By law, domestic workers in Singapore are entitled to one day off per week. Many spend it at church, or with friends. On Sundays East Coast Park, a long, narrow stretch of greenery by the Singapore Strait, is crowded with women laughing and picnicking together. But some forego the outdoors, and take a cramped, rickety lift in an unremarkable office building in an unfashionable corner of the city to spend their afternoon in a fluorescent-lit classroom.
Since last September, a group called Voice of Singapore’s Invisible Hands has been offering creative-writing classes for Singapore’s migrant workers (the country’s “invisible hands”). Another group, Singlit Station, organises poetry workshops. And for the past three years, Shivaji Das, a high-flying consultant with Frost & Sullivan who also writes art and travel books (his latest, “Angels by the Murky River,” came out in March), has staged poetry contests for Singapore’s millions of migrant workers.
Das’s idea began in late 2013, when around 400 migrant workers rioted in the Little India neighbourhood, after a private bus killed an Indian construction worker. Tensions between native Singaporeans and migrants ran high. Das thought that seeing workers reading their own poetry would give the public “a better impression…and would help with integration.”
In the contest’s first year, 2014, 28 poets entered, all of them Bangladeshi – Bengali, their language, has a rich literary tradition. Since then, 140 more have taken part, including Filipinos, Indonesians and Chinese, writing in both English and their native tongues. Das estimates that around 60% of the entrants are women, mainly domestic workers; the men tend to work in construction or the marine industry. The contest has also expanded to Malaysia, home to many migrant workers and refugees, and another may soon take place in the United Arab Emirates, where migrants comprise 88% of the population (in Singapore their share is 45%).
In Singapore, the contest has moved from the serviceable National Library to the far grander National Gallery, where ten shortlisted poets read their work to a judging panel of prominent Singaporean literati. Unsurprisingly, longing for home features heavily in most of the poets’ work. Bikas Nath, a shipyard worker from Chittagong, won last year’s contest for his poem “Why Migrant?”: “I long to run back/To the warm embrace of my homeland…I want to return to the embrace of what is my own/Golden mangoes ripe in the garden/Heady fragrance of jackfruit in the afternoon air…My life, my youth are held hostage/And yet I long to love.”
Das says this sort of longing verse is typical of Bangladeshi poets. Indonesians and Filipinos tend to speak more directly about missing home, and about their employers. Rolinda Espanola, a Filipina domestic worker, finished third last year for “My Story”, in which she laments being “a maid in a foreign land/Where people look down on us/But for my family, I am a hero/Fearless, I draw strength from my family.”
Espanola was among the half-dozen students taking up the front row of the language-school classroom one afternoon recently. The subject was plot. The teacher, a Malaysian-Chinese short-story writer named Kathryn Chua, had assigned them to watch a video of Kurt Vonnegut discussing a plot graph, in which the X axis was the story’s progress (beginning, middle, end) and the Y had “Good fortune” at the top and “Ill fortune” at the bottom.
A satisfying story, said Vonnegut, would resemble a sort of inverse parabola: at the story’s outset the protagonist finds himself with middlingly good fortune; then as the story continues obstacles bedevil him and he falls into the pit of ill fortune; and at the end, when he overcomes his struggles, he climbs the Y axis precipitously, ending up better than his starting position.
The Filipina and Indonesian women in this class – who are writing in English, their third or fourth language – grasped Vonnegut’s formula immediately, perhaps because they struggle with where to place themselves on his parabola: far from home and family, but earning enough to give the relatives they left behind a better life than they themselves have known. Phoebe, an eager middle-aged woman in the front row, says the graph will help her better structure the second half of her story: after her main character and her husband suffer a setback, she understands that they then “have to try to recover, and go up, like a staircase.”
Another student worries that her main character may not be such a good person, and wants to know how to make a reader cheer for her; the teacher answers, “Make the antagonist worse!” The women in the class are wonderfully supportive – laughing at each other’s jokes, parrying every self-denigrating remark – particularly compared with the backbiting anxiety that prevails in university creative-writing classes.
Last year a Singaporean press published a book of poems by M.D. Mukul, a Bangladeshi construction worker who began writing poems when he was a teenager, and dreamt of becoming a writer or singer. Another group of migrants self-published a book of poems in Bengali and English. Das says they have been flogging their work assiduously. “They have become actual authors,” he says, “spending more time on marketing and selling than on writing.”