Monday, 28 September 2020

Taking Down Borders: An interview with poet Zakir Hossain Khokan

Since the launch of the Migrant Worker Poetry Competition in 2014, Singapore’s migrant writing community has grown exponentially, with migrant-led initiatives like ‘One Bag, One Book’ slowly joining the mainstream of a burgeoning poetry scene. Events like the Global Migrant Festival and the Migrant Literary Festival have enlivened the literary calendar, while in 2018, Stranger to Myself – a collection of poetry and prose by Bangladesh-born MD Sharif Uddin – won the top prize at the Singapore Book Awards.

Capturing the spirit of these developments was the release of Call and Response: A Migrant/Local Poetry Anthology in 2018. Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has placed the situation of Singapore’s migrant community under the spotlight, publisher Math Paper Press has commissioned a second release of this landmark anthology, with a portion of the proceeds going to HealthServe, a migrant advocacy NGO.

In this interview, we speak to one of the anthology’s co-editors, Zakir Hossain Khokan, about how the pandemic has affected the community, and his hopes for the book:


Hi Zakir, thanks for speaking to us! Could you share a bit more about your journey to Singapore, and your role in developing the writing scene here?   

I first came to Singapore in 2003, leaving my job as a freelance journalist in Dhaka to work in the construction sector here. I brought with me my love of poetry, freelance journalism, photography and film. Poetry was like oxygen to me. And outside of my work, I was curious to know more about Singapore, especially its literature and poetry. So for the first few months, I searched for a poetry community where it would have existed in my native Bangladesh – in the newspaper. I bought The Straits Times, hoping to find poems inside. But I could not find a single poem in any of the Singapore newspapers, and I thought that Singaporeans did not like poetry.

I was discouraged but I kept writing, because writing helps me process my thoughts and deal with stress from work. In 2004, I started a writing interest group called ‘Amrakajona’ in Bengali, which means – ‘We are’, with like-minded individuals. After a tiring seven-day work week, we would gather together on Sunday afternoons to exchange insights and share our latest creative work with one another. Immersing myself in Bengali poetry alleviated fatigue and homesickness. Sharing this interest with fellow members also made me feel that I was not alone. Gradually, we began to organise other activities like book fairs, poetry workshops and reading classes, which would provide other migrant workers with community and companionship, as well as opportunities to express themselves in a country where others might not always listen.

Ten years passed. In 2014, I won the first Migrant Workers’ Poetry Competition, and became a voice for the migrant community. I was featured in the media, at the Singapore Writers’ Festival, at TEDx Singapore, and on other platforms. But I wanted to do more for the scene. Monir Ahmod and I edited Migrant Tales (2017), an anthology of poems by migrant Bengali poets in Singapore. I started to establish a migrant writers community called ‘Migrant Writers of Singapore’. I also started ‘Carnival of Poetry’, a monthly reading session with the support of Sing Lit Station (a local literary nonprofit), which brings local and migrant poets together. At such gatherings, we take down borders together: there is no “them” or “us”, only wordsmiths.


You also started the ‘One Bag, One Book’ initiative, which has played such an important role in meeting migrant workers’ needs during this pandemic. Could you tell us more about that?

I started ‘One Bag, One Book’ project to encourage other migrant workers to read more. It’s a simple idea: get them to adopt the habit of carrying a book in their bag wherever they go, and they’ll read at least one page from book every day. Over the years, I have bought 2,230 books with my own money, and received donations of books in English, Tamil, Chinese, and Bahasa Indonesia which are distributed to workers, free of charge. Today, ‘One Bag, One Book’ functions as a book exchange library to spread the love of reading to everyone, migrant or local.

When the pandemic hit, ‘One Bag, One Book’ distributed food, mattresses, pillows, masks, sanitizers, Vitamin C tablets, and cleaning equipment to fellow migrants in the dormitories, with the support of donors and volunteers. We already have 512 volunteers in dormitories. The pandemic has made me realize how strong our volunteer team is and how secure communication is among us.


So going back to the anthology – why did you, Joshua (Ip) and Rolinda (Onates Espanola) decide to edit this anthology back in 2018?

At the time, there wasn’t an anthology that featured Singaporean and migrant poets side-by-side. I wanted this anthology to serve as that first bridge between migrants and locals, and my initial idea was to title it ‘The Bonding’.

At the time, I was unsure of how to make this dream a reality, but Joshua from Sing Lit Station offered to help, and fellow poet Rolinda was also happy to be roped in for this project. Rolinda was responsible for collecting poems from female migrant poets, while I reached the male migrant poets, and together we gathered the best pieces from our fellow migrants. NTU student Michelle Sim helped a lot, while poets Dipu and Monir also helped in sorting the poems we received, and Debabrota Basu translated so many of the Bengali poems. While editing and translating, we tried to do the original poems justice and preserve the poets’ voice. 

We also decided to rename the book ‘Call and Response’, based on the idea of the book as a conversation. The pages would be laid out side-by-side, with locals responding to poems by migrants, creating a conversation that runs through the book. Ultimately, we hoped that this project would inspire similar efforts in other countries too, and also that through this journey, ‘migrant’ literature would become a part of ‘local’ literature.

In your view, who is a 'migrant writer' and who is a 'local writer'?

The ‘writer’ is universal. I don’t believe in the terms ‘migrant writer’ or ‘local writer’. Though we may use these labels for easy interaction, I hope we will remove that barrier soon. After all, migration is a fact of life. It is a facet of nature, just like the wind, rain, sun or moonlight. Since the beginning of history, human populations have consistently been on the move. Even so called “locals” have had ancestors who were migrants, and are currently enjoying the sacrifices of the migrant generation.


What has changed for the migrant writing community since 2018 – and with the situation today, why is this book all the more important now?

In November 2018, Call and Response was launched at the Singapore Writers Festival by the Bangladesh High Commissioner in Singapore, who initiated a very interesting discussion on the book. A second launch event was held at the Global Migrant Festival, and since then, the book has been well-received across many literary platforms in Singapore. Both editors and contributors have been invited to share their poetry and experiences, and following from that, we have also seen more migrant writers being published in local and international journals and anthologies.

Today, local publishers have shown more interest in publishing migrant writers’ books, and our books are also welcome in bookstores. We have kept up the momentum with events such as ‘Open Borders’ (a sharing of stories), poetry and photography walks, ‘human libraries’, panel discussions, workshops and even a Migrant Worker Photography Festival. We have also collaborated with others in the migrant community to produce our first short film, stage play, and other performances. 

With the restrictions brought on by COVID-19, we have started holding our events, like ‘Carnival of Poetry’, on Zoom – with both migrants and locals taking part. We also encourage other migrant writers to share their poems, stories, photographs, and reflections on the Facebook page ‘Daily Life in COVID-19’, which is run by the Migrant Writers of Singapore collective. Though it has sold out its first print run, the journey of Call and Response is still ongoing: the anthology has inspired more migrant writers to join the scene, and encouraged local writers to come closer to the migrant community.

This second release, with a new cover, represents a new start. We are grateful to all the readers and poets, and also to Kenny Leck, our publisher (at Math Paper Press), for supporting this book in its journey. We are also working on Call and Response 2 – a new anthology to be published next year, which will tell some of the stories written during this time. I hope the conversation in this anthology continues to grow and inspire many others.




With the authors’ permission, we are pleased to share a pair of poems from Call and Response:


A Miscellaneous Poem on Singapore Island
Hou Wei

An all-year season of cruel summer:
Scorching sun, burning cicada and frogs’ cries

Green Woodlands’ woods
Jurong Lake’s ripples shimmering

Sitting on a Punggol rock is a lone stick, a fishing rod
Drinking in the gardens of Haw Par Villa where all the statues are drunk

Regardless of this island’s scenery
My tears still burst their banks, chasing amber waves of home.


Mid-April in Pittsburgh
Zhang Ruihe

Winter lingers too long here; snow
tinsels air as winds gust and whirl

through skeleton trees. Iced tarmac
cracks wide open; wounded highways

bleeding slush, awaiting spring.
No year-long summer – that slipping

into easy sunlight, that habit of home.
Yet this too, is mine: a way of being

held in place, like sparrows hopping,
heedless, on gum-plastered sidewalks.




Call and Response can be purchased at

Zakir Hossain Khokan first moved to Singapore to work in 2003, and is now a quality-control project coordinator in the construction industry. Zakir is also a writer, editor, freelance journalist, photographer, organizer, film producer, social entrepreneur and speaker at TEDx Singapore and various social platforms. Zakir has published in Bengali two poetry collections, a non-fiction book and a song album. In both 2014 and 2015, he won first prize at Singapore's Migrant Workers Poetry Competition. Since then, he tries to use the little fame that he has to give back to the community, whether by advocating for worker rights or by starting initiatives within the migrant community.

Hou Wei was born in Nanchung, Jiangxi, in China. He holds a diploma from Jiangxi Technological Institute of Education. He came to Singapore in 2011 and currently works at a logistics company. He writes in his leisure time and favours Chinese classical poems, especially the 8-line poems. His favourite writers include Li Bai, Du Fu, and Bai Juyi.

Zhang Ruihe served as Essays editor for QLRS from 2005 to 2009, and received the Golden Point Award for English poetry in 2013. She is co-editor of In Transit: An Anthology from Singapore on Airports and Air Travel (2016), and is currently working towards an MFA in Writing (Nonfiction) at the University of Pittsburgh, with support from the National Arts Council.