Poet accuses Lit Prize of gender bias

Poet accuses Lit Prize of gender bias
Poet Grace Chia, whose poetry collection Cordelia was shortlisted for this year's Singapore Literature Prize.

Gender bias allegations have emerged over the results of the Singapore Literature Prize's English Poetry category.

Poet Grace Chia, whose poetry collection Cordelia was shortlisted for this year's Singapore Literature Prize in the English poetry section, has strongly voiced her concerns over the apparent sidelining of women's writing, saying that the results have left her "silenced into shock".

The prize was awarded jointly to poets Joshua Ip and Yong Shu Hoong for their collections on Tuesday evening. The other poets on the shortlist were Tania De Rozario, who had previously won the 2011 Golden Point Award for English Poetry, Koh Jee Leong and Theophilus Kwek.

Chia wrote in a public post on the Junoesq Literary Journal's Facebook page on Wednesday night: "The fact that the prize has been given to two co-winners who are both male poets is deeply informing of choice, taste and affirmation. A prize so coveted that it has been apportioned to two male narratives of poetic discourse, instead of one outstanding poet - reeks of an engendered privilege that continues to plague this nation's literary community."

It was part of a speech made in absentia at the journal's launch on Wednesday evening. Chia is the founder of the journal, which is dedicated to women's writing. She took down the Facebook post yesterday.

One of the poetry judges, poet and literary critic Gwee Li Sui, told Life!: "All entries have an equal chance of consideration for winning, and we discussed it based on that point alone, and on the strengths of the collections."

Gwee had spoken on behalf of the judges at the awards. He added: "The judges read every entry carefully before arriving at the shortlist and we committed ourselves to re-read and discuss the shortlisted works several times before deciding on the winners. We read blind to race, gender, sexual orientation, politics and beliefs, and we needed to. Our only standard has been poetic merit. In this respect, Yong's and Ip's work have emerged the strongest for us."

This sentiment was echoed by fellow poetry judge and prominent female poet Leong Liew Geok. She said: "We were not looking at gender at all - it's about quality, quality, quality, as well as originality, mastery of form, substance and choice of material."

She also pointed to other women writers who had topped the various categories at the Singapore Literature Prize, such as Amanda Lee Koe, who won in the English Fiction category with her debut short story collection, Ministry Of Moral Panic, and Josephine Chia, a co- winner in the English Non-Fiction category for her work on growing up in Potong Pasir.

There were 32 entries altogether for the Prize's English Poetry category. Eleven women authored 13 works, and 15 men contributed 19 works.

Dr Leong added: "I hope that one day a woman poet will win the prize, but I'm also not concerned with gender - I am concerned primarily with poetic excellence. She may be gay, she may be bisexual, she may be heterosexual, but I want the book to be worthy of the Singapore Literature Prize in Poetry."

The Prize's poetry judging panel, comprising Leong, Gwee and poet Boey Kim Cheng, also judged last year's Golden Point Award for English Poetry, and awarded the top three prizes to female poets: Zhang Ruihe, Victoria Lim and Janet Liew.

The National Book Development Council of Singapore, which organises the Prize, had no comment.

Co-winner for English poetry Yong said different views on who ought to be the winner would be "inevitable". However, he added: "While gender issues or preferences for certain narratives may exist within our literary scene and can be part of a wider discussion, I disagree with how the issues are raised in the current context by casting unsubstantiated aspersions on the judges or the judging process."

Weighing in on the debate, Singapore poet Pooja Nansi said: "It's true that when merit is disregarded on the basis of gender, we have a serious problem, but it is a more productive discussion outside of the heated context of accusation. Grace's view, however much we agree or disagree with it, is an important one for women poets in this country both established and unpublished to debate and consider."

Poet Krishna Udayasankar said: "Personally, I wouldn't want to receive the award because I was a 'deserving woman candidate' rather than a 'deserving candidate', but that is because I feel no less privileged than any other writer, on any count that matters in the case of the Literature Prize. At the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that gender inequality is a default state of the world around us, and many women, including myself, are often forced to evaluate their life experiences against it."

Prominent Singapore poet Alvin Pang also reflected on the Prize in a public Facebook post, saying that while it had started as a means to encourage new work, "its current incarnation as an award for published books... privileges books and authors that have already enjoyed the benefit of publication; now it is a mattter of picking one's favourites and agreeing/disagreeing with the judges". He said he would be "refraining from either participating in or judging any competition... that pits published literary works against one another".

Established in 1992, the Singapore Literature Prize was initially awarded to the best unpublished works. It folded six years later, but was revived in 2000 and overhauled to accept only published work.


This article was first published on November 7, 2014.
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