Poetic pairings on the migrant experience



Edited by Joshua Ip, Rolinda Onates Espanola and Zakir Hossain Khokan/Math Paper Press/Paperback/115 pages/ $19 before GST/Books Kinokuniya and BooksActually

3.5 stars

This unusual anthology takes Singapore’s burgeoning migrant worker poetry scene a step further by pairing works by more than 30 migrants, the bulk of them low-wage transient workers, with poems written in response by locals.

As is often the case in such broad exercises, the quality of the writing varies from page to page. There are brilliant pieces and there are pieces either so abstruse as to be impenetrable or simply short on literary quality.

Standouts include Singaporean Theophilus Kwek’s The Way Light Works and Bangladeshi Md Riazul Islam Riaz’s Dead Body Of An Expatriate, which are not paired in the book but seem naturally matched.

The former paints a scene of startling beauty shot through with orange, the colour of bus-stop tiles, persimmons and safety vests, that gives way to the distress of witnessing a co-worker’s accident.

The latter is stark and restrained, dwelling not on the horror of the speaker’s possible death, but the matter of forgiving him for it. “It was my great hope/That I may die in my mother’s lap,” he writes. “If there is not enough money/to send off my body,/Keep me in your prayer,/That I may be happy in Hereafter.”

The pairings work best when the poems respond sensitively to one another at oblique angles.

Singapore Writers Festival director Pooja Nansi takes Filipina Rea Maac’s Scarecrow and blacks out words from it in a visual representation of society’s erasure of the foreign domestic worker.

Bikas Nath recalls the books that filled his bag in school in Bangladesh and laments how, as a worker in a foreign land, his bag no longer has a place for books. In contrast, Ann Ang writes of Singapore: “Our nation is a book/but we have no time to read”.

The anthology does its best to present both sets of poets as equals, without condescending to the fact that one set is writing from a less regarded, more vulnerable position in society. At times, it even plays on such expectations, as in Rolinda Onates Espanola’s rhyming poem She Maybe.

Espanola, who is Filipina, appears at first to be committing a grammatical error by mixing up “may be” and “maybe” (“She maybe the maid with broken English”).

But the angry, insistent repetition of the error makes it deliberate, an indictment of the easy assumptions employers make about domestic helpers.

It would be easy to paint this anthology as an exercise in inclusivity, but that would be to miss its point.

It is an exercise founded on labels that nevertheless seeks to deconstruct and, ultimately, demolish them.

If you liked this, read: Songs From A Distance (2017, $26.75, Books Kinokuniya), an anthology of 31 poems by migrant workers based in Singapore.

• Follow Olivia Ho on Instagram at @ohomatopoeia

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