SINGAPORE – Malaysian writer Hanna Alkaf’s debut work of fiction may be a young adult novel, but light-hearted it is not.
The Weight Of Our Sky depicts the May 13, 1969 race riots of Kuala Lumpur through the eyes of a teenage girl with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It does not flinch from topics such as racism, mental illness or even the killing of children.
“It is dark, but also relevant,” says the 33-year-old over the telephone from Kuala Lumpur, where she lives with her husband and two children aged three and five.
“I don’t think this kind of darkness is something young people have the luxury of avoiding.”
For a long time, she had contemplated writing about the riots, which erupted in the aftermath of the 1969 Malaysian general election. The official death toll was 196, although other sources have put the number as higher.
“It’s not really talked about in Malaysia,” says Hanna. “What we learn about it in history textbooks ends up being very sterile. I wanted to write about what it meant to live through something like that, what the human cost of it was.”
In The Weight Of Our Sky, 16-year-old Melati Ahmad follows her friend Safiyah to watch a movie starring screen idol Paul Newman. Little do they know that the cinema will soon become an execution site.
Melati’s search for her mother through the chaotic city is hampered by her OCD, which manifests to her as a djinn – a spirit in Muslim belief – forcing her to count or tap in certain patterns. She believes that if she does not obey the djinn, her mother will die.
“It’s not an uncommon thing in the Malay community to talk about mental illness as invisible beings disturbing you,” says Hanna. “I wouldn’t say it’s wrong or right, but it does sometimes get in the way of people getting the treatment they need.”
It was not until she turned 30 that it occurred to her to return to fiction, which she had given up on after publishing a short story when she was 18.
A former journalist and senior writer at Marie Claire magazine, she researched the book as if she were writing it as a news feature: talking to riot survivors, reading materials and watching movies from the 1960s and checking details such as where people would buy music records or what kind of psychiatric treatment was available.
“These are events that really happened and places that still exist and I didn’t want to tarnish any memories,” she says. “Most of the incidents in the book have some basis in fact.”
Though the riot happened 50 years ago, she still sees parallels today.
“I was editing this book in 2017 when Charlottesville happened,” says Hanna, referring to the supremacist rally in the United States that resulted in the killing of a counter-protester.
“It just struck me how sad it was that you could take whole sentences from the book and apply it to America in 2017.”
Given the local nature of her story, she was not expecting it to be picked up by international publishing house Simon and Schuster’s imprint Salaam Reads.
“I’m always very upfront that I set out to write very Malaysian stories,” she says. “I don’t want to write stories that pander to a Western gaze.
“I love Malaysia. There are many ways you can be disappointed by a thing you love, but that doesn’t stop you from loving it and wanting the best for it. My love for my country doesn’t blind me from its issues and wanting to fight for it.”
•The Weight Of Our Sky ($28.95) is available at Books Kinokuniya.
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