Talking Books

Atikah Amalina, an English and literature teacher, shares her perspective as a Muslim woman with a passion for solo travel during a Human Library session.

Human Library Singapore helps break down social barriers by providing a space for people to connect through the sharing of stories.

BY ANITA YEE
PHOTOS HUMAN LIBRARY SINGAPORE
 

S

tories elicit emotions. They help connect the storyteller to the audience and the audience to the idea that the storyteller is trying to convey. In Singapore, there is a special library that allows readers to ”read” and get to know human beings, the way they would a book.

Human Library Singapore creates a platform for challenging stereotypes and prejudices, and breaks down barriers between people through dialogue. It is an interactive event in which participants have the opportunity to ask human “books” representing different walks of life any questions within an allocated “reading” period.

The Human Library social movement started in Denmark in 2000 and now spans more than 70 countries across the globe. It aims to provide a safe space to encourage open and honest conversations about social issues.

The Singapore edition was initiated by four Singaporeans. They are sisters Kelly Ann Zainal, 27, a mental health researcher, and Karen Zainal, 26, a special education teacher, and their friends Melissa Ng Lisha, 27, a marketing communications executive, and Ajith Isaac Amrithraj, 29, a PhD candidate at the National University of Singapore. They were inspired after attending a Human Library event organised by the Singapore Management University in 2015.

The first Human Library Singapore session was held on Oct 30, 2016. The event drew more than 400 “readers”, both Singaporeans and foreigners, who heard stories from 48 human “books”. The “books” comprised individuals from diverse backgrounds, including a foreign construction worker, a transgender woman who is a former sex worker, and a Muslim woman who enjoys travelling solo.

Before each session, every participant is required to register online for up to five “books” he or she would like to “read”. The event also accepts walk-in “readers”. On the day of the Human Library session, each participant will be given a library card with details of their “reading” slots. Each slot lasts around half an hour, and only six people can “loan out” a “book” at any one time, so as not to overwhelm the “books”.

For its second run on March 5 this year, the “reading list” featured 47 individuals, including a Paralympian, a person suffering from bipolar disorder, a deaf woman who advocates for disability issues, a befriender of the homeless, and a migrant worker. They shared their personal stories with participants over 1,500 reading slots during the event.

Human Library Singapore provides a platform for people with different perspectives to exchange personal stories and experiences.

The session also hosted eight community partners who raised awareness about their respective causes. They included voluntary welfare organisation Beyond Social Services, which helps disadvantaged children and youth break away from the poverty cycle; non-profit organisation Singapore Committee for UN Women; and Hearty Creatives, a non-profit start-up that provides digital strategies to non-profit and charity organisations pro bono to raise social awareness.

CREATING CONNECTIONS
Kelly is the project leader of Human Library Singapore. She says: “We do not curate the ‘books’ in terms of any themes, as diversity is key to Human Library events. However, we do individually interview each ‘book’ to explore whether they’d be comfortable sharing their stories in public, and whether we can assist them in any way to ensure their safety during the event, such as by providing private rooms or trained facilitators.”

She adds that they usually reach out to personal contacts as well as non-governmental organisations to put together a “library’’. As word gets around, people would usually come forward to volunteer as “books”. “We have been pleasantly surprised and encouraged that so many people are so willing to share their stories and open up to the ‘readers’,” says Kelly.

Singaporean Paralympic swimmer and Rio 2016 Paralympic Games bronze medallist Theresa Goh, 30, was one of the human “books” who shared her story at the March session. She says: “I believe everyone has a story to tell, and I just wanted the opportunity to represent my story and to give people the chance to ask me anything they wanted in a safe space. I think a lot of the hate in this world is due to a lack of knowledge, and it’s important for people to be able to safely find out more and be less afraid of something they may know nothing about.”

Singapore-based Indonesian student Lydia Alexkartadjaja, 22, was impressed with the story of Abraham Yeo, who co-founded local community group The Homeless Hearts of Singapore to befriend the homeless in the country, at the March session. She was struck by Yeo’s courage in approaching the homeless and having a conversation with them.

She says that while she is not confident she can do the same, she has learnt to be more mindful of people around her, and to try and make genuine conversation instead of playing on her mobile phone. She says: “I learnt that the greatest poverty of mankind is the poverty of love and of connection.”

Bikas Nath, 26, who is from Bangladesh, volunteered as a “book”. Besides his day job as a supervisor at a shipyard in Singapore, Nath also writes songs, short stories and poetry in his free time, and has won first prize at an annual poetry competition for migrant workers in Singapore in 2016. He says that being able to share his stories and poetry with about 40 people through one of the Human Library Singapore sessions has made him more confident and helped him form friendships with strangers.

One of the “readers” he met is Ana Baldemeca from the Philippines who is currently working as an IT professional in Singapore. They bonded over their shared experience as foreigners working in the country.

Baldemeca says: “Human Library has given me a different perspective on life because it has opened my eyes and mind to how different people are. This experience has encouraged me to be more understanding and to never judge people based on what little I know of them.”

“Human Library has given me a different perspective on life because it has opened my eyes and my mind to how different people are. This experience has encouraged me to be more understanding and to never judge people based on what little I know of them.”


Ana Baldemeca, IT professional from the Philippines

Human Library Singapore has plans to hold three Human Library sessions this year. The next two will be in August at Taman Jurong Community Club, and at the end of the year.

Abraham Yeo befriends the homeless through The Homeless Hearts of Singapore, a community group that he co-founded; up to six people can engage with a human “book” at any one time.

Says Kelly: “One of our team’s long-term goals is to adapt the Human Library concept to different parts of the community. We hope to develop a framework that can be easily adopted by other community groups around Singapore.”

Apart from these public sessions, the group also organises smaller-scale events for smaller groups of audiences when opportunities arise. In March, it held Human Library sessions at educational institution Raffles Girls’ School and nonprofit organisation TEDxNUS.


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