Maids who write prose and poetry

Two new anthologies of literary works by foreign workers and a novel by a British journalist about the lives of domestic helpers here, highlight their plight and give them a voice

When domestic worker Rolinda Espanola read an article about a fellow Filipina being starved by her employers about two years ago, rage filled her.

Ms Thelma Oyasan Gawidan had lost 20kg after her employers restricted her meals to slices of bread and instant noodles for 15 months.

Espanola, 40, poured her anger into the impassioned poem Ang Aking Kwento (Tagalog for My Story), which recounts, in first person, what Ms Gawidan endured. "I wanted to give justice to her," she says.

She is among a group of foreign domestic workers who are lending their voices to the local literary scene.

Ang Aking Kwento is among 31 poems published in Songs From A Distance, a new anthology of poems from two years of the annual Migrant Worker Poetry Competition. The book, which includes works by 15 women, was launched on Nov 12 at the Singapore Writers Festival.

Another upcoming anthology, Our Homes, Our Stories, collects 30 or so real-life accounts by maids in Singapore.

Migrant worker advocacy group Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) is crowdfunding to produce about 2,000 copies of the book, which is expected to be launched on International Women's Day on March 8 next year.

  • VIEW IT / MIGRANT WORKER POETRY COMPETITION

  • WHERE: Auditorium, National Gallery Singapore, 1 St Andrew's Road

    WHEN: Dec 3, 4pm

    ADMISSION: Free

    INFO: www.singaporeworkerpoetry.com

Some of the authors recount horrific stories of sexual abuse and violence. Others write of simpler sorrows, such as having to stand in opposite corners of the MRT train from their migrant worker boyfriends because they fear locals will post photos of them holding hands on social media to humiliate them.

A 32-year-old Indonesian who asks to be named only as Ainun, writes about being illegally deployed by her employers to work at their egg factory, rewashing and repacking expired eggs.

At the end of each day, she still had to return to her employers' house to clean it. After two months of this double life, she fled to Home and has since returned to her family in Indonesia.

An underage maid from Myanmar, writing under the pseudonym April Lin, tells of how she came to Singapore when she was 17 with a false age on her passport.

She and a fellow maid had to take turns staying up at night to watch their employers' children sleep. Whenever one of the kids rolled over, they had to write down the time on a piece of paper. If they dozed off, their employer would threaten to cut their salaries.

Some of my friends and neighbours are always being called idiots and belittled by their employers. This is my chance to speak up for them.

REA MAAC, 34, a domestic helper from the Philippines, who read her work at a Singapore Writers Festival event. She has been writing poetry since high school

"If we fell asleep, ma'am would see it the next day on the CCTV and yell at us," she writes. "Ma'am also said 'I will kill you' to me."

The writers worked with Home volunteer coaches to pen their stories in English. Their work is being edited by freelance writer Karien van Ditzhuijzen, who has taught creative writing workshops at Home since 2013.

Home executive director Sheena Kanwar hopes that more books on migrant workers' issues in Singapore can address the way these workers are dehumanised.

"Agencies see them as stock that needs to be transported and monitored, and employers see them as machines without a voice, feelings or a presence," she says.

"We hope that more literature will create better empathy and respect among employers in Singapore towards domestic workers."

Some maids say they also write to change perceptions closer to home.

Indonesian maid and poet Wiwik Triwinarsih, 33, whose work is published in Songs From A Distance, says: "I want to let my daughter see that her mother isn't just a domestic helper. I want her to see that I am so much more."

As of June, there are 243,000 foreign domestic workers in Singapore.

The foreign maid has had a constant, but largely peripheral presence in local literature, though this is changing slowly.

In writer Ovidia Yu's Aunty Lee series, the titular detective is assisted by her Filipina maid Nina. Amanda Lee Koe's Singapore Literature Prize-winning collection Ministry Of Moral Panic (2013) includes Two Ways To Do This, a two-part tale of an Indonesian maid's search for love in Singapore.

Non-fiction books on maids' lives include photojournalist Sim Chi Yin's The Long Road Home: Journeys Of Indonesian Migrant Workers (2011).

One notable maid author is Crisanta Sampang, who penned the memoir Maid In Singapore (2005), which spent one week on The Straits Times' bestseller list. Sampang, who is from the Philippines and worked in Singapore in the 1980s, is now a writer and film-maker in Canada.

More recently, Filipina maids Myrna Eneria and Belen Esposo Repollo saw their poetry published alongside well-known local poets such as Edwin Thumboo and Felix Cheong in Get Lucky (2015), an anthology about the Filipino community in Singapore.

Today, there are growing opportunities for maids to pen their stories, from writing workshops at organisations such as Home to the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition, the fourth edition of which will be held on Dec 3.

This year's competition has a record 107 entries, up from 74 last year. Unlike in its early days when it was dominated by male construction and shipyard workers, women make up 80 per cent of this year's participants.

More than 150 people packed a gallery at The Arts House on Nov 12, when migrant poets including Espanola did a reading of their works as part of the Singapore Writers Festival launch for Songs From A Distance.

Among those reading was Rea Maac, 34, from the Philippines, who has been writing poetry since high school. She composes fragments of verse on her phone between chores, using the Notes function on Facebook.

"Some of my friends and neighbours are always being called idiots and belittled by their employers," she says. "This is my chance to speak up for them."

Most of them are able to pursue their passion for writing, thanks to supportive employers such as ship broker Channa Munasinghe, 52, who approves of his helper Windu Lestari, 25, spending her days off on courses such as creative writing and scribbling stories about religion and love.

"I think it's fantastic that anyone should want to better herself," says the father of three teenagers. "She does all this and she looks after her family. I'm very proud of her."

The experiences of domestic workers in Singapore will also gain an international readership with The Maid's Room, a new novel by British writer Fiona Mitchell.

Brought out by British publishing house Hodder & Stoughton, an imprint of publishing giant Hachette, it is also being published in Denmark, Norway, Italy and Spain.

Mitchell, 47, a former journalist of 20 years, lived in Singapore from mid-2009 to early 2012, accompanying her husband on a work posting.

She was struck by the attitudes many expatriates and locals had towards their domestic helpers, treating them as inferior.

Speaking over the telephone from London, where she is now based, she recalls how one day at a restaurant, she saw a family that made their helper sit at a separate table. "She got her food out of a bag, in a plastic box, and they didn't speak to her at all. She sat there with her head bowed."

Moments like these made Mitchell curious about the plight of maids in Singapore. She was shocked to discover that they are not covered under the Employment Act and were not at the time legally entitled to a weekly day off - a law introduced in 2013.

She began to write the novel, her first, in 2010. As part of her research, she interviewed about 20 maids whom she met through friends or around her daughter's school.

In her book, an outspoken maid sets up an anonymous blog, Maidhacker, to give her fellow domestic workers a voice online.

"Modern-day servitude is not just a Singaporean issue, but a global one," she says.

"I just hope those who read this can see the humanity of the people who work for them."

•Songs From A Distance ($25) is available from www.migrantworkerpoetry.org and Transient Workers Count Too (call 6247-7001 or e-mail info@twc2.org.sg).

•Our Homes, Our Stories ($15, $10 for migrant workers) will be launched in March and will be available for sale via Home's website (home.org.sg). Pre-orders and donations can be made via Home's giving.sg campaign (bit.ly/2hNKsT9).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2017, with the headline 'Voices away from home'. Print Edition | Subscribe