Artist Conversations: Zakir Hossain on Migrant Poetry

"In art, people are not defined as 'migrant' or 'local; they're defined as 'artists'." - Zakir Hossain

Welcome back to another episode in our 'Artist Conversations' series.

As a fine art gallery and fashion label that seeks to make art more accessible to everyone, we at Aestheletic are celebrating International Migrants' Day by speaking to Zakir Hossain, who's played an enormous role in bringing poetry to the migrant dormitories of Singapore! 

Poetry as Healing

Starting out as a journalist in Bangladesh, Zakir moved to Singapore to work in the construction industry. When he first arrived, he struggled with poor mental health, and decided to turn to poetry for comfort.

Together with fellow Bangladeshi colleagues, he began a poetry interest group called Amrakajona (Bengali for 'we are'), where members met up weekly to exchange ideas and discuss literature.

This was the beginning of what is now a thriving migrant literary scene in Singapore, with a Migrant Literature Festival being held each year, as well as a monthly Carnival of Poetry, where anyone from domestic helpers to construction workers can come together to share their common love for poetry. 

Poetry as Community

Another initiative Zakir has pioneered is the 'One Bag One Book' project, which seeks to fill each worker's bag with a book. What began as a small project where old books were collected and distributed has now received an outpouring of donations, as the whole community has come together in support of their migrant brothers.

Poetry as a Common Humanity

"Poetry is a wonderful platform where people can come together without identity of 'local' or 'migrant' - you are just a poet." - Zakir Hossain

Launched in 2018, "Call and Response" is a collaborative anthology of poems by migrant and local writers, and co-edited by Rolinda Onates Espanola, Joshua Ip and Zakir Hossain. This was such a poignant work -- especially in a time like this -- that it received its second release earlier this year. Its title, Hossain explains, is a reference to how 'migrant' writers call out to 'local' writers through their poetry, and local writers respond with their own. 

To think that this whole endeavor had begun because of a misunderstanding: Zakir had once encountered a Singaporean journalist who'd asked, in surprise, how he could write so well despite being in the construction line. There seemed to be an assumption that migrant workers weren't educated enough to appreciate literature. This misunderstanding was mutual, as Zakir had likewise assumed that Singaporeans were uninterested in poetry, since he could find no poetry in the circulation in the country's daily papers.  

This was what inspired his vision for more bridges to be built and more conversations to be exchanged -- all through the powerful medium of poetry. 

"We don't expect sympathy. We expect empathy." - Zakir Hossain

Whereas sympathy elevates the sympathizer to higher ground, empathy washes over all uneven terrain. On empathy's levelled plains, we are all equals. Here, we are all poets -- we may speak freely with open minds and open hearts. 



This interview is brought to you by Aestheletic: we are a fine art gallery that believes in making art available for all by transforming our paintings into street wear and urban fashion. 

Check out our Art for Good series for more similar interviews, or our Inclusive Fashion Project, which supports differently abled artists.

All photos in this article are used with Zakir's permission. Do check out Migrant Writers of Singapore, and come along this Sunday to the next Carnival of Poetry!