Literature in Singapore is written in the country’s four official languages: Chinese, English, Malay, and Tamil. The various literatures flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the rise of print culture in the British colony, but after independence in 1965, English became emphasized in both the education system and society at large as part of the new government’s attempts to modernize the country. Chinese, Malay, and Tamil were seen as mother tongue languages to provide Singaporeans with cultural ballast while English was regarded as a language for administration, business, and scientific and technological development. Correspondingly, literatures in other languages than English reached a plateau in terms of writerly output and readership during the 1970s and 1980s. However, since 1999, with the state’s implementation of the Renaissance City Plan to revitalize arts and culture in Singapore, there have been various initiatives to increase the visibility of contemporary Singaporean writing both within the country itself and on an international scale. Translation plays a key role in bridging the linguistic and literary divides wrought by the state’s mother tongue policies, with several works by Cultural Medallion winners in different languages translated into English, which remains at present the shared language in Singapore. Literary anthologies are also invaluable forms through which the concepts of a national literature and national identity are expressed and negotiated. A number of anthologies involving Singaporean authors and those from other countries also highlight the growing international presence of and interest in Singaporean literature. Several anthologies also focus on the topic of urban space, city life, and the rapid transformation of Singapore’s physical environment. Writings about gender and sexuality have also become more prominent in single-author collections or edited anthologies, with writers exploring various inventive and experimental narrative forms. A number of poets and writers are also established playwrights, and theater has historically been and continues to be an extremely vital form of creative expression and cultural production. Graphic novels, crime and noir fiction, and speculative and science fiction publications are also on the rise, with the awarding of the Singapore Literature Prize to Sonny Liew’s The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye signaling that these genres merit serious literary consideration. A number of literary publications and materials related to Singaporean literature can be found on the Internet, such as the journal Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, the website Singapore Poetry, and the database Poetry.sg. Various nonprofit organizations are also working toward increasing public awareness about literature through events such as Singapore Poetry Writing Month, the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition, the Singapore Writers Festival and National Poetry Festival, and also through projects that exhibit poetry in train stations and on public thoroughfares.
Factory girl literature emerged as a powerful critique of the culture of industrialization, delving into mills, canneries and sweatshops to detail the lives of the women and girls who generated industrial development. First appearing in 19th-century Euro-American fiction, from the early 20th century, the form has been dominated by authors writing from Asia. Penned by working women themselves, many of these autobiographies, memoirs, short stories and novels have become literary classics in their own language but their translation and dissemination was impeded by Cold War qualms about sponsoring ‘leftist culture’. Factory girl literature is related to broader categories of industrial and proletarian literature that underline the agency of working-class protagonists. It is unique in highlighting the sexed figure of industrialization and this focus on the gendered experience of rapid development uncovers the costs of the sexual and class violence of industrial life for women. A genealogy of factory girl literature reveals the importance of writing and authorship in labor activism, and feminist politics.
The Indian novel has been a vibrant and energetic expressive space in the 21st century. While the grand postcolonial gestures characteristic of the late-20th-century Indian novel have been in evidence in new novels by established authors such as Vikram Chandra, Amitav Ghosh, and Salman Rushdie, a slate of new authors has emerged in this period as well, charting a range of new novelistic modes. Some of these authors are Kiran Desai, Aravind Adiga, Githa Hariharan, Samina Ali, Karan Mahajan, and Amitava Kumar. In general, there has been a move away from ambitious literary fiction in the form of the “huge, baggy monster” that led to the publication of several monumental postcolonial novels in the 1980s and 1990s; increasingly the most dynamic and influential Indian writing uses new novelistic forms and literary styles tied to the changing landscape of India’s current contemporary social and political problems. The newer generation of authors has also eschewed the aspiration to represent the entirety of life in modern India, and instead aimed to explore much more limited regional and cultural narrative frameworks. If a novel like Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) took its protagonist all over the Indian subcontinent and indexed a large number of important historical controversies in the interest of broad representation, Padma Viswnanathan’s The Toss of a Lemon (2008) limits itself to a focus on a single Tamil Brahmin family’s orientation to issues of caste and gender, and remains effectively local to Tamil Nadu. There is no central agenda or defining idiom of this emerging literary culture, but three major groupings can be identified that encapsulate the major themes and preoccupations of 21st-century Indian fiction: “New Urban Realism,” “Gender and Secular History,” and “Globalizing India, Reinscribing the Past.”
Time is not a strictly literary category, yet literature is unthinkable without time. The events of a story unfold over time. The narration of that story imposes a separate order of time (chronological, discontinuous, in medias res). The reading of that narrative may take its own sweet time. Then there is the fact that literature itself exists in time. Transmitted across generations, literary texts cannot help but remind us of how times have changed. In doing so, they also show us how prior historical moments were indelibly shaped by their own specific philosophies and technologies of timekeeping—from the forms of sacred time that informed medieval writing; to the clash between national time and natural history that preoccupied the Romantics; to the technological standardization of time that shaped 19th-century literature; to the theories of psychological time that emerged in tandem with modernism; to the fragmented and foreshortened digital times that underlie postmodern fiction. Time, in short, shapes literature several times over: from reading experience to narrative form to cultural context. In this way, literature can be read as a peculiarly sensitive timepiece of its own, both reflecting and responding to the complex and varied history of shared time.
Over the course of the 20th century, literary time has become an increasingly prominent issue for literary critics. Time was first installed at the heart of literary criticism by way of narrative theory and narratology, which sought to explain narrative’s irreducibly temporal structure. Soon, though, formalist and phenomenological approaches to time would give way to more historically and politically attuned methods, which have emphasized modern time’s enmeshment in imperialism, industrial capitalism, and globalization. In today’s critical landscape, time is a crucial and contested topic in a wide range of subfields, offering us indispensable insights into the history and ideology of modernity; the temporal politics of nationalism, colonialism, and racial oppression; the alternate timescales of environmental crisis and geological change; and the transformations of life and work that structure postmodern and postindustrial society.
West Indian fiction in the 21st century continues a tradition begun in the late 1990s as the fourth generation of Anglophone Caribbean writing. Though West Indian writing dates back to the early 19th century, West Indian literature began coalescing into a discrete field of study in the 1930s, motivated in large part by the political imperatives of anti-colonialism, political independence, and decolonization. Much of the fiction published in the late 90s to the present continues to adhere to the realist mode of representing Caribbean life—both in the region and in diaspora—as well as thematic engagements with decolonization, cultural nationalism, migration, diaspora, race, class, gender, and sexuality. Historical novels, modernist narratives, coming-of-age stories, and neoslave narratives remain significant features of West Indian fiction, in ways that are geared toward negotiating sovereign realties for individuals and communities that share a history of colonial domination, slavery, indentureship, and more recently, depleted cultural nationalisms.
In the last decade, scholars in the field have begun the work of theorizing the recent fictional output as constituting its own discrete moment in literary development. What is distinct about contemporary writing is the way in which some authors have begun to ironically rework now-familiar forms, themes, and politics of West Indian writing. Some recent West Indian fiction produces atypical, often incomprehensible, and ultimately dissonant conclusions designed to complicate the political priorities of previous generations. This ironic approach typifies 21st-century West Indian fiction’s skepticism about the nation building and identity politics developed in previous waves—in particular, the conflation of identity with sovereignty. At the same time, this fiction doesn’t simply reject earlier modes: one of its defining aesthetic features is a re-inhabitation of the central forms and politics of preceding waves, in order to complicate them.
The central feature of the fourth generation of West Indian fiction, then, is a continued engagement with the region’s history of colonization, slavery, and decolonization that is also marked by critical and self-reflexive engagements with the Caribbean literary tradition.