Migrant Poetry Competition 2015: bringing the conversation ahead by celebration and critique

13th of December 2015 evening was cloudy and rainy, but for the migrant poets of Singapore it was an event to celebrate their voices with the Singaporean mainstream. With 74 entries this year in Bangla, Bahasa, Tagalog, Tamil, Mandarin and Punjabi up from 28 last year, and with 65 percent submissions by women; the competition expanded this year.

The competition was organized by Banglar Kantha, the only Bengali Language Newspaper in South East Asia and a group of volunteers that included Shivaji Das, writer and consultant and Charmaine Poh, a photographer. Banglar Kantha has been at the forefront of migrant literature and culture over the past decade and has been curating competitions/events in the field of migrant writing and literature since 2011. The concept of the competition was scaled up in 2014 to the general Singaporean public and hence 2014 was not technically the first migrant poetry competition. The event had 14 finalists from 6 languages and recitations included themes of separation from families, sacrifices, angst and somewhere an aspiration for a better life. The illustrious trio of judges were Academic Kripal Singh, Poet Alvin Pang and Translator Madam Goh Beng Choo. Shivaji Das opened the event evening by commenting that more has to be done to include other marginalised migrant workers.

The women finalists from Indonesia, Philippines and India spoke about guilt due to separation from their children and romantic love. The male participants spoke about sacrifice and nostalgia from home. They differed from their female counterparts in acknowledging disappointment from their anticipated experience of life in Singapore. One of two Chinese finalists wrote about how the egg he eats with his noodle in Singapore reminds him of the food of his hometown back home.  Last year’s second runner up Rengarajan from Tamil Nadu, India (a member of Banglar Kantha Literary Association) recited his narrative poem about the economic calculations of migrant life; the indebtedness that a migrant has to go through to make it overseas and how relationships never are normal for a migrant, as the transactional nature is always evident. He spoke:

“Ours is not a foreign life.

Our lives are foreign to us.”

Finalist Sandeep Kaur wrote in Punjabi about Female Infanticide in her untitled poem where she laid bare the patriarchal nature of society through an evocative plea from an unborn child.  The 3rd prize winner this year was a woman finalist from Indonesia who wrote about the angst of love in her poem ‘You’ which she passionately recited with great fervour. Her performance was powerful and shook the overflowing Level Five Possibility Room of the National Library Building at Bugis.

The male finalists are involved in construction work in Singapore and their female counterparts are Foreign Domestic Workers here.

All the Bangladeshi Finalists Mohar Khan, Zakir Hossain Kokhon and Sromik Monir were finalists in last year’s competition too. All the three are mentored and nurtured by Mr. AKM Mohsin as members of the Banglar Kantha Literary Association; a volunteer writers group discussing migrant literature in Bangla.

While Sromik Monir (spoke about the labour of a migrant) won a consolation prize this year, Mohar Khan won the 1st runner up award for his poem ‘Lamp Post’ where he narrates that he is not merely a migrant but a financial support for his family back home. He wrote:

Day after day, my labour,

Has built this city layer by layer”

Zakir Hossain Khokon, last year’s winner repeated his feat this time around as well with his poem ‘I am Sorry’, where he paints an apologetic portrait of migrant’s work.  Both Mohar and Zakir’s poems were sophisticated in form and intense in meaning, and hence they stood out of the crowd in spite of the Philippine Finalists writing in English, which has greater audience appeal.

The evening had a small performance by Banglar Kantha artists on a 1971 Liberation War Song prior to the winners being announced. There were poems recited by migrant poets from similar competitions in Malaysia (organised by Banglar Kantha), Kuwait and China. The English translations were recited by students from United World College of South East Asia.

The event had sharing’s by the Cultural Affairs in charge of the United States Embassy in Singapore, who had sponsored the event. Melinda Page, shared that all should acknowledge the role of migrants in Singaporean Society. An American origin representative of the local Singaporean NGO TWC2 also spoke about the talents of migrants in the Singaporean workplace.

Mr. A K M Mohsin speaking
Mohar, Monir and Zakir (From Left to Right)
Mohar reciting his poem ‘Lamp Post’

Banglar Kantha Editor in Chief AKM Mohsin in his speech first spoke in Bangla exalting the Bangladeshi Community to unite in efforts to work for the flock. He then spoke in English delineating the difference between migrant literature and mainstream literature. Migrant Literature in his words was a platform to empower the migrant through culture. Most of the work written by the migrant is abstract and needs ‘curating to polish it into a gem’. Which in layman speak is mentoring and nurturing.

He encouraged the civil society to introspect in order to be impactful. Quoting from his speech:

“The question today to ask ourselves: Are we being authentic in helping our migrant brothers and sisters? Or is it cool to do this work. “

This call to move beyond ‘event activism’, is timely as the migrant needs continuous support for his cultural pursuits rather than a tiny blip on the radar, which is useful, but simply not enough.

Photos: Lopamudra Chakraborty Prasad

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