful language, beautiful drawings, satire, and lots of nerdy fantasies involving creatures. nature, pseudoscience and the harmful effects of art on the brain.

Jeremy Fernando, writer. The best books help us to hear — not just the voices in our heads, or the imagined voice of the author, but the text itself. Not that it is speaking to us (nothing that vain, nor banal), but the sound of it speaking. And what a beautiful sound We Were Always Eating Expired Things (Math Paper Press, 2014) makes: personal without being trapped in the self, poignant without hysterics; Cheryl Julia Lee certainly understands that it is often what is un-played that makes the song. Dermot Healy’s The Collected Short Stories, edited by Neil Murphy & Keith Hopper (Dalkey Archive Press, 2015), goes one step further: it sings. With notes that only Healy can play. And opens us to the possibility of listening: to the point where hearing ceases, where the text seizes us, where the one who is attempting to read is doing nothing but attending to a song which is no longer completely — or even — within her or his realm of understanding. Where all one is perhaps listening to is quite possibly a goat’s song. Chuid eile i síocháin, a dhuine uasail.

Colin Goh, cartoonist, filmmaker, and attorney. My book of the year is Sonny Liew’s groundbreaking The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (Pantheon), for both its courage in reassessing national myths, and also Sonny’s skill in doing so. The fact that Sonny used my father as the visual inspiration for the titular protagonist is a plus.

Gwee Li Sui, poet, graphic novelist, and literary critic. Is 2015 our year of technical brilliance? I like Koh Jee Leong’s Steep Tea (Carcanet Press, 2015) a lot. If you have been following this poet, you may agree with me that this is possibly Koh’s first major work to go beyond his laboratorial box and emotional confines and actually make them beside the point. His new book is brimming with light confidence and clarity and a persuasive faith in the healing power of art! Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (Epigram Books, 2015) is another splendid work. Challenging from its making to its reading, this fat graphic novel is highly generous in its showcase of historical and stylistic knowledge. There are layers upon layers going in different directions as fact and fiction merge. It’s an instant metafictional classic that will excite anyone who goes into the universe looking for intended meaning!

Philip Holden, literary scholar. My choice is Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (Epigram Books, 2015). It’s a superb graphic novel that gets readers not just to think about historical truth, but our daily acts of historical remembrance, and how they structure our own understanding of our lives: how the political is ultimately very personal.

Joshua Ip, poet. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (Epigram Books, 2015). For me, it comes a close second to The Resident Tourist as the best SG graphic novel of all time (and on certain metrics such as the bread and depth of the art, it’s better) – and towers over every other book in every genre in 2015. It should be eligible (and a shoo-in!) for the Singapore Literature Prize, either in the fiction category, nonfiction category, or both.

Jinat Rehana Begum, writer and educator. I read very slowly when I enjoy a book and this year it took me forever to finish two. Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (Epigram Books, 2015) moves fluidly between fiction and history, between a fascinating comic tradition that I am unfamiliar with, and an account of the past which blends humour with an unflinching honesty. It’s going to be a favourite for many years to come. There are so many lyrical gems in Steep Tea (Carcanet Press, 2015) that I’m still finding it difficult to put down. Jee Leong Koh’s poetry traverses such a complex array of cultures and begins to define in an effortlessly authentic voice what it means to be Singaporean.

Amanda Lee Koe, writer and editor. You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman (Harper Collins, 2015). A crisp, clever take on consumerist culture, cultish nutrition practices and body image obsession that uses the rigor of talking about the corporeal and the elegance of deadpan absurdity to power a narrative that bats just beyond the bounds of our current end times. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew (Epigram Books, 2015). The stiff drink you need as counterpoint to all the SG50 histrionics: a graphic novel that deals so artfully with/against the trajectory of state-sanctioned narratives.

Koh Tai Ann, literary scholar. Sharma, Haresh. Poor Thing (The Necessary Stage, 2015). The play is both thought provoking and entertaining, with incisive dialogue, innovative use of social media to involve the audience and surprisingly, in a play about road rage, depiction of the intrinsic niceness of Singaporeans. Ultimately, how basically decent and gracious Singaporeans are transformed by road rage, and why, metonymic of how riots, massacres, and other horrors can be initiated by the nicest people we think we know.

Lydia Kwa, novelist and poet. My book nomination is The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (Epigram, 2015). It is complex, brilliant and so edgy. Bold and creative. The visuals are stunning and powerful. A phenomenal accomplishment.

Cheryl Julia Lee, writer. My Book of 2015 is Jon Gresham’s We Rose Up Slowly (Math Paper Press, 2015). Gresham’s beautifully subtle prose bears within it the sense of something devastating, something tumultuous, something painfully moving; this something he never quite articulates and yet surely we recognise it. The experience of reading the collection reminded me of this quote from Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape: “We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, from side to side.”

Christine Suchen Lim, novelist. The first is a novel, History of the Rain by Niall Williams (Bloomsbury, 2014), which tells the stories of the family of an Irish poet as he struggles to love, farm and write to reach the Impossible Standard set by his ancestors. This moving novel, told in the voice of his bedridden daughter, celebrates the magical power of love, books and the imagination. The second is Union edited by Alvin Pang and Ravi Shankar (Ethos Books, 2015). Reading the innovative anthology is like taking a walk through a dense forest filled with diverse American and Singaporean flora and fauna. I was constantly surprised and pleased with my findings and came away amazed by the commonalities and possibilities of writings in English, Chinese and Malay writing in Singapore.

Ng Yi-Sheng, writer. Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. Other books may have more lyrical prose, but this book made history. It trumped National Arts Council’s funding withdrawal to become Singapore’s most talked-about and political graphic novel in English.

O Thiam Chin, writer. In a year of great reads, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life (Anchor Books, 2015) stood out like a splinter in the skin. Reading the book has been a physical, full-on experience for me–there were many times that I was shocked, revolted, disgusted, fascinated, breathless (with the beauty and the cruelty, sometimes both at once), in awe, in helplessness, and mostly utterly surprised by a little something that runs throughout the book, like the deep, mysterious life-giving flow of blood through the body, a singular trait that’s sorely lacking in most fictions these days: kindness. And this book, boldly shows that even in the most heinous and depraved act, there is always the very real sense of hope, redemption–and if all else fails, the flickering, dying light of escape, of death.

William Phuan, arts administrator. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew (Epigram Books, 2015) pulls off the improbable feat — imbuing the modern history of Singapore with such artistry and revisionist imagination that it makes reassessing our past urgent and pressing. Perhaps its greatest achievement is to dare the reader to dream of an alternative future and even long for it.

Wena Poon, novelist. The book that comes to mind is the curious little poetry anthology called From Walden to Woodlands by Ethos Books (2015). It self-consciously asserts its status as an “interfaith” collection on the theme of “Nature” in Singapore. In doing so, it delivers a one-two punch: it reminds us that luscious pockets of jungle still flourish, unchecked, in this overbuilt city; and that this is one of the few First World nations (however small) where Muslims exist peaceably alongside Christians, Hindus, Catholics, Buddhists and Taoists. Yes We Can! I particularly welcomed the active involvement of Muslim poets in this project and the community outreach that the editors Muzzakir Samat and Ow Yeong Wai Kit have done: Being Muslim is a challenge for our generation and the one immediately below us. Such poetry collections celebrate our joint literary heritage, shared by no one else in the world. (Full disclosure: the editors asked me to write 1 poem for this book, which is how I learned about this effort.)

Jason Soo, filmmaker. For anyone interested in Singapore history and politics, T. N. Harper’s essay in Comet in our sky: Lim Chin Siong in History [Eds. Tan Jing Quee, Jomo K. S., & Poh Soo Kai, SIRD & Pusat Sejarah Rakyat] bears re-reading. The essay can be taken as an antidote to the authorized state narrative. The 2015 reprint of Comet in our Sky includes important new contributions not only by Lim, but also by Dr Poh Soo Kai, who was himself detained without trial for a total of 18 years. Fans of Sonny Liew will also be delighted to find included his Beauty World comic strip that features Lim’s infamous “[Don’t] Beat the Police” speech of 1956.

Alvin Tan, theater director. My book for 2015 is Gwee Li Sui’s One Thousand and One Nights: love poems (Landmark Books, 2014). It’s not easy to write love poems when one has just broken up but Gwee’s collection demonstrates the poet’s ability to calibrate his emotions whilst crafting his thoughts into poetic gems. Either you have some distance and perspective, or you may be drawn into uncreative indulgence. But Gwee, whilst writing about his pain, seems to re-organise his emotional and psychological landscapes, gaining distance and perspective as he documents his pain. His impeccable measurement of emotion, surprising use of words and relentless clarity of thought produced a deliciously rich collection of poems that vividly transmits images of moments of a being in love, evident in “Arrival Hall” and “Room 505, Adieu.” That clarity undercuts or counterbalances the sentimentality so that the reader experiences the poet’s memory of tenderness, which in turn inspires the reader to recall his or hers parallel love experiences. That for me is when a piece of art work is dialogic and the poet is not just wanking or writing solely for therapeutic purposes. Whether it is the poet sharing his vulnerability in “Lost Photograph,” or baring his pain during departure/separation in “Soul Bus,” Gwee’s writing remains uncompromisingly bold in its honesty. It reminds me of Thomas Hardy’s 1912-1913 love poems when his wife Emma Lavinia was sick and their marriage was not what it used to be. Hardy’s memories of the places they visited during happier times were captured with great poignancy in this collection of poems. Love poems, through deep reflection, a poetic eye and inspired imagination, capture the universality of two souls connected and sharing a life-flow. They are usually highly accessible and therefore can be easily dismissed because of the potential for cliché. But Gwee keeps familiar moments fresh while providing new insights into two people sharing a moment in this mortal life; enriching one another’s being; and then ebbing away into oblivion.

Kirsten Tan, filmmaker. Jeremy Tiang’s It Never Rains on National Day (Epigram Books, 2015). There’s a lightness of touch and a drifting melancholy that permeates the collection. It echoes an ache that I’ve often felt, an ache of not having known what it’s like to belong. This book is for the outsiders – for the ones who dream of homes that aren’t always defined by where we come from.

Tan Pin Pin, filmmaker. I’d vote for Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye. I’d never thought The Singapore Novel would be in this form, but here it is.

P. J. Thum, historian. My book of the year, no question, is Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye (Epigram Books, 2015). Gustave Flaubert once said that writing history is like drinking an ocean and pissing a cupful. Sonny Liew drank an ocean and pissed vintage champagne. Charlie Chan, amazingly, might be the only non-academic book to accurately depict Singapore history. But more importantly, historians often fail to capture the emotion, the feelings, the spirit surrounding history. Liew captured all of that in his art. It’s truly a remarkable work.

Jeremy Tiang, writer and translator. Yeo Wei Wei’s debut collection These Foolish Things & Other Stories (Ethos Books, 2015) is a delight — ten stories dealing with different species of heartbreak, always with restraint and wry humour. She dispassionately chronicles the small tragedies of unfulfilled lives, and finds a kind of grace within them. I also enjoyed Singapore-based American author Alison Jean Lester’s first novel, Lilian On Life (Putnam, 2015). Only showing us glimpses of her protagonist’s existence, Lester takes us deep into the heart of a complicated, troubled woman, never judging the wisdom or otherwise of her life choices. A sharp, compassionate book.

Anthony Koh Waugh, writer and bookseller. The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (Algonquin Books, 2014) is a poignant read for me. Like Fikry, I’m also a bookstore owner, have lost my partner and found new love again. But these similarities are only the tips of the iceberg that have caused my emotion to surge through the pages. What has really affected me is that Fikry’s life has kept me thinking about my own destiny.

Hong-Ling Wee, ceramicist. My Book of 2015 is Best Of by Haresh Sharma (The Necessary Stage, 2014).  Not only was it an excellent play presented at Something To Write Home About, the Singapore arts festival in New York, Haresh also received the Cultural Medallion Award last month.  So my vote goes to this book.

Jason Wee, visual artist and writer. Singapore’s grown more adept at conserving its built colonial heritage, but for many years neglected its modernist legacies, deriding our tropical or brutalist innovations. Our Modern Past – Volume 1: A Visual Survey of Singapore Architecture, 1920s–70s (Singapore Heritage Society, 2014) is the first of two volumes that document these condominiums, mixed retail and business towers, and other building types that signal a progressive desire to move firmly into modernity. The sensitive photographs by the late Jeremy San alone are well worth the purchase.

Richard Angus Whitehead, literary critic and educator. It has to be a tie between Koh Jee Leong’s Steep Tea (Carcanet Press, 2015) and Tse Hao Guang’s Deeds of Light (Math Paper Press, 2015). Both unprecedentedly satisfying, complicating, compelling volumes of Singaporean poetry, a welcome raising of the bar. In what often seemed an arid often bleak year at home and overseas, these poems reminded me afresh that the world, even Singapore, remains an intriguingly magical, troubled space.

Yen Yen Woo, professor, graphic novelist, and filmmaker. Mine is Jeremy Tiang’s It Never Rains on National Day (Epigram Books, 2015). I couldn’t put it down! I feel like Jeremy really gets relationships and how Singaporean-ness includes and excludes at the same time. His observations are deliciously sharp.

Cyril Wong, poet. My choice would be Yeo Wei Wei’s These Foolish Things (Ethos Books, 2015). More popularly, a solid piece of short-fiction drives home an emotional point or sums up a psychological drama well, but Wei Wei’s stories do something else beyond the drama: they offer unostentatious philosophical reflections on art or time, and utilise ambiguity to challenge and question our expectations as readers. How we see, love, experience beauty, become implicit subjects for our own private reflection when we enter her writing.

Yeow Kai Chai, poet. I don’t even know how to unravel Christian Bök’s The Xenotext: Book 1 (Coach House Books, 2015), and the crazy things he’s trying to do with encoding a line of verse into a deathless bacterium. It’s a grimoire and is literally out of this world. The poems are romantic, scientific, mysterious, exacting, beautiful, badass, bafflingly so. There are charts, equations, references to Orpheus, Eurydice, biogenesis, and a poem that’s an exact anagram of John Keats’ sonnet ‘When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be’. It’s a good year too for Singapore poetry this year, with groundbreaking works by Koh Jee Leong and Desmond Kon. But the one Singapore title, or at least a Singapore-related one, I’m most fascinated with is Unnatural Selection by Shelly Bryant (Math Paper Press, 2015). It’s a zinger out of nowhere, an existential thesis on humans and machines, and reminds me of that uneasy weirdness I felt when I watched Alex Garland’s sci-fi thriller Ex Machina.

Yong Shu Hoong, poet and freelance writer. Supplication: Selected Poems of John Wieners (Wave Books, 2015). I can’t remember how I’d chanced upon John Wieners (1934–2002) – could it be all thanks to an automated recommendation by I did eventually purchase his Selected Poems, which turns out to be an interesting discovery for me. And a timely reminder that poetry can be candid and cool, how I had long ago fallen in love with beat poetry. In ‘A Poem for Painters’, he writes: “My poems contain no / wilde beestes, no / lady of the lake, music / of the spheres, or organ chants. / Only the score of a man’s / struggle to stay with / what is his own, what / lies within him to do.” The Singaporean book that I’d greatly enjoyed is: One Thousand and One Nights by Gwee Li Sui (Landmark Books, 2014). For readers more familiar with Gwee the humorist (or, at the other extreme, the thoughtful essayist or literary critic), this poetry collection shows a tender and more sensitive side to the all-rounded writer. The lovelorn poems of heartbreak, inspired by a past relationship, recall this line from a Pablo Neruda poem: “Love is so short, forgetting is so long.” Gwee’s poems in One Thousand and One Nights linger on with poignancy and quiet contemplation, and never let us go.