Meet the Singaporean author who emerged Asia Winner of the 2023 Commonwealth Short Story Prize

Agnes Chew shares how moving to Germany led her to write her second book, Eternal Summer of My Homeland.

By Agnes Chew | 13 Jun 2023

Relocating in a time of a global pandemic

I took a one-way flight from Singapore to Frankfurt in early 2020. At the age of thirty, I had just got married, quit my job, and was eager to embark on a new adventure in a new country. It wasn’t my first time relocating; I had moved to London in 2016 to pursue my Master’s degree in international development and to Vienna in 2011 on an international student exchange programme, and consider those years some of my fullest and most illuminating.

Agnes doing a reading from her debut book, The Desire for Elsewhere, in London.

And so I arrived in Germany brimming with anticipation and plans. I would settle in, meet new people, delight in exploring new places. I would immerse myself once more in the German language. I would pursue my writing seriously. I would travel around Europe with both my husband and my family, who had planned to visit in a few months. I would make a trip back to Singapore later that year for a concert featuring my debut collection of travel essays, The Desire for Elsewhere. The possibilities were endless—until the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

The world seemed to clench shut and my plans were brought to a halt. Introductory meetings were postponed. Restaurants, theatres, and museums were closed. German lessons were shifted online. Travel plans had to be cancelled. Everything was put on hold, suspended indefinitely. My husband, a medical doctor, got assigned to work in the Covid-19 wards in Germany. In Singapore, my father got hospitalised. Unable to travel back during the height of the pandemic, I felt helplessness creep up on me in unfamiliar ways.

[Pre-pandemic] Agnes and Germany-based Singaporean pianist Wong Yun Qi at the opening night of “The Multitudes Within Us”, a concert incorporating excerpts from and titled after a chapter of Agnes’ debut book, The Desire for Elsewhere.

Finding solace in words and connections to home

I turned to the one thing I could count on: words. I began to read. In 2020, I devoured over fifty books from the Singapore National Library through the Libby app—about half of which were Sing Lit. Reading these books evoked memories of my time in Singapore, and briefly transported me back to the warmth of the tropics amid the winter chill in Germany.

At the same time, I was learning new words. Week after week, I attended German language classes on Zoom, progressing from intermediate to advanced courses. As my German vocabulary grew, I became enthralled by how multitudes could be contained within a single unit of a German compound word. For example, Fernweh—comprising the words “distance” and “ache”—captures that deep, intense longing to travel to someplace faraway. Or Verschlimmbesserung: an attempt intended to improve, which instead worsens things.

Not only did these German words resonate deeply with me, they also sparked the idea for my second book. Fuelled by my yearning for home, I wrote story after story, each one inspired by a German word that had moved me, all of which were set in a Singaporean context. These stories eventually formed my first fiction collection, Eternal Summer of My Homeland.

Meanwhile, I continued to keep in touch with family and friends. The online courses offered by the Asia Creative Writing Programme allowed me to also connect with other Singaporean writers. Even though I had hardly cooked back when I was living in Singapore, I ventured to make from scratch local dishes like chai tow kway. My father thankfully regained his health and got discharged from the hospital. As time passed, I found that homesickness weighed less and less on me.

Agnes in Freiburg, Germany.

Looking back, looking forward

In retrospect, the sporadic losing of bearings in the initial phase of my relocation has enabled me to gain new perspectives and better manage uncertainty. Three years on, I am beginning to feel more at home in Germany. I revel in the beauty each season brings, and the calmness nature affords. Through my time here, I have learnt to appreciate a slower, more sustainable pace of life, and the myriad possibilities it offers. I have found charm in lesser-known parts of Germany like Sellin, Lübeck, and Leipzig, and travelled beyond its borders to Malta, Latvia, and Georgia, among other countries.

Agnes and her husband in Georgia, with the Caucasus Mountains in the background.

Since moving to Germany in 2020, I have also managed to make two cherished trips back to Singapore. I am now looking forward to my upcoming visit this June. In addition to reunions with loved ones over local food, I am excited for the launch of my first fiction collection, Eternal Summer of My Homeland—which is, at heart, a love letter to my home country.

Get your copy of Eternal Summer of My Homeland here.

Join Agnes for her book launch in Singapore

When: 2pm – 3pm, 18 June 2023 (Sunday)
Where: Sing Lit Station (22 Dickson Road, #02-01, Singapore 209506)

Meet Agnes

Agnes Chew is the author of Eternal Summer of My Homeland (Epigram Books, 2023) and The Desire for Elsewhere (Math Paper Press, 2016). She is the Asia Winner of the 2023 Commonwealth Short Story Prize for her story “Oceans Away from My Homeland”. Born and raised in Singapore, she is currently based in Germany.

Connect with her on Instagram or at her website.

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