Hanna Alkaf’s new book The Weight of Our Sky tells the tale of Melati Ahmad, your typical Malaysian teen who suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder. The story is set in the tumultuous wake of May 13, 1969, Kuala Lumpur, when racial tensions led to a bloody riot. Determined to find her mother, Melati battles with herself to find courage and inner-strength. We speak to Hanna about her inspiration and journey behind the poignant young adult book.
What was your impression of May 13 before you began research for your book?
I think the problem was I couldn’t really form an impression of May 13 because nobody was really talking about it. I was one of those kids who was always more interested in what was being obscured and what was missing rather than what was presented to you. So when we learnt about May 13 in school, it was basically a couple of paragraphs. It was very factual — here’s how it happened, here’s the death toll, the consequences, and then here's a couple pages on what happened after that and the policies that were a result of that.
And so it always struck me that there was clearly so much that we’re not being told. All you had to go by was the fact that May 13 was something bad because every so often some politician will hold it as a spectre above our heads and be like, “You’d better behave yourselves or else, there’s going to be another May 13”. You know the incident was bad because you had learnt so little about it that you could not form an impression of it. So that was why May 13 has always been a sort of point of fascination for me.
What made you decide to set your story during this tumultuous time?
First of all, I think.the only way to really remember history is through a narrative, through stories. I think people in general are wired for stories. No facts stick in your head quietly in the same way as they do when they are presented to you through the medium of narrative. May 13, and a lot of our history, were conspicuously missing from our narratives. We don’t have that much literature or art that centred around it. How are we going to keep those memories alive if nobody’s talking about it?
Many of those who lived through May 13 are still alive but that’s not going to be the case for long. When these voices fade out, who will carry these memories? I just wanted to make sure the horror and intensity [of the incident] will not be forgotten. That’s why I wanted to write a story about it.
It must’ve been hard to capture the horror, especially when it’s something you didn’t live through.
I did a lot research. I have a journalism background, so I approached it the way I would have an investigative piece. But as for the intensity, and how to make that come to life, the story is based on the world we currently live in. You want historical fiction to be something you read to learn about your past, maybe just to escape a little bit into a different time, and say, you know, “I can’t believe it was so bad back then”.
You’d think we’d have evolved from this but we haven’t. So to be honest, bringing to life that kind of intensity and that kind of horror wasn’t difficult because it [racial discrimination] wasn’t as far removed from us as you might think. When I was in the middle of editing the book in 2017, the white supremacy Charlottesville riots happened in America. You could take whole passages from a book about 1969 Kuala Lumpur and apply them perfectly to Charlottesville in 2017. The sad truth is this is still relevant, which is terrible and frightening.
The May 13 incident is still considered a taboo. Why do you think it’s significant for us to talk about it now?
It’s significant because this year is the 50th anniversary of May 13. It’s significant because that shows we’ve moved on. Also, I don’t think any topic, especially race, should be a taboo because that’s how you breed derisiveness. Even it might be difficult or contentious, at least we’re talking about it. If you sweep it under the rug or only talk about it within your community or family, nothing is being done to bring down walls or build any bridges.
But, I believe that we should talk about the May 13 incident with a great deal of respect and humility to maintain the dignity of the people who lived through it. My approach to the book had to be very respectful. I had to capture as much of the nuances as possible because a race conversation might seem like it’s about black and white but it’s not.
The book’s protagonist Melati has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and she thinks she’s possessed by a malevolent djinn. How does a character like that enrich your storyline?
I think our understanding of OCD, particularly in Malaysia, has always been a bit skewed. People focus on the compulsive part, the behaviours and the quirks like washing hands or switching the lights on and off but don’t necessarily understand the obsessive thinking that drives the compulsions. I’ve read reviews about the book and heard people say that “reading that part of the book could get really tedious and painful”. That’s exactly what OCD is.
In this day and age, mental illness is so much more common than we realise. I just want young Malaysians to be able to pick up a book and see themselves in a character who has mental illness that could also be the hero of the story. Religion and mental illness are all part of Melati but not one of those things define her.
If you sweep it under the rug or only talk about it within your community or family, nothing is being done to bring down walls or build any bridges.
Is that why you decided to go into young adult (YA) fiction?
I love YA. It always irks me slightly when people look down on YA because I feel a lot of the most formative things you read, are read when you’re at that age. A lot of those books stayed with you. I think YA as a category has stayed at the forefront of trends and pushed the boundaries in terms of diversity. It is far more representative of its demographic than any other genres. It has tried to be more inclusive, open, and explore themes in innovative ways which other genres have not quite caught up.
There’s this theory by Rudine Bishop about fiction written for children and young adults: “Children’s literature has to be both windows and mirrors.” That means the majority needs windows into new cultures and new experiences and new people, but it also means that the minority needs mirrors. They need to see themselves reflected in the literature they read.
I think we get a lot of “windows” in Malaysia but not enough “mirrors”. It’s important for young readers to see themselves or their neighbours and friends on a global stage. And that means not running down locally published books — there are a lot of local authors doing amazing things.
That being said, what do you think of the local publishing scene? How can Malaysian authors further their craft?
There’s a lot to be hopeful for in local publishing. We have a lot of local talent and a lot of people who create spaces for local talents to shine. Part of the problem is there isn’t a big reading culture among Malaysians, and we don’t get enough support from the officials in terms of infrastructure. The arts in general, not just writing, doesn’t seem highly appreciated here.
I’m going to shoutout to Maple Comics, which published Zedeck Siew’s Creatures of Near Kingdoms illustrated by Sharon Chin. That’s an amazing book, not because it’s a “local book” but it’s one of the best things I’ve read in the past year or so. I really hope the public can give local authors and publications a chance because you might just miss out on so many amazing, little gems out there.
Who do you look to for inspiration? Whose books are you influenced by?
I’m a big Neil Gaiman fan and I’ll read anything the man writes in whatever medium. What I love about him is that he knows how to be adaptable. He can take his gift for storytelling and channel it into so many different mediums. I also grew up reading Terry Pratchett and his Discworld series. His death really affected me and I still couldn’t bring myself to read the last Discworld novel because I don’t want to believe it’s his last novel. It’s on my shelf — I just don’t want to finish it.
In the last couple of years, I had the opportunity of immersing myself in the YA sphere because I made friends and got to know the people in the community. There are some amazing books being produced right now and it’s such an exciting time to be part of it. The best one I’ve read recently is Sadie by Courtney Summers. That book is dark and gritty, and it worms its way under your skin, settles there and you’ll find yourself thinking about it for days.
On the other hand, authors are using podcasts as a vehicle to tell stories. There’s so much cool stuff being done in YA and it’s easy to be inspired by that when you see your peers doing so many interesting things.
Hanna Alkaf’s book ‘The Weight of Our Sky’ is available at Kinokuniya KLCC.