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Celebration of literary works by migrant workers

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National Library hosts first migrant literature festival

A literature scene of foreign workers penning stories and poems has blossomed into Singapore's first migrant literature festival.

About 200 people turned up at the National Library yesterday for the inaugural migrant literature festival.

The event saw the launch of four new books written by migrant workers here, performances onstage, and a panel discussion in which the future of writing by migrant workers in Singapore was explored.

There was also an afternoon screening of the first independent short film by migrants here: Salary Day. The 15-minute film was directed by and stars Mr R. Madhavan, a migrant worker from Tamil Nadu.

There were 1.4 million foreign workers here as of June, Ministry of Manpower data shows.

Mr Zakir Hossain Khokan, 41, founder of literary interest group Migrant Writers of Singapore (MWS), which organised the festival, said it aims to introduce Singapore's reading audience to the migrant literary scene here, and the opportunities and challenges the community has met with over the years.

Most of the early works were by Bengali writers, such as the anthology of poems called Migrant Tales. Books were also published by domestic workers.

The migrant literary scene started becoming more active after the first migrant worker poetry competition was held in 2014, which led to workers from different countries getting exposed to each other's writings.

In recent years, migrant writers have also been featured more prominently in public, such as in the Singapore Writers Festival.

Among them is Mr Zakir, who left his job as a freelance journalist in Dhaka in 2003 to work in construction here.

He said: "I have always wondered how it would be if Singapore could spearhead a global initiative where migrant workers could share their own literary talent and writings."

Last year, an unusual anthology called Call And Response was published, taking Singapore's burgeoning migrant worker poetry scene a step further by pairing works of more than 30 migrants - the bulk of them low-wage transient workers - with poems written in response by Singaporeans.

Beyond showcasing migrant literary talents, MWS has also been using literature as a tool for better communication and understanding.

Mr Zakir said: "Being in a foreign land, feelings of loneliness are unsurprising... We hope to continue bonding the community and create more platforms for migrants to connect with locals."

The day-long festival also included local writers who wrote about their migrant origins or stories about other migrants they interact with.

The festival was supported by the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics and the National Library Board, and sponsored by local literary non-profit Sing Lit Station.