Sharlene Teo's favourite Singaporean literature

Author of Ponti, Sharlene Teo,shares some of her favourite recent Singaporean books; and the authors who have influenced her as a writer.

Sharlene Teo’s portrayal of Singapore in her award-winning debut novel, Ponti, is as rich and vivid as the stories of the three women that she writes. Here, Sharlene shares some of her favourite recent Singaporean books, and the authors who have influenced her as a writer. 

Singapore has a burgeoning literary scene that is as dynamic and reflective of the constantly evolving cityscape as it is varied. I started writing poetry when I was thirteen, inspired and moved by local writers such as Alfian Sa’at, Cyril Wong, Ho Poh Fun and Heng Siok Tian. Presently, publishers such as Maths Paper Press and Ethos Books champion the work of contemporary poets such as Theophilius Kwek, Pooja Nansi and Joshua Ip. The Singaporean literary map is ever expanding, and all the richer and more unexpected or genre bending for it. For fans of speculative literary fiction, JY Yang, Rachel Heng, Daryl Qilin Yam and Thea Lim all have recent or forthcoming works. If you enjoy historical fiction, writers such as Vyvyanne Loh and Sandi Tan have woven rich narratives around the large-scale traumas of the Second World War and decolonisation in innovative and surprising ways.

I could go on, but for the sake of brevity, here are six of my favourite recent Singaporean titles:

State of Emergency

by Jeremy Tiang

Book cover for State of Emergency

This is a beautifully written, sweeping and serious saga about Jason, Siew Li and their extended family, and a deeply political Singaporean opus. The novel traces the family’s entanglements in leftist movements, political detentions and riots. Taking place from the 1940s to the present day, State of Emergency is a brave, meticulously researched novel that emphasises that there are multiple strands and facets to every narrative.

The Gatekeeper

by Nuruliah Norasid

Book cover for The Gatekeeper

The Gatekeeper is a work of fabulist fiction about a young girl named Ria with the medusa-like power to turn people into stone. She and her older sister flee to Nelroote, an underground settlement populated by other marginalised beings. Melding Singaporean, Malay and Greek influences, this is an innovative, pertinent and intelligent exploration of race relations in Singapore, in the guise of a transporting fable.

The Beating and Other Stories

by Dave Chua

Book cover for The Beating and Other Stories

Stripping back the high-paced, super-slick image that Singapore presents to the global community (most notably, and damningly, in William Gibson’s notorious expose “Disneyland with the Death Penalty”), The Beating and Other Stories is concerned with the melancholy, understated underside of Singaporean heartland living. With a minimalistic prose style and an unforced sensitivity of vision, this collection explores urban alienation and existential malaise to wonderful effect.


by Balli Kaur Jaswal

Book cover for Inheritance

Set in Singapore between the 1970s to the 1990s, Inheritance explores the shifting political and social landscape of Singapore through the multiple perspectives of a Punjabi Sikh family whose existence is ruptured by the disappearance and reappearance of fifteen-year old Amrit. This novel navigates issues of racial and national identity in a multi-ethnic young nation in elegant and insightful ways.

Ministry of Moral Panic

by Amanda Lee Koe

Book cover for Ministry of Moral Panic

This spunky and whimsical short story collection introduces us to a motley cast of characters- from an ageing Pop Yeh-yeh singer who reunites with his teenaged sweetheart in a hospice, to two loners exploring every park on the island. Both illuminating and entertaining, Ministry of Moral Panic presents a vivid, quirky vision of modern Singapore.

Sarong Party Girls

by Cheryl Lu-lien Tan

Book cover for Sarong Party Girls

Don’t be fooled by its glossy veneer. Sarong Party Girls is a serious, whip-smart novel with brutal and fearlessly accurate observations about gender norms, Occidentalism, Orientalism and sexual dynamics in Singapore. Centering around twenty-seven year old Jazzy and her coterie of ang moh (Caucasian) pursuing female friends, the book is written entirely in the Singlish patois and is full of wit and pathos: it has so much to say and is utterly unafraid to say it.


by Sharlene Teo

Book cover for Ponti

Set in Singapore, Sharlene Teo's Ponti begins as sixteen-year-olds Szu and Circe develop an intense friendship. For Szu it offers an escape from Amisa, her beautiful, cruel mother, but for Circe, it does the opposite, bringing her one step closer to the fascinating, unknowable Amisa.

Seventeen years later, Circe finds herself working on a remake of the cult seventies horror film series ‘Ponti’, the series that defined Amisa’s short-lived film career. Suddenly Circe is knocked off balance by memories of the two women she once knew and a guilt that threatens her conscience . . .