Human "books" invite probing and provocative questions from "readers"

In the Human Library SG project, subjects, including a tattoo artist, talk about their lives and invite others to ask probing questions

People you know well may be open books to you, but you can "read" some strangers like old friends too, thanks to a new project called the Human Library SG.

This interactive event allows you to borrow the time of diverse participants, called "books", to learn about their lives. Each session lasts about 30 minutes and up to four people listen while the "book" tells stories.

The 25 self-narrating participants include a transgender woman who used to be a sex worker, a tattoo-less tattoo artist and a Muslim woman who enjoys solo backpacking.

The free session will be held on Oct 30 at youth centre The Red Box in Somerset Road.

Started in Denmark 16 years ago, the Human Library is a global social movement designed to encourage open and honest conversations and challenge common stigmas or stereotypes. It has been held in more than 60 countries including Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom.

It's important to acknowledge and challenge stereotypes as we are constantly shoving them under the carpet.

MS NUR ATIKAH AMALINA MOHD ZAINI, who plans to talk about stereotypes associated with being a female Muslim. With her are fellow participants Lee Ci En, who was born with a genetic condition that causes dwarfism, and Aaron Tay, a tattoo artist

The Singapore edition is organised by a group of four 20something socially conscious friends. They were inspired to start a session of their own after attending a Human Library event at the Singapore Management University last year.

Project leader Kelly Ann Zainal, 26, said they chose people from as diverse backgrounds as possible, including a foreign construction worker, a pole dancer and a bipolar disorder sufferer.

They were found through recommendations from personal contacts and various non-governmental organisations.

Ms Zainal, a mental health researcher, says: "All identities naturally come with stereotypes, not just those that are typically thought of as stigmatised."

Already, more than 600 people have registered for the event. The organisers say they did not expect such a good response and had initially wanted to cap the number of participants at 500. They add that they will try their best to cater to everyone.

Registration closed yesterday evening. Those who missed it can sign up at librarysg to be on the mailing list as there are plans to hold Human Library SG every quarter.

Meanwhile, the human "books" are raring to go and welcome whatever probing questions people might have.

Former sex worker Sherry Sherqueshaa, 25, wants "readers" to ask her tough questions. She was previously a "book" at two smaller Human Library events in Singapore and found that people were asking trivial questions about her time as a sex worker.

"They asked me why I did sex work and when, but I wished people asked deeper questions on the industry itself," she says. "The whole idea is to ask me directly whatever you want to know. There are no rude or invasive questions in the Human Library."

Indeed, the "books" have to be willing to address any question, however uncomfortable they might be, says Ms Zainal.

Unless a "book" specifically states that he will not entertain certain queries, he will reply. But "librarians" or volunteers will be around to ensure the sessions do not get out of hand and will intervene if a "book" feels uncomfortable, she adds.

Undergraduate Lee Ci En, 20, who was born with achondroplasia, a genetic condition that causes dwarfism, anticipates some hard questions and will "take them as they come".

He intends to talk about the challenges he faced when he was younger and how he had to deal with stares and finger-pointing.

"As I get older, people are afraid to ask me questions as they are afraid to offend me, so this event will be a good time for curious people to find out more," he says.

For seasoned solo backpacker Nur Atikah Amalina Mohd Zaini, 25, being a "book" for the event is similar to what she is already doing. The plucky educator has been travelling the world alone since 2013 and blogs about her experiences.

"I'm a storyteller so I might as well share my experiences with a bigger audience here," she says.

She also plans to talk about Islamophobia - she wears a headscarf - and the stereotypes associated with being a female Muslim, such as being "docile and not having a voice".

"It's important to acknowledge and challenge stereotypes as we are constantly shoving them under the carpet," she says.

One of the attendees is graduate law student Au Jun Ren, 26, who says the event is "a good chance to put ourselves in another person's shoes and learn about his life".

He adds: "I plan to ask as much as I can, while remaining polite, of course."

•Go to for more details on Human Library SG

Ink artist with no tattoos

While many tattoo artists use their own bodies as canvases, Mr Aaron Tay, 25, is an ink artist without a single tattoo on his body.

The bachelor, who has been in the business for a decade, wants to challenge the stereotype of what a tattoo artist should look like.

"People think tattoo artists are covered in tattoos and are rude, loud, vulgar or gangsters, but I'm none of these things," he says.

He picked up his skills from an experienced tattoo artist and has been working at Body-Decor Tattoo & Piercing at Singapore Shopping Centre in Clemenceau Avenue for the past 10 years.

As a boy, he was exposed to the world of tattoos through his uncle, a tattoo artist, and his father, who loves getting tattooed.

"After my N-level results pretty much showed I couldn't be a doctor, I decided to pick up drawing tattoos as I've always liked art," he says.

He seized the chance to take part in the Human Library SG project when he was approached, because he wanted to reach out to those who are unfamiliar or disapproving of tattoos, especially parents.

He says: "More kids now want to get tattoos, so instead of saying no, parents should find out more and even follow their child to the parlour to make sure it's clean and tools used are hygienic."

There is no minimum age for getting a tattoo in Singapore, but he will work only on customers aged 18 and older. This is because he has a lot of customers who regret their tattoos going to his parlour to cover up their mistakes.

People should think carefully about the kind of art they want to put on their bodies, he says. "A tattoo is a lifetime commitment."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 11, 2016, with the headline 'Read these human 'books''. Print Edition | Subscribe