Issue 125 | Apr-Jun 2021

Why New Perspectives Matter

Diversity and the authenticity of representation are especially important for the growth of Singapore’s literary scene, says 2020 Singapore Literature Prize-winning author Ms Akshita Nanda (Science ’00).

Diversity and the authenticity of representation are especially important for the growth of Singapore’s literary scene, says 2020 Singapore Literature Prize-winning author Ms Akshita Nanda (Science ’00).

When author Ms Akshita Nanda decided to take a sabbatical from her job as a journalist for The Straits Times to pursue writing full-time, she never imagined that her debut novel, Nimita’s Place (see box story), would eventually be named co-winner of the 2020 Singapore Literature Prize. That said, the 42-year-old, who moved to Singapore from India after taking up a scholarship in 1995, has always loved writing. “Everybody in my family reads or writes in one way or another,” says Ms Nanda, who is now a Singapore Citizen. “My grandparents are published authors and my father was the first student librarian of his school and used to get into trouble cycling home with a book open on his handlebar.”

Prior to becoming a journalist, Ms Nanda worked for a publishing company, armed with a degree in Molecular Biology from NUS, from which she graduated in December 2000. In 2019, she joined the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy to pursue a Master in International Affairs. Now in her final semester of the two-year programme, Ms Nanda has published her second book, Beauty Queens of Bishan, and is working on her third novel. She talks to The AlumNUS about her inspirations, passions and outlook 
on Singapore’s literary scene. 

How does it feel to have made an impact on our literary landscape on your first try?

I can’t speak for Mr Ng Yi-Sheng, my co-winner (for his novel, Lion City), but I certainly was not expecting it. Nimita’s Place — which was deliberately written from the perspective of an immigrant — is not a novel that fits into the general trend of Singapore literature. Reading it may require some getting used to for the majority of Singapore readers, who are not from the same background as the character in the novel. So I was delighted about the book’s appeal despite everything going against it, in a way. 

Do you think diversity is lacking in the literature that we’re generally exposed to?

Many factors in the publishing industry are shaped by market forces. It doesn’t just involve the authors, it’s also about whether people are ready to receive, sell, stock and buy the books. And everybody has preferences, which are shaped by their background and the people they’ve been exposed to. Diversity and the authenticity of representation are therefore especially crucial in Singapore literature, as it continues to grow and evolve. 

The truth is, we all have certain things in common. We all like savouring a nice meal, living a good life, and creating a better world for ourselves and the people who come after us. Most of the time, however, these ideas and ambitions are clothed in ethnicity, culture, and where we come from. Sometimes these ‘outer garments’ can hinder people’s efforts in getting to know one another and getting 
to recognise their shared similarities. 

What inspired the storyline in Nimita’s Place?

Marriage has always been a very fraught term to me. When one grows up as a woman in Asian culture — more specifically Indian culture — regardless of what your parents support, the general society wants you to settle down and get married. You’re not an adult until you get a life partner and prove that you’re a full-fledged member of the society by having a wedding, and later, bearing some children. 

There’s also this idea that if you’re a woman, you become somebody else when you get married. Sometimes you have to change your name and move to a different house — you have to be dislocated and make major adjustments to the life that you’re used to, very much like an immigrant. And so I wanted to write a story about this dislocation of time and space. 

I come from an expressive family; everyone sings and dances. Make-believe is one of the most interesting ways to spend one’s time, in my opinion.

What’s your writing process like?

I usually start with writing by hand. Sometimes the pen just tells you where your story needs to go. Once the first draft is written, I’ll type it in the computer, and that’s actually the first edit because in transferring the words, I get to think a bit about how the story is framed. Terry Pratchett, the famous English author, once said that the first draft is you telling the story to yourself; the second draft is you telling the story to the readers — I agree. 

Once the book is done, I pass it to friends whom I really trust and they give me their honest feedback, usually over a home-cooked dinner. I can’t stress enough the importance of people around you when you’re writing. Many people have the misconception that creative work is a solo effort. But nothing we do is done by ourselves. I would be nothing if it wasn’t for the people — family and friends — supporting me.

Do you think your time at NUS has contributed to your development as a writer? 

Absolutely. The wonderful thing about university is that it should teach you how to be a better human being — the ability to get back up from defeat, connect with people, and manage your time and mental health. I learnt a lot about collaboration — how it took a lot of people to come together to do things. Most importantly, it exposed me to new ideas and people who are different from me. My time at NUS provided a safe space to have difficult, nuanced conversations, which I believe only institutes of higher learning can provide. 

What else do you enjoy doing besides writing?

Many things! I volunteer as a tutor twice a week to students of varying abilities. I sometimes also conduct workshops for the Ministry of Education. I read a lot of manga (Japanese term for comics), watch a lot of anime, and actually learnt Japanese just for these. That’s been one of the most interesting things I have done in my life because when you learn a different language, you learn a different way of thinking. 
I come from an expressive family; everyone sings and dances. I have several relatives in theatre or in traditional Indian arts. Make-believe is one of the most interesting ways to spend one’s time, in my opinion. Sometimes, my daydreams turn into writing but it’s always fun when you can do things with other people, so I recently got into Dungeons and Dragons. My friends and I also enjoy solving puzzles through real escape games or board games such as Cluedo, Pictionary and Cranium

What or who are you reading right now, or have loved reading? 

Unfortunately, because I’m writing my third book, I find it very difficult to read English fiction. I have been reading a lot about history and also Japanese novels and manga. There are a few authors who have been instrumental in helping me understand how I want to shape stories. Terry Pratchett, for example, taught me that comedy is an excellent way to get people to start thinking about things of great importance. I also like Lois McMaster Bujold, who questions the meaning of ethics and morality in an often grey space. I’m also intrigued right now by authors from non-Western backgrounds such as Moni Mohsin, who is an awesome and inspiring Pakistani writer. 


Published by Epigram Books, Nimita’s Place follows the lives of two women, both named Nimita, born two generations apart and seeking paths in two different countries — India and Singapore. The novel was the co-winner of the Singapore Literature Prize 2020 in the English Fiction category and was also shortlisted for the 2019 Singapore Book Awards.  

Text by Min Ee Mao

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