KUALA LUMPUR, June 19 — One of the highlights of the Cooler Lumpur Festival last weekend was the Migrant Poetry Competition, which was held to provide a platform for unskilled foreign workers to open up creatively about the trials and tribulations in their lives.
Certainly the capital has seen its fair share of poets — from intellectuals and academics to hipsters waxing lyrical about their favourite cafés and single origin coffees.
However, listening to poetry from migrant workers, who were encouraged to write in their mother tongues, and recited aloud is an entirely difference experience.
The winning poem was by 22-year-old Salman Brischik, who hails from Bajerhat, Bangladesh. Salman, whose favourite poet is Kazi Nazrul Islam, has been working in the food catering industry in Malaysia for less than two months. His poem, titled Come Back (“Firey Eso”), revolves around pleas to a lover to return to the poet’s life every morning.
The runner-up, Alika Nor Khalifa, is from Blitar, East Java. The Indonesian has been in Malaysia for four years working in the electronic manufacturing industry. Her poem, A Farewell Message (“Salam Perpisahan”) is about her experience leaving loved ones to work in Malaysia, especially the stigma of living the life of a migrant worker here.
The ebullient Alika shares, “I feel very blessed to win a prize. This will encourage me to continue to write more poetry. I’m also hopeful that this platform will create more awareness about the life of migrant workers in the society at large.”
Organiser Khairun Nisah Kamaruzaman was overwhelmed by the positive response from the public. She says, “About 40 to 50 people turned up to listen to the migrant workers read their poems. This was an unexpected level of acceptance from my fellow Malaysians.”
Khairun Nisah notes that as they didn’t have enough time to prepare for the event, the first time the organisers met the poets was at the competition finals itself. “Not all the participants could make it. Up till the last day we were trying to coax the Bangladeshi poets to come but they couldn’t get away from their jobs in the F&B industry, weekends being the busiest times for them.”
Head judge Bernice Chauly agrees, adding, “It’s unfortunate that the Bangladeshi poets were unable to be present, as their work was worthy of merit. All the poets, including the Indonesians, mentioned that they were readers of their country’s iconic poets such as Chairil Anwar and Rabindranath Tagore.”
The level of commitment and participation by the poets impressed co-organiser Shivaji Das, who had organised a similar competition in Singapore last year. He says, “We didn’t know if they would come or if they’d be shy and have stage fright. But they came really prepared.”
Shivaji explains that their goal was to let wider Malaysian audience understand the different aspects of these migrant workers through their poetry, by having Malaysians hear these migrant workers’ voices. “Given the recent situation of Myanmar’s Rohingyas, the need to understand different cultures living amongst us becomes more poignant.”
The high quality of the poems surprised the judges. Bernice says, “It was an incredibly humbling experience, and very profound. The poems were good, very good. The Bengali poems, because of the rich and proud tradition of Bengali poetry, were very beautiful. The Indonesian poets were also versed in the form, and recited it in the way that was similar to us, in the style of delivering a sajak.”
All the judges agreed that the submitted work was very meaningful and adhered to the structures of poetry. Bernice elaborates, “It was contemporary, there was informed use of language, there was style and metaphor, and it was very moving. To be honest, we did not know what to expect, and we sat there, silent, some in tears.”
According to Shivaji, the topics covered were petty similar, in that they touched on the issues of migrant workers, from the sense of loss and not being able to see their families to their hopes and aspirations. “One poet simply wondered if he could find love in Malaysia. Not only did the written content impress us but also the confidence with which the poets performed their recitals – there was dramatization of the themes and strength of emotion.”
In total, there were eight entries from six participants, half of them Bangladeshi and the other half Indonesian. Khairun Nisah says, “With more time for further outreach and support of local non-governmental organisations, we hope to get more participants from other countries involved in the future.”
In Singapore, Shivaji notes, the migrant poets started their own poetry gathering after the competition there. “They are not solely relying on the organisers as middlemen. There is now more discussion of migrants; food and housing are two hot topics for Singapore. Hopefully we can spark useful discussion here too, relating to the welfare of migrant workers in Malaysia.”
Moving forward, the organisers have received invitations to conduct similar competitions at events such as the George Town Festival as well as to hold poetry workshops. Khairun Nisah believes the competition has sparked such encouraging interest because Malaysians do appreciate poetry and want to learn more about the migrant workers in their country.
“Those who attended the competition were mainly English-speaking urbanites so we had English translations on the screen to accompany the recitals of the poems in their original languages,” she says. “Of course, something is lost in translation, but judging by the looks on the audience’s faces, they got the gist of it. Emotion is universal.”
Bernice adds, “These migrant workers don’t need writing classes; they are already writing. They are already poets – they just need to be heard.”
Cooler Lumpur Festival: Migrant Worker Poetry Competition