Bangladeshi construction worker publishes new poetry book with Chinese translation

Bangladeshi construction worker Md Mukul Hossine shot to fame after his poems, many of which were written late at night in his dormitory or even scribbled on bags on cement, were published last year in the collection Me Migrant by Ethos Books.
Bangladeshi construction worker Md Mukul Hossine shot to fame after his poems, many of which were written late at night in his dormitory or even scribbled on bags on cement, were published last year in the collection Me Migrant by Ethos Books.ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

SINGAPORE - Bangladeshi construction worker Md Mukul Hossine's new poetry book Braving Life, which was written in Bengali, has been translated not just into English but also Chinese.

The book, which contains the English and Chinese translations, was launched at Nanyang Girls' High School on Thursday (Nov 30).

The Chinese translation was done by a group of 10 Secondary Three students from Nanyang Girls' High School, many of whom had not interacted closely with a migrant worker before.

One of them, 15-year-old Liu Jiahui, had first met Mukul at a Migrant Poetry Evening he had organised and was struck by a powerful reading of his work in Bengali despite not understanding it.

Translating his work was not easy, she said: "His emotions are so raw, and we needed to keep his voice intact."

But she hopes this can help him find a new audience among not just Singaporean Chinese readers, but also foreign workers from China. "People like him have stories that deserve to be heard," she added.

Mukul, 28, the son of farmers from Patgram, Bangladesh, first came to Singapore in 2008 to work in construction after completing the equivalent of secondary school back home.

He shot to fame after his poems, many of which were written late at night in his dormitory or even scribbled on bags on cement, were published last year in the collection Me Migrant by Ethos Books.

He became the first foreign worker to have a poetry collection put out by a local publisher.

Mukul was interviewed by international media such as the BBC and the Economist and had his verse printed in rain-activated stencils on the pavement outside the Arts House, as part of a Sing Lit Station project last year.

Earlier this year, he started Migrant Poetry Evening, a series of readings that showcased other migrant workers using his own funds.

But his celebrity has brought him little financial gain.

In October, he lost his job at a design company and was repatriated to Bangladesh, where his family's house had been damaged by floods. The proceeds from his latest book will go towards building them a new house.

The book, which cost $5,000 to $7,000 to produce, was sponsored by migrant worker community clinic Healthserve, where Mukul has been volunteering in his spare time for three years.

They printed 2,000 copies, of which 200 have been sold. A few hundred will be sent to English-language colleges in Bangladesh.

Healthserve arranged a tourist visa for Mukul to return for the book launch. "I am flooded with joy to be back in Singapore," he said. "When I walked through Changi Airport, I wanted to cry, but I made myself smile. It has been a big challenge to come back.

"I hope to find another job here," he added. "But I don't know when I can get it."

Should he have to find a job through an agent, it will cost him between $3,500 and $4,000, which he says he cannot afford.

The poems in Braving Life are about the dreams and sorrows of migrant life, as well as Mukul's observations of Singapore society: people absorbed by social media on their phones, even as they pass old people selling tissue or collecting cardboard.

"Body exhausted by a busy city, I write poems for you/ and lose myself in the fold of words," reads one poem.

The poems were translated from Bengali by Ms Swagata Sen Pillai, a children's book translator and writer from India, and further refined in English by local poet Cyril Wong.

Said Ms Pillai, 53, who is visiting Singapore for the first time for the launch: "Mukul's work is a mixture of pain and hope. It shows people that migrant workers' writing doesn't always have to be hopeless."

Mr Paul Li Zheng Yuan, 30, a construction worker from Hebei, China, picked up a copy of Braving Lives at the launch.

"It's pretty good," said Mr Li, who is stranded in Singapore on a special pass following a work injury, in Mandarin. "It's a chance to appreciate the poetry of another migrant, someone like me."

Said Mukul: "My dream is to work with other migrant workers to promote our cultures, to show Singaporeans and our bosses what our days are like, how hard they are, and to allow for better understanding."

Braving Life ($10, $5 for students) is available from mukulbravinglife@gmail.com. Me Migrant ($12.84) is available from Books Kinokuniya.