Winner of Fiction in English

Snow at 5 PM: Translations of an Insignificant Japanese Poet

The rescue of a literary manuscript results in a war of words over the interpretation of 107 haiku about New York's Central Park. In the battle of commentaries, what is at stake is nothing less than the meaning of America in an imaginary but highly plausible future. Re-envisioning Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire for a technologised age, Snow at 5 PM discovers revolutionary uses, and abuses, for literature and history.

Excerpt from Snow at 5 PM: Translations of an Insignificant Japanese Poet

On a leafless twig
a caterpillar of snow
will change to nothing

We change from nothing to nothing. A meditation on human transience founded on an exact observation. Snow on a twig is long, bumpy, and hairy.

Gaudy Boy LLC (Bench Press imprint)

Judges' Comments

Jee Leong Koh’s Snow at 5 P.M. may be Singapore's first global novel. It is multi-genre, with 107 haiku introducing many of the prose passages. Set chiefly in contemporary Manhattan, with Central Park as the jewel in the setting, the fiction flashes off and on, like red warning signals, to a futuristic climate-changed Singapore Island and planet. The novel is multi-civilisational, the protagonist-narrator being a diasporic Singaporean living in New York City, in quest of his speculative protagonist, a Japanese poet immigrant to the same American territory.

The novel is a mash-up of sub-genres. It is a mystery story, puzzling a missing poet known only through the half-burnt sheaves of haiku left in the apartment the narrator has moved into. The fiction is thickened, like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick’s whaling information, with empirical botanical knowledge that offers a different discursive dimension to the haiku images of flora and fauna. Asian American scholarship and displays of literary erudition are scored with erotic gay intimacies. Multitudinous digressive language plays, sub-characters’ lineages and histories, suggest unities in the tradition of Joycean epic works. Snow at 5 p.m.'s hybrid literary traditions, genres and sub-genres, generating complex threads, each digressing and spinning other threads, achieve a tour de force, a globalized Singapore imaginary that dazzles.


Jee Leong Koh

Jee Leong Koh is the author of Steep Tea, named a Best Book of the Year by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. He has published four other books of poems, a hybrid work of fiction, a volume of essays, and a collection of zuihitsu, The Pillow Book, which was shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize. His second Carcanet book Inspector Inspector is forthcoming in August 2022.