Poet Theophilus Kwek is first Singaporean to win Swedish literary prize for East Asian poets

SINGAPORE – Singaporean poet Theophilus Kwek has been named the 2023 recipient of the Cikada Prize, an award conferred by the Swedish Institute to an East Asian poet whose work “defends the inviolability of life”.

The 29-year-old is the first Singaporean and the youngest writer to win the prestigious prize since its inception in 2004.

He will receive a cash prize of 30,000 Swedish krona (S$3,726) and an artwork by Swedish ceramic artist Gunilla Sundstrom in a 2024 ceremony.

Kwek, who heard the news while on his honeymoon in Spain, tells The Straits Times he is humbled and “dumbfounded to be considered alongside much more eminent and respected international poets”.

Previous recipients of the award include luminaries in the poetry world such as Xi Chuan (China), Kim Hyesoon (South Korea), Xi Xi (Hong Kong), Hiromi Ito (Japan) and Hoang Thi Y Nhi (Vietnam).

The prize was established to commemorate the birth centennial of Swedish Nobel literature laureate Harry Martinson and spotlights Asian poets on a global stage.

Kwek adds: “I’m also glad that the jury seems to be increasingly looking outside the traditional areas of Japanese and Korean poetry to recognise a wider diversity of new writing that’s coming out of Asia.”

He says his win is a recognition that there is new writing coming out of Singapore which grapples with topics of human dignity salient in today’s world.

In a citation for the prize, jury chair Anna Gustafsson Chen writes that Kwek is being recognised “for a poetry that is both outward-looking and locally rooted, with a combination of lyrical precision and unfailing social commitment that places it firmly in the centre of history as well as our present age”.

Kwek, who has been shortlisted twice for the Singapore Literature Prize, is the author of four full-length collections of poetry which often confront topics of migration and history.

These include They Speak Only Our Mother Tongue (2011), Circle Line (2013), Giving Ground (2016) and Moving House (2020), which was published by Carcanet Press in Britain.

He holds a master’s degree in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies from Oxford University, has collaborated on a pamphlet to raise funds for Oxford-based charity Refugee Resource, and worked on a performance in response to the Rohingya refugee crisis.

In Singapore, Kwek has supported initiatives for and by migrant writers including the Migrant Cultural Show and Migrant Writers of Singapore.

He is currently working on poems that focus on themes of displacement.

Kwek’s inspirations for these include his mother’s family, who were displaced from Bukit Ho Swee to Commonwealth Crescent, and the more recent displacement of residents out of Tanglin Halt.

He says: “My previous book of poems was partly rooted in the UK and in Singapore because I was moving between these two places at the time. I think my next book will be much more grounded in the local geography.”

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