How Kurt Vonnegut is helping migrants in Singapore

Jon Fasman in More Intelligent Life:

Singapore%20mk2_0By law, domestic workers in Singapore are entitled to one day off per week. Many spend it at church, or with friends. On Sundays East Coast Park, a long, narrow stretch of greenery by the Singapore Strait, is crowded with women laughing and picnicking together. But some forego the outdoors, and take a cramped, rickety lift in an unremarkable office building in an unfashionable corner of the city to spend their afternoon in a fluorescent-lit classroom. Since last September, a group called Voice of Singapore’s Invisible Hands has been offering creative-writing classes for Singapore’s migrant workers (the country’s “invisible hands”). Another group, Singlit Station, organises poetry workshops. And for the past three years, Shivaji Das, a high-flying consultant with Frost & Sullivan who also writes art and travel books (his latest, “Angels by the Murky River,” came out in March), has staged poetry contests for Singapore’s millions of migrant workers. Das’s idea began in late 2013, when around 400 migrant workers rioted in the Little India neighbourhood, after a private bus killed an Indian construction worker. Tensions between native Singaporeans and migrants ran high. Das thought that seeing workers reading their own poetry would give the public “a better impression…and would help with integration.” In the contest’s first year, 2014, 28 poets entered, all of them Bangladeshi – Bengali, their language, has a rich literary tradition. Since then, 140 more have taken part, including Filipinos, Indonesians and Chinese, writing in both English and their native tongues. Das estimates that around 60% of the entrants are women, mainly domestic workers; the men tend to work in construction or the marine industry. The contest has also expanded to Malaysia, home to many migrant workers and refugees, and another may soon take place in the United Arab Emirates, where migrants comprise 88% of the population (in Singapore their share is 45%).

…Espanola was among the half-dozen students taking up the front row of the language-school classroom one afternoon recently. The subject was plot. The teacher, a Malaysian-Chinese short-story writer named Kathryn Chua, had assigned them to watch a video of Kurt Vonnegut discussing a plot graph, in which the X axis was the story’s progress (beginning, middle, end) and the Y had “Good fortune” at the top and “Ill fortune” at the bottom. A satisfying story, said Vonnegut, would resemble a sort of inverse parabola: at the story’s outset the protagonist finds himself with middlingly good fortune; then as the story continues obstacles bedevil him and he falls into the pit of ill fortune; and at the end, when he overcomes his struggles, he climbs the Y axis precipitously, ending up better than his starting position. The Filipina and Indonesian women in this class – who are writing in English, their third or fourth language – grasped Vonnegut’s formula immediately, perhaps because they struggle with where to place themselves on his parabola: far from home and family, but earning enough to give the relatives they left behind a better life than they themselves have known.

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