You could say Nuraliah Norasid chooses to write about unconventional heroines. At six years old, she wrote her first story – about an earthworm princess who wanted a prince to kiss her, so she could become human again. The heroine in her latest effort – The Gatekeeper – is a woman with Medusa-like powers who lives in an alternative Singapore, and comes from a marginalised community of mythical creatures. The debut novel clinched the prestigious Epigram Books Fiction Prize – Singapore’s richest literary award – last year. “I’m always concerned about the little people who have fallen through the cracks,” says the 31-year-old.
Nuraliah’s childhood might have something to do with that. Her family was poor, and it was a troubled home. Things were no better at school. She took her rage out on her classmates and got into fights and scuffles, even pulling someone’s ear until it bled. That only led to her being bullied. At the worst point, some kids urinated in her water bottle.
She carried that anger with her till she was 27 and in university. She found solace in words – which helped her make sense of her past, and started writing the story that would eventually become her award-winning debut.
Image: Epigram Books
Now a research associate with the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs, Nuraliah likens herself to The Gatekeeper’s child protagonist, Ria, who turns an entire village into stone in a fit of rage, and has to deal with the fallout. “Ria and I were both angry children who didn’t think of consequences,” she says. “But things changed as I got older. I reminded myself that I have to be an adult now, not that child who bludgeons her way through life.”
Nuraliah’s novel has been feted by critics, like local playwright Haresh Sharma, for its “well-integrated” use of European and Malay mythology. It was a deliberate move, says Nuraliah.
“We need more magic here,” she says. “We see a city like Hong Kong, and we can imagine an action-packed car chase [happening]. But we reject that possibility in Singapore, as if action and fantasy can’t take place here.”
The Essential Singlit Reading List
Is Catherine Lim the only Singapore author you know? We asked Philip Holden, author of short-story collection Heaven Has Eyes, who’s also a professor of English language and literature at the National University of Singapore, for his list of SingLit must-reads. For the month of August, we'll be introducing them every Friday.
Alfian Sa’at, One Fierce Hour (1998)
Image: Local Books
A powerful debut collection of poetry expressing observations on Singapore.
Lloyd Fernando, Scorpion Orchid (1976)
Image: Epigram Books
Set in the 1950s, when decolonisation in Singapore led to violence and unrest.
This story is the first of a four part SingLit series for August and was originally published in the July'17 issue of Her World.