First woman to win migrant worker poetry competition

Runner-up Naive L. Gascon from the Philippines recites her poem, And Again, at the annual Migrant Worker Poetry Competition at National Gallery Singapore on Sunday.
Runner-up Naive L. Gascon from the Philippines recites her poem, And Again, at the annual Migrant Worker Poetry Competition at National Gallery Singapore on Sunday.ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

Female domestic workers take top three spots at this year's Migrant Worker Poetry Competition

Women triumphed for the first time in the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition, as female domestic workers came in first, second and third in its fourth edition on Sunday.

The annual contest, which started in 2014 and has been mostly dominated by male Bangladeshi workers, received a record 107 submissions this year, in eight languages from poets of seven nationalities, 80 per cent of whom were women.

Indonesian domestic worker Deni Apriyani, 27, became the first woman to win the $500 top prize with her poem, Further Away, which beat 18 other shortlisted candidates at the competition, held at National Gallery Singapore.

It was based on a chance encounter she had on a minibus in her hometown, Indramayu.

She struck up a conversation with another passenger, who told her to "be careful in finding a husband" as she herself was stuck in an abusive marriage.

"I don't know who she is or where she is now, but she inspired me to write this," says Ms Apriyani.

She chose to write in English instead of Bahasa Indonesia because she felt a translation from her mother tongue would not have the same effect.

It is a far cry from when she came to Singapore four years ago and did not even know enough English to ask for food.

She began writing partly out of loneliness. "I had nobody to talk to, so I wrote funny stories to make myself laugh."

She likes to write comedy, as well as ghost stories and thrillers.

The judges, playwright Haresh Sharma and poets Chow Teck Seng and Amanda Chong, praised the emotional power of Ms Apriyani's poem, as well as her use of metaphor, which ranged from the visceral "you stepped on my lungs" to the cosmic "you took my twenty stars when I wanted to see/all of them lighten my dark side".

They noted that they had not looked at gender during judging, only at the poems.

Chong, 28, adds: "The migrant workers who have published poetry collections here have mostly been male and it would be wonderful to see a female domestic worker come out with a solo collection soon."

The competition's second prize went to Filipina Naive L. Gascon, 30, who wrote in English about swimming - which she loves, yet feels incredibly lonely doing - while the third went to Ms Fitri Diyah, 25, from Indonesia for her poem, Sunday Morning In Paya Lebar, written in Bahasa Indonesia and based on her favourite weekend hangout.

Ms Apriyani's $500 award, as well as the $300 and $200 prizes for the second and third places, were sponsored by the United States Embassy, while National Gallery Singapore provided the venue for free.

It was a day of many firsts for the competition, which also received participants from Myanmar for the first time and put on an inaugural play written, directed and acted by migrant workers.

Sharma, a Cultural Medallion recipient, mentored the 20-minute skit, The Other Side, which the workers spent six weekends conceptualising and rehearsing.

In it, a group of foreign workers hang out on their day off and reveal their talents, such as singing, painting and photography, to a Singaporean passer-by.

Construction supervisor Zakir Hossain Khokan, 39, who co-directed the play, says: "We want to show that migrant workers are not just doing dirty, dangerous work, but that they also have creativity and other talents."

•To see the winning poems, go to www.singaporeworkerpoetry.com

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2017, with the headline 'Women top poetry contest'. Print Edition | Subscribe