The coronavirus pandemic has been particularly unprecedented for young people - in many parts of the world schools have moved to a virtual setting with limited opportunities for socialising or collaborative learning. This has resulted in students having to balance their school and home lives in the same space, accompanied by various other stresses of the pandemic.
In the face of this predicament, however, young members of the Jamat have harnessed challenges and turned them into opportunities, as is the case for Inarah Saif. At the modest age of 14, Inarah was selected to participate in a seven-month Junior Writers Programme, headed by the Malasian journalist, writer, and editor Brigitte Rozario. As part of the programme, a group of handpicked youth were guided through the basics of writing short fiction stories, and taught to hone their talents and mastery of the written word.
The outcome is a pandemic-themed anthology of fiction, in which 20 young Malaysian participants were given the opportunity to contribute their story, resulting in a journey filled with descriptions, dialogue, suspense and drama, weaving through familiar roads and unexpected detours in their capital city of Kuala Lumpur.
Theanthology is published by MPH Group Publishing, and royalties from the book will be donated to SOLS Health, a community-based mental health centre that connects children, adults, families and communities to accessible and affordable mental health services, with an emphasis on combating the stigma of mental health in Malaysia.
When asked about the competitive selection process and why she chose to apply, Inarah said, “I definitely wanted the experience and it’s a very useful skill to have. My mother also helped by encouraging me and helping me understand my potential. We were selected based on short stories that we wrote. I believe I was selected because Ms Brigitte saw potential in my story and knew I could improve and become a good writer with her help.”
Publishing the book provided an outlet for the young participants to express creativity and share their thoughts and experiences about the pandemic. It also allows for youth to realise their collective consciousness in representing the sentiments and issues of the communities in Malaysia who have been impacted. Reflecting on this, Inarah said, “I think storytelling makes it real. There are so many people that are not educated about problems that we all face. Being able to read them in books makes it easier for them to learn about it.”
What started in January as an in-person programme evolved into an online one three months later. But the students’ resilience and versatility shone as they successfully pivoted to the new way of learning and working together. In addition, writing stories about real experiences and situations that were unfolding in real-time for people close to them, such as grandparents and frontline workers, or those having self-isolate, proved to be unique.
The importance and impact of documenting these stories was not lost on Inarah, who said, “I think it’s important that people learn about what others face during the pandemic. For example, there are people who are more likely to face abuse at home since they don’t have an escape anymore. I believe that if more people know about it, the victims would be more confident to voice out, knowing that there are people that believe in them and are willing to help them.” In this way, the students harnessed the power of storytelling to address major social issues and to raise awareness of their heightened prominence at this time of a global pandemic.
“The current global situation is unprecedented and has uniquely changed almost every aspect of our daily lives. Yet, we have many inspirational stories such as Inarah who have not only risen above the challenge but made their presence felt by contributing to positive causes such as this anthology,” said Shaakir Siraj, member of the Youth & Sports Portfolio for the Far East.
Looking ahead, Inarah has lofty aspirations as a result of completing the programme. “My goal is to be able to use my skill in writing to teach others and also maybe one day write a book of my own.”