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Doing the Write Thing: Pooja Nansi & Jason Erik Lundberg

The latest collection of short fiction to grace our shelves is Best New Singaporean Short Stories: Volume Four, or to give it its full title, The Epigram Books Collection of Best New Singaporean Short Stories: Volume Four. (Or as we like to call it in the office, BNSSS4.)

This latest volume was guest-edited by none other Pooja Nansi, the poet and educator who's also the current festival director for the Singapore Writers Festival. As a poet, she put out two collections of poetry; Stiletto Scars (2007) and Love is An Empty Barstool (2013). She also co-edited SingPoWriMo: The Anthology (2014), and co-authored Local Anaesthetic: a Painless Approach to Singaporean Poetry (2014), a teacher’s resource for Singaporean poetry.

Overseeing the volume is none other than the series editor Jason Erik Lundberg, who has helmed this series since the first volume back in 2013. Here, the two of them share their experiences embracing the best short stories our Lion City has to tell. 

Jason, why/how did you decide to choose Pooja Nansi as the guest editor for BNSSS4?
Jason: Pooja was always my first choice for the guest editor of Best Singaporean Short Stories: Volume Four. I’ve long been impressed with Pooja as a poet and teacher and deep thinker, as well as a community organiser; her monthly spoken-word series, Speakeasy, was a wonderful way to encounter international poets and re-examine the work of Singaporean authors in a new light. Her insistence on bringing under-represented writers to the fore with Other Tongues: A Festival of Minority Voices in 2018 was also incredibly admirable and necessary. The literary community needs a periodic infusion of new blood in order to stay healthy and relevant, and Pooja’s insistence on showcasing these emerging writers matches closely with my own sensibilities.

I also felt it important in general that this volume needed a female curator, as a counterbalance to the first three volumes. No offence to Cyril Wong—because he did a fantastic job editing Volume Three—but I didn’t want another Chinese male anthologist, because those perspectives have dominated Singaporean cultural discourse for a very long time.

However, I also knew that Pooja would be extremely busy as this year’s festival director of the Singapore Writers Festival, and assumed that she wouldn’t have time to also put Volume Four together, so I didn’t ask her at first. I made a shortlist of other possible guest editors but none of them was able to do it. I realised that I should just ask Pooja if she was interested. To my extreme pleasure, she said yes! 

What was it like working with Pooja on this edition?
Jason: It was frankly a delight to work with her, and I would gladly do so again. Rather than taking the more comprehensive approach (as was done in the first three volumes), Pooja zeroed in with a laser-like focus on the stories she wanted to highlight this time around. 

Since I’m the series editor, I needed to make sure that the collection she was shaping was in line with the rest of the series, and I would say that we agreed on 95 per cent of the selections—we had some honest discussions about our disagreements, but these conversations were always respectful and free of ego, and we were able to compromise without too much fuss. 

Pooja, you wanted to include the widest variety of stories from a diverse group of writers. But what about these stories resonated with you?
Pooja: A lot of these stories are about quiet moments of loss or realisation. They are about very small, intimate, specific human connections and disconnections which we all feel regardless of who we are and where we come from. 

Is editing short stories easier than poetry? 
Pooja: I don't think of them as incredibly different. I do like when stories unexpectedly speak to each other in small ideas or metaphors that repeat themselves and some of the stories in this collection do that if you let them. I won't dictate where these moments are for you as a reader.

I think an anthology is generally a curational exercise and in this particular one, I really wanted to shed a spotlight on stories that might otherwise not have been accessed by a broader audience who wasn't actively seeking them out. 

Jason, what unique flavour did Pooja bring to this edition of Best New Singaporean Short Stories?
Jason: Volume Four is tighter and more compact than the previous books in the series, with a larger focus on emerging writers. One-third of our contributors are still at the early stages of their writing careers, which makes the volume feel like a voyage of discovery. There is also deliberate attention paid to minority voices. I’m proud to say that with each volume in the Best Singaporean Short Stories series, we’ve gotten increasingly inclusive of Malay, Indian and Eurasian contributions, with this volume embracing the most thus far. We still feature plenty of Chinese writers too, but the make-up of the book feels more balanced.

For the very first time, we have a story that was not previously published—I  had insisted on highlighting published writing as a filter for quality. However, as Pooja notes in the book’s preface, “it is my strong belief that publication is not the only mark of a worthy story”. She discovered “Wings for Marie” by Shreya Acharya while teaching creative writing at NTU, and was insistent that it be included as well—this is the only time I have bent my previous publication rule.

Pooja: What's great about the buffet that an anthology offers you is that you get to pick and choose how you read stories and when you read them. 

Jason: Only Pooja could have arranged this particular collection of short stories, and her editorial decisions resonate throughout the book. For no other reason than this, the book is wholly unique among any other out there—and is very much worth your time.

Pooja: When I mention a "transformative experience", I am referring to the capacity of stories to change the way we see people, their lives and their inner worlds. And how sometimes someone who seems incredibly different shares the same struggles or has thoughts we would not have imagined them to. I hope the diversity in these stories reveals how much we all have in common to us. 

Get The Epigram Books Collection of Best New Singaporean Short Stories Volume Four.
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