Friday 27 April 2018

Q & A: Karien van Ditzhuijzen

Karien van Ditzhuijzen is the editor of Our Homes, Our Stories, a newly published anthology of work from migrant workers in Singapore. Raelee Chapman investigates, and puts questions to Karien.

Migrant domestic workers are omnipresent in Singaporean society. They care for our children, clean our homes, wash our cars and walk our dogs, but their inner lives remain mostly invisible. They are a sector of society most vulnerable to exploitation and too little is known about the challenges they face such as homesickness, wage deductions, illegal employment, abuse, health issues and psychological problems.

Our Homes, Our Stories: Voices of Domestic Workers in Singapore is published by the Singaporean charity HOME, which advocates for migrant workers. The anthology has provided a platform for migrant workers to become narrators of their own stories. Each of the twenty-eight real-life stories is written by a domestic worker who has resided at HOME women’s shelter or is an active volunteer on their off-day in the HOME community.

The authors come from Indonesia, Philippines, India and Myanmar. They offer insights into: their daily routines; dreams and innermost thoughts; how they spend their off-day; how they form bonds with their employers, meet boyfriends and make friends. These stories explain how domestic workers attempt to balance the sacrifice of leaving their family behind with the advantages of working far from home.

Over 14 months, Singapore-based freelance writer, blogger and novelist, Karien van Ditzhuijzen helmed and edited this project. Karien has been a long-term advocate for greater awareness of the issues domestic workers face in the hope that it will lead to more empathy for them within society. Since 2013 she has worked with HOME, and she founded and coordinates the HOME MyVoice blog which was the impetus for the idea of a book.

Now for the Q & A...

Our Homes, Our Stories Voices of Migrant Domestic Workers in Singapore contains twenty-eight pieces written by women from four different countries in their non-native tongue. What were the unique challenges you faced as editor in regards to finding willing contributors and volunteer mentors to help coach the authors?
Finding contributors was actually very easy. I had been running creative writing workshops at HOME shelter and HOME Academy for years, so I knew the women there would be interested. For the MyVoice blog we have a regular group of contributors, and on top of them, I asked some of HOME’s long-term domestic worker volunteers, as I knew they had a strong story to tell.

There were writer volunteers who had been helping with writing classes at the shelter already, and I pulled in some more from my own network. Almost all the women we approached to share their story were instantly excited to join. 

Have you come across similar projects and publications in Singapore that promotes the voices of migrant workers? Did you ever consider approaching local publishing houses to collaborate with you rather than printing the anthology under the HOME brand?
The only book I found that remotely resembled ours was from the early 1980s! There has been some great work done recently with migrant worker writers in Singapore, but most of it is poetry, and I think that to get our message across, to showcase migrant workers lives and issues in detail, you need more words.

I did consider going to a local publisher, but the problem is when you do, you give away ownership. The process is slow, and they take a big cut of the profits. All the work for the book, down to proofreading and design, was done by volunteers. The printing costs were covered by donors too, so I am happy to say that 100% of the proceeds of this book go to HOME. As HOME has such a good network, we can market the book ourselves, and I'm pleased to say it's selling well.

Aside from the fundraising element, what are the advantages of a physical book over posting stories on the HOME MyVoice blog? What target audience are you trying to reach with the book and how has it been received by mainstream media?
In a book, you can put longer stories that are more in-depth. Also, by selecting the stories carefully, different aspects of migrant domestic worker’s lives can be shown. A complete picture — the good as well as the bad. And, seeing the pride in our writers’ eyes when they were handed their first copy at the launch showed clearly: a paper book has a certain magic!

The audience I had in mind is employers of domestic workers in Singapore; to enhance the understanding between the two parties. Interestingly, if you ask our writers, they always first say they wrote it for their fellow domestic workers, to inspire them and encourage them to be strong.

The mainstream media have been great, we have had good coverage in The Straits Times for instance. We are currently talking with the organisers of the Singapore Writers Festival and are organising an event and writing competition together with the National Museum of Singapore. The National Library Board bought 50 copies to stock public libraries, and all of these make me feel that our book is being taken seriously. We keep trying to find more outlets because the one downside to self-publishing is that you have to do your own publicity too.

A number of the authors left Singapore prior to the book’s publication. Are you in touch with them? Do they know about the book? What has the reaction been from the authors who are still living in Singapore?
Yes, we are still in touch with most of the writers, and I have sent copies to the ones that have now left the country. Our group of HOME volunteers I always jokingly call our ‘promo-team’, they are the strongest advocates of the book, selling to friends and employers alike. We made a film with them, and they do readings and events, and an amazing job promoting our cause.

How did you decide on who made the final cut to create a balanced collection that included positive cases and uplifting stories alongside the more tragic ones? Also, do the unpublished pieces you collected have a home on the MyVoice blog?
As we worked with women from the shelter as well as HOME volunteers we had two different kinds of writers. HOME shelter residents are often relatively new to Singapore, some barely spoke English, and all had had a bad experience. The HOME volunteers are empowered women with strong networks in Singapore, they have lovely employers that support them, so they could focus on other types of issues. The only stories we could not publish (yet) were ones that were dealing with open police cases, we hope to share those online soon. Some stories we could not publish because the writer left the shelter before it was finished.

Aside from a greater awareness about domestic helper issues in society do you hope the book will encourage more migrant workers to pick up their pens and write? Did the contributing authors enjoy writing in English and find it helpful?
Yes, I hope that it does encourage them, and we always take in copy at the MyVoice blog. I think our authors enjoyed writing in English, although some were a bit daunted at first. For me, it was important to be able to communicate with them about their work because to edit this type of intimate story well I need to get to know the writer. This is where the volunteer mentors came in. We linked every writer one-on-one with an experienced mentor. They would help with the narrative as well as grammar. For some, we had to use mentors that spoke their own language, as we could not find enough women from India and Myanmar that had sufficient English. I think the synergy between mentors and writers is what created our amazing stories. They all read and approved the edited version of their work, and you could see it really empowered them. For most, it was the first time writing such a thing, and several continued writing after.

Which author’s story surprised or inspired you the most?
That is like picking between your own children! They are all so different, I guess the ones that touch me most are the ones where I have seen what is behind them. For instance, Hnin Si. In the two years she stayed at HOME shelter I saw her change from a shy and battered girl into a competent woman. She spoke no English when she arrived, but before she left, we wrote her story together. Emi too keeps surprising me, first she argued she did not know how to write English well enough, but when I left her some paper anyway, the words just kept pouring out. We ended up making her contribution into two stories. I asked Emi to read at our launch, and she was so nervous, but she did really well, and she made me proud.

Details: Our Homes, Our Stories Voices of Domestic Workers in Singapore is available at the following bookshops: Books Actually, First Draft, Kinokuniya, Tango Mango & Cat Socrates. The eBook is available on Amazon, Kobo & E-Sentral. If you would like the book delivered, please donate here  and notify