23-Year-Old Writer Wins Fiction Award With His Book On Malaysian Folklore

There were 62 other submissions from eight countries contending for the award this year.

Cover image via Desmond Wee/The Straits Times & Epigram Books/Facebook

Malaysian writer Joshua Kam recently became the youngest person to win Singapore's richest literary award - the Epigram Books Fiction Prize

The 23-year-old received the award and prize money of SGD25,000 (RM75,400) during a gala dinner in Singapore on Thursday evening, 16 January.

The award, previously opened only to Singapore citizens and permanent residents, is an advance on royalties from book sales

As of 2018, the award opened to writers from other Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries.

Alongside the prize money, Kam's novel will be published by Epigram in the second half of this year.

"Receiving a platform through Epigram - for those many ancestries and their tales - is a joy and honour," he said, according to The Straits Times.

"Part of me is just thankful to be a vessel of the stories, people, and ancestries I write about."

Kam beat three other finalists, Singaporean Erni Salleh, California-based Thai writer Sunisa Manning, and Bruneian Kathrina Mohd Daud

The other finalists each received SGD5,000 (RM15,000) and will also have their manuscripts published by Epigram in the second half of 2020.

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

The four finalists: Erni Salleh, Joshua Kam, Kathrina Mohd Daud, and Sunisa Manning.

Image via Epigram Books/Facebook

One of the judges called Kam's manuscript "the most exuberant of the four novels"

According to Malay Mail, the panel of judges comprised 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.

"[His manuscript] is filled with energy, cheerfulness, and a linguistic panache that is a bit rough, but altogether charming," Patke said.

Kam won the award for his manuscript titled How The Man In Green Saved Pahang, And Possibly The World about historical and mythical figures in Malaysian folklore

"My book explores the idea of what would happen if a Sufi prophet from Hikayat Hang Tuah and a Chinese sea goddess found themselves in modern Malaysia," Kam told SAYS in an interview.

According to Kam, the novel follows two characters, Gabriel and Lydia, who go on a cross-country race through Pahang, confronting strange immortals, sea monsters, and rebel historical figures, set in Malaysia today.

Born in Kuala Lumpur to parents hailing from Penang and Kuantan, Kam draws on his experiences growing up and spending many family trips on the coast of Pahang

"It's really shaped my sense of time, place, history, and of course, my deep love of the sea. Some of that has percolated into the book," said Kam, who is currently pursuing a master's degree in Southeast Asian studies at the University of Michigan.

Kam said that his big break came from learning about Nabi Khidir, a Sufi prophet in Hikayat Hang Tuah, who as tales go, regularly helps Hang Tuah establish peace between Malaysia and neighbouring kingdoms who were previously in conflict.

"A part of me wanted to see what Nabi Khidir would do now, if he'd strolled off the platform at Masjid Jamek or KL Sentral," said Kam, "How would he bring back magic in our rust-and-steam cities?"

Kam at award ceremony at the Conrad Centennial Hotel in Singapore on 16 January 2020.

Image via Desmond Wee/The Straits Times

While admitting that he writes about challenging issues in the book, Kam hopes that the characters he portrays would be accepted and not reviled

"I think I wrote this book to ask Malaysians to reevaluate the assumptions about what our country is," he said.

Ultimately, he acknowledges, "We're a diverse contradictory country made of diverse, contradictory ideas about who gets to be Malaysian. I hope to carry on that conversation."

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