7 Singaporean Books to Read During the Circuit Breaker

The extension of the circuit breaker has been a total bummer for a majority of us, with the need to stay at home and cancel our plans for yet another month. However, it also presents a perfect opportunity for us to indulge in slow, contemplative activities such as reading. In particular, it’s a great time for us to explore the gems that our very own local literary scene has to offer. Here is a collection of 7 Sing Lit (Singapore Literature) books to read during this lockdown. They span a wide range of topics and styles, offering you a glimpse at the delightful mosaic that is Singapore literature.

Homebound, Humairah Jamil

For thousands of Muslim families, the lockdown in Singapore coincides with Ramadan. While all mosques are now closed, many still observe the holy month at home with fasting, reflection and prayer. Homebound shares the poet’s reflections on her Umrah trip, Quranic truths and on her own spiritual journey thus far. Written like a melody, her poetry invites the reader into a much-needed place of calmness and stillness, away from the anxiety and confusion of these troubling times. This collection is at once a breath of fresh air and a warm hug; Humairah reminds her readers of the importance of prayer, of love and of a sense of peace that is available to all. Homebound can serve as an excellent meditative collection for Muslims during Ramadan, and for anyone who loves poetry and yearns for words of comfort during the lockdown. 

Hook and Eye: Stories From the Marginsmultiple authors

Hook and Eye is a collection of short stories about experiences that aren’t usually at the forefront of the Singaporean narrative: a family who cannot reconcile their goals of living in a ‘white’ country with the fact that they’re probably stuck here, students who feel resentment over their high SES classmate and a man who finds the constant proximity of his neighbours too overbearing. These experiences are familiar, yet rarely given voice to. The stories in Hook and Eye not only offer a fantastic reading experience, they also prompt the reader to think about our own experiences in a new light. Hook and Eye explores the various and common tensions faced by the everyday Singaporean—such as that between the need for self-preservation and the need to help others, between the need for space and the need for the sense of belonging community gives us. Hook and Eyeserves as a way of revisiting these Singaporean stories that are foreign, yet close to home; as a way of reconciling us with the multiplicity of emotions intricately tied to our identity as Singaporeans.

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock ChyeSonny Liew

Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye won three Eisner awards two years after it was published—the most prestigious kind of award a comic book can win. And not for no good reason. This masterpiece is not only thoroughly entertaining, it contains a refreshing balance of hard and controversial truths about Singapore’s history and charming glimpses into Chan’s own life. The book features Chan as he narrates his personal history as a comic character directly addressing the reader—this wonderful breaking of the fourth wall brings the artist to life, infusing the book with warmth and personality. These interview-style sections are interspersed with Chan’s own comics. This biographical historical fiction spans Chan’s entire career, featuring comics of various styles through his more experimental, then political, years. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye is a definite must-read for anyone who wants an alternate view of Singapore’s “officially sanctioned” historical narrative, but wants it packaged in an enjoyable way.

Inheritance, Balli Kaur Jaswal

Inheritance tells the age-old story of Singapore’s balancing act between the old and the new. Written like an elegy for the old Singapore and for all it has had to sacrifice in the nation’s race towards modernity, this touching story is centered around the heart of Singapore’s society: family. Inheritance features a local Sikh family, torn apart by each individual’s inability to fit into the definitions of a ‘normal’ Singaporean. Amrit, the daughter, has bipolar and as such, is wild, reckless, inappropriate. Narain, her brother is gay. Harbeer, their father keeps speaking to his dead wife, who represents the old Singapore and who died birthing Amrit. The book reminds us that tradition cannot simply be done away with. Our history haunts, and will continue to haunt, Singapore even as the country has desperately tried to reconstruct its facade since its independence. It also points to how such rapid progress requires building solidarity and a national identity centered around a common narrative that tends to be exclusive, unforgiving and unnatural. 

Four Plays, Chong Tze Chien

Four Plays is an explosive collection, in which the playwright Chong exposes the more touchy and sensitive issues that Singaporeans grapple with. The book includes the plays ChargedPoop!Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and To Whom it May Concern. These plays deal with our familiar realities: National Service, HDB upgrades, death, MPs. But what makes Four Plays stand out is Chong’s no-holds barred, uncensored exploration of the dark underbelly of these facts of everyday life. For example, Charged —its title reflecting its intense subject matter—sees the explosion of racial tensions in an NS camp when a murder is committed, while Poop! follows the unravelling of a family when a man commits suicide over his failure to achieve the Singapore dream. The plays’ brashness and honesty are truly refreshing and eye-opening. 

This is What Inequality Looks Like, Teo You Yenn

If you haven’t already done so, this is definitely a book you should read at least once. “Inequality” is a word oft bandied around when discussing Singapore’s resources and different groups’ access to them. However, we rarely get the chance to look closely at the lives and into the homes of those at the country’s bottom rungs. In her research for this book, Teo does exactly that. She brings to the forefront not only the (at times alien to us) problems the extremely poor in Singapore face and details the systemic problematics that have created and perpetuated their situation. While this book reads like a series of academic essays, it remains highly readable. This is What Inequality Looks Like is a necessary read for anyone who wants to know more about the harsh realities of inequality in Singapore and find a way to realistically begin to close the gaps, one informed and eyes-wide-open choice at a time. This book is also apt for these strange times, as we learn about how COVID-19 affects different social groups differently.

One Fierce Hour, Alfian Sa’at

Honest, nostalgic and tongue-in-cheek. These are just a few of the words that come to mind when describing Sa’at’s breakout poetry collection. One Fierce Hour is a joyful and wide-ranging romp through the nitty gritties of Singapore. It brings together the many aspects of the Singaporean identity, from heartlanders’ daily lives, to national myths, to politics and to the dreams and questions we all have in our hearts. At times, the scenes he lets the readers be privy to are up-close and personal—almost uncomfortably so: the claustrophobia of a HDB corridor, or the gaze of a migrant worker. At other times, he presents a bird’s eye point of view: Singaporeans at an election rally and national icons. His poetry moves seamlessly from one topic to the next, interweaving these different experiences to create an authentic, multifaceted picture of what Singapore is. All in all, One Fierce Hour is an excellent starting point for anyone who wants to begin reading local poetry. 


Author

Sarah Lim

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