By Bilge Arslan
Now into its third year, the Yale-NUS College Literary Awards is an annual event that celebrates the literary talents of Yale-NUS students in fiction, nonfiction, playwriting and poetry. All students at Yale-NUS College, including exchange students and those who are overseas for study abroad are welcome to submit their works.
There were 80 submissions this year across all four categories. Among these, Erika Loh (Class of 2022) placed first in the Fiction category with her short story ‘House-hunting’ while Chrystal Ho Jia Min (Class of 2019) secured the top position for the Nonfiction category with ‘prayer cranes’. Meanwhile, ‘Shells’ by Myle Yan Tay (Yan) (Class of 2019) won the Playwriting category and See Wern Hao (Class of 2020) won the Poetry category with his work, ‘flaring & recurring’.
In ‘prayer cranes’, Chrystal takes the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and the atomic bombings in the Japanese cities Nagasaki and Hiroshima as a point of departure to ruminate on disaster and complacency.
Chrystal’s experience at the Yale Summer Session in Tokyo last year inspired her to write ‘prayer cranes’ as she observed that various parts of Japan were confronted by natural disasters. She learned more about the under-discussed problems of Fukushima post-nuclear meltdown after meeting professionals who were working on its recovery. Spending seven weeks with her host family that she grew to love, Chrystal felt the need to write about her experience. She wanted to confront her discomfort with the picture-perfect postcard style that some travel accounts tend to have.
Chrystal struggled to begin writing the story at first due to being an outsider and the sheer weight of the subject matter. Then, Mr Lawrence Ypil, Lecturer in Humanities (Writing) and writing mentor at the Writers’ Centre, encouraged her and she started writing her work during her consultation with him.
Chrystal first took Mr Ypil’s Forms of Poetry course in her first year of college, which helped her build a strong foundation in storytelling. Subsequently, through attending the reading sessions organised by the Writers’ Centre, she became inspired to prioritise creative writing in her time at Yale-NUS.
Besides courses and workshops, she is grateful for being able to grow as a writer by learning from the many faculty members and the student community. She also had the opportunity to attend the Writing Workshops in Greece through the Centre for International & Professional Experience (CIPE)’s Writing Fellowship Programme. Following the intensive training in writing in Greece, she has developed the confidence to move from saying that “I write”, to “I am a writer”.
Beyond the current version of ‘prayer cranes’, Chrystal still works on improving this story for potential publication. She also plans to apply for a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing in the near future and always make time for writing.
On the other hand, Erika Loh wrote about imaginary islands in her fictional story ‘House-hunting’. The story develops around a young couple’s decision to take a ferry to an island and squat in an abandoned house.
Erika went to Saint John’s Island, Singapore, in late 2017 with a close friend. Her friend hated the island whereas Erika was mesmerised by the silence of the beaches. Thereafter, she got inspired to write ‘House-hunting’ in early 2018 before she matriculated in Yale-NUS.
Erika thinks that Yale-NUS has provided her with an extremely warm and supporting environment for people who follow their passions and do things they enjoy to do. She shared, “I feel lucky to be surrounded by and draw energy from people who believe in what they do.”
Wern Hao’s poetry manuscript ‘flaring and recurring’ tackles personal concerns in relation to loneliness and desire, and borders themes concerning “the emotional constipation in a Chinese patriarchal family and Singapore as a whole”.
Wern Hao shared that coming to Yale-NUS has allowed him to meet various “bright and creative minds” such as Mr Ypil who exposed him to a diverse range of writers as well as helped him to sharpen his thought process while generating creative works.
“I have spent many hours formally (in Mr Ypil’s Introduction to Writing Poetry and Philippine Literature classes) and informally, in Writers’ Centre consultations with him. I am grateful to him for helping me sharpen my craft and broaden the perspectives from which I write,” said Wern Hao.
Wern Hao believes that the practice of creative writing requires a modicum of community: to read, share writing, critique. In view of this, he thinks that Yale-NUS constantly encourages him to critically think about where he situates himself as a writer and a person, and that grounds the poems he writes.
The winning entry for the playwriting category by Yan is about a widowed mother who finds a box of shotgun shells in a cupboard she does not open. She and her two teenage sons try to figure out what to do with them, while navigating their complicated relationship.
Yan was inspired by his friend’s experience to write his play ‘Shells‘. “It started out with finding (shotgun) rounds in a cabinet, but as I kept writing, more elements of his life made it into the play,” he said. Ultimately, Yan asked his friend whether he could write a play about him who, in return, agreed.
Before winning the Playwriting category at the Literary Awards, Yan is already an accomplished writer in the Yale-NUS community. An earlier play he wrote, ‘Master Race‘, which is about race relations in Singapore won the Yale-NUS Art Awards 2019 in the performing arts category. Yan said that Yale-NUS has given him plenty of opportunities to help him refine his skills as a writer and provided him platforms to share his works.
“Most of all, Yale-NUS provided me with a community of talented and inspiring peers who have all taught me something through writing and working with them,” said Yan.