Malaysian wins Epigram Books Fiction Prize, Singapore's richest literary prize for debut book

Sylvia Looi
Joshua Kam (second left) with the other finalists of Singapore's Epigram Books Fiction Prize, (from left) Erni Salleh, Kathrina Mohs Daud and Sunisa Manning. — Photo via Facebook/ Epigram Books

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 17 — Malaysian writer Joshua Kam has won Singapore's Epigram Books Fiction Prize.

The 23-year-old was the youngest to win the award, that was previously restricted to Singapore citizens and permanent residents but has since been opened to Asean writers.

The award, presented yesterday during a gala dinner at a Singapore hotel, carries a prize money of S$25,000 (RM75,400).

Kam's debut book will be published in the second half of 2020.

Singapore daily The Straits Times reported that Kam won for his manuscript How The Man In Green Saved Pahang, And Possibly The World, in which two characters, Gabriel and Lydia, go on a cross-country race against time in an attempt to prevent the end of the world, meeting historical and mythical figures from folklore along the way.

Kam beat three other finalists, Singaporean Erni Salleh, 31, who manages the National Library Board's Mobile Library Services; California-based Thai writer Sunisa Manning, 34; and Universiti Brunei Darussalam assistant professor Kathrina Mohd Daud, 35, the daily added.

A total of 62 submissions were received from eight countries this year.

This is the second time a Malaysian has won the award, often referred to as Singapore's richest literary prize. It is an advance on royalties from book sales.

The 2018 winner, Yeoh Jo-Ann, was born in Malaysia but is a Singapore permanent resident.

Kam spent his formative years in Montana, United States, where his parents studied economics before returning to Kuala Lumpur, where he lived for 15 years.

He is now pursuing a master's degree in South-east Asian studies at the University of Michigan.

“Part of me is just thankful to be a vessel of the stories, peoples and ancestries I write about,” Kam told The Straits Times.

“Receiving a platform through Epigram — for those many ancestries and their tales — is a joy and honour,” he added.

The winner was chosen by a panel of judges comprising of Epigram Books founder Edmund Wee, author Balli Kaur Jaswal, film-maker Tan Pin Pin, Mekong Review literary quarterly chief Minh Bui Jones and Prof Rajeev S. Patke, director of the Division of Humanities at Yale-NUS College.

Prof Patke had described Kam's manuscript as “the most exuberant of the four novels.”

“It is filled with energy, cheerfulness and a linguistic panache that is a bit rough, but altogether charming,” he said.

The other finalists each received S$5,000 and will also have their manuscripts published by Epigram in the second half of 2020.