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 Alum
NUS 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.