Jakarta. Eleventh-grader Madina Malahayati Chumaera recently celebrated her 17th birthday with the launch of her very first book, titled "Contact Light: The Void Inside and Out," a poetry book conveying unusual themes: humankind, cognitive science and outer space.
Written in English, "Contact Light" was originally self-published as a school project. At her school, Global Jaya International School, every student must embark upon on a personal project when they reach grade 10.
It was poet Aan Mansyur, famous for writing "There is No New York Today," who introduced Madina to Siska Yuanita, an editor at publishing company Gramedia Pustaka Utama. Aan and Madina met at last year’s Ubud Writers and Readers Festival when he was a panelist, while she was a participant.
Aan started following Madina on Twitter after she tweeted about Teju Cole, a Nigerian-American writer whom they both love. Once Madina tweeted about the link to her self-published book, Aan checked it out and liked what he read. Then he told Siska that it might be up her alley, and it turns out that it was.
The poems in the book are inspired by Madina’s love for cognitive science — a multidisciplinary branch of science dealing with linguistics, neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, artificial intelligence and anthropology — which Madina learned mostly by herself through the online course platform edX and science-focused YouTube channel VSauce, among others.
Astrophysics and the human wonder for outer space are also major parts of the content. In fact, the term "contact light" was first spoken by Buzz Aldrin to Neil Armstrong when they landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, signifying the spacecraft’s contact with the moon’s surface.
Why Madina chose the phrase as the title is open to reader interpretation.
The book is divided into three parts: inside, outside and the void. The first mostly revolves around the concept of the self, while the second is about outer space, and the last connects the previous two.
Just because Madina has a profound love for science, that does not stop her poems from being upbeat. In fact, most of the poems seem to have a gloomy atmosphere. The first, "Fuel for the Fire," portrays a girl’s attempt at having conversation with a deity that turns painful.
"Routine Check-Up" uses a medical check-up process as an analogy for self-reflection. What can be interpreted from it is that the obstacles a person faces each day can be overwhelming, yet life goes on and the search for self never ends.
One of the last poems, "throughways," is a prose poem that reads like a dystopian science fiction story about a boy living in an apocalypse-ridden planet.
Madina admitted that her experience affected the mood of her writing, particularly at the end of 2016, when her personal circumstances were "really bleak."
"I felt helpless during those months, and so even though I did talk to people about it, I felt so much more comfortable and safer confessing everything through poetry, where I could obscure my truth through layers of metaphors and imagery," she told the Jakarta Globe in an interview last Wednesday (18/10).
In addition, she also wanted to convey the feelings of "awe" experienced by humankind about themselves against the grandness of the universe. Humans are always curious about how the world works yet their efforts to discover always faces limits — as depicted in the poem "Let That Sink In," which happens to be the poem Madina feels to have the strongest connection to.
"I am both scared of and amazed at the limits that we humans have and the never-ending nature of, well, everything. I wouldn’t say this book had a negative atmosphere – rather, maybe more of a contemplative atmosphere, especially of the smallness of us and especially me," she added.
Another impression from reading Madina’s book is that instead of making connections between humans and outer space, she has a tendency to make scientific objects or phenomena as allegories for humanly woes.
Madina owned up to it, saying "I can’t believe I fell into that trap of starting a project about space and then always re-routing it back to humans."
Madina’s love for writing isn’t limited to poetry, but she considers poetry as the best form to creatively communicate her research about cognitive science. She could not remember when she started reading and writing poetry, but it has always been a part of her.
Moreover, poetry proved to be a helpful tool in recognizing and expressing her emotions.
"Before, when I was little, I would have trouble expressing to people my thoughts and emotions about a subject, but now that I’m writing poetry it is so much easier. You really develop your empathy and sympathy when you begin and continue to read poetry," Madina said.
She does not have a special routine as a writer, though she tends to be a night owl, which she said drives her mother crazy.
"Usually, I write more comfortably at night time. I’m in love with the solitude, the darkness in your windows, the fact that most of the time I only have my desk lamp on and my whole room is quiet except for my earphones."
The young poet said she is influenced by Tracy K. Smith, Anne Carson, Laksmi Pamuntjak and Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib. The last, an American poet and essayist, left a lasting impression because of the way he uses simple diction to convey deep meanings.
The reason she chose to write in English was because it is the language she uses the most for her creative work. Ever since she was in fourth grade, most of the books in her school library have been in English. It was not until 2015 that she started returning to Indonesian literature.
"I have recently started to read more Indonesian books so that I can write equally well in both languages," she said.
"Contact Light" has received positive responses from famous writers, namely Dee Lestari, Florence Lenaers and Aan himself — not to mention Madina’s family, friends and teachers who were present at the launch.
However, Madina is not rushing to publish anything else soon. She considered her book being launched by Gramedia as a lucky coincidence thanks to the internet, so there is no pressure for a follow-up.
"I feel like I really bared my whole soul while writing 'Contact Light.' It is a culmination of my identity when I was 15-16-17. I’m currently at that age, so if I write another collection too soon it will just sound hollow and repetitive, since I can’t offer anything new. I don’t want that. I don’t want to write just for the sake of publishing," she said.
She still has a few projects in progress, ranging from essays, interactive fiction stories to poems, but she plans to release them for free on the internet.
"I’m doing okay just focusing on them individually instead of having that 'I need to make another collection immediately' mentality."