“Friend, friend, friend!”
Xiaolong scurries to you, a bounce in her step and a big smile on her face. “I have some wonderful plans for your visit today!”
You crouch down so you can see her better, and ask her about her plans.
“Okay, first!” She raises her staff, magicks a book from midair, and gestures to the book. “This book! It only just released, friend! And it’s such a good book. I couldn’t put it down! I just wanted to keep reading and reading and reading, and then, when I finished it, Gen told me that it was time for dinner.” She shakes her head. “I also learned a lot, friend. I had no idea about the historical events that this book talks about, and I… I learned a lot. And I think it’s really important that I tell you about this book.”
Once you find a comfier spot by the Pond, you settle down and ask Xiaolong about this important book.
“So,” she says, holding the cover out for you to see. “This book is called The Weight of Our Sky…“
Foreword and gratitude
Note: my review will touch on death of a loved one and violence.
When I found out that a Malaysian author was going to write about the race riots that took place in Malaysia in 1969, I felt a cascade of feelings. Joy and excitement, because I was I would finally be able to read a young adult book with Malaysian representation, set in Malaysia, written by a Malaysian author. After, I felt anxious. Anxious, because for as long as I can remember, I have always had a tenuous relationship with my Malaysian identity. Perhaps above all, I felt… relieved? Relieved, if that’s the emotion that I felt, that I would get to read a book about the 1969 riots “May 13th”, a riot that my parents survived but had understandably never been too enthusiastic to talk about.
Before you read my review, I believe it is important to mention that although I identify as Malaysian-Chinese, I was born in New Zealand and have lived in New Zealand all my life. Thus, although this review may be regarded as an #ownvoices review to some degree, my perspective of May 13th would be significantly different to those who live in Malaysia. The anecdotes that have been passed onto me were shared by Malaysians who immigrated away from Malaysia at a relatively young age. Thus, it’s important to highlight how Malaysians living in Malaysia and Malaysians living outside of Malaysia might perceive the tragedy, in the past and what it means today, differently. My perspective is heavily influenced by anecdotes of Malaysians who survived May 13th, but have lived outside of Malaysia for more than half their lives.
Nonetheless, I remember every conversation I’ve had with my parents and my friends’ parents about May 13th. My parents are younger than how old Melati would be today, so their memories of May 13th are not only fragmented – as much as a child’s memory would be – but also strung together, made up of corroborating pieces, with their siblings’ personal anecdotes. At first, I was going to share anecdotes that my family and friends had shared with me in the past, but — they are not my stories to tell. All I can say is that the stories are pieces of the chaos that unfurled in Kuala Lumpur and are utterly horrific and not far at all from what Melati witnesses in The Weight of Our Sky.
So I am privileged to share with you all my review of The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf and an author interview I have conducted as part of its blog tour. (And thank you to Vicky from Vicky Who Reads for organising this splendid blog tour and for celebrating South-East Asian voices.)
This book meant a lot to me personally. It was an honour to read this book as an advanced reader and to learn about a story that transformed the lives of so many, particularly some of the people I hold very dear to me.
I received a review copy from the publisher as part of the blog tour. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Melati Ahmad has imagined her mother’s death countless times. Plagued by gruesome thoughts she believes are put into her head by a djinn, Melati has developed an intricate set of tapping rituals to tame the monster within and keep her mother safe.
But there are things that Melati can’t protect her mother from. On the evening of May 13th, 1969, racial tensions in her home city of Kuala Lumpur boil over. The Chinese and Malays are at war, and Mel and her mother become separated by a city in flames.
With a 24-hour curfew in place and all lines of communication down, it will take the help of a Chinese boy named Vincent and all of the courage and grit in Melati’s arsenal to overcome the violence on the streets, her own prejudices, and her djinn’s surging power to make it back to the one person she can’t risk losing.
The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf follows sixteen-year old Malay teen, Melati. She loves the Beatles, she loves her mother and her best friend Saf, she has OCD, and is plagued by a djinn who threatens her with graphic and violent images of her mother’s death unless she counts and counts and counts. When tensions spill over between Malay and Chinese people and escalates to racial riots, the story follows Melati as she searches for her mother amidst the violence and danger of a city torn asunder.
A piece of history, set in 1960’s Malaysia
Reading this book took me back to my visits to Malaysia. I don’t visit often, but one of my favourite memories of my last visit in 2017 was visiting Petaling Street. Funnily enough, The Weight of Our Sky opens with Melati exploring Petaling Street, a bustling Chinatown filled with tourists and locals, souvenir shops selling everything you could possibly think of, and food stalls with long lines of people that serve local delicacies such as asam laksa and soy bean milk (the latter of which provided me sweet relief from the dense heat and humidity).
You can therefore imagine the dissonance that I felt, for the beginning of the book to, at first, evoke such wonderful memories, only to read and witness how chaos begins and descends shortly after. The story begins with Melati watching a movie at the cinema with her best friend, only to be suddenly separated from her and she is left with no choice but to leave her behind, the otherwise busy streets are suddenly deserted, and, in the distance, she can hear rioters yelling for blood and violence.
And suddenly here I was, in Malaysia, 1969, when the racial riots began.
The imagery in this book was haunting and brilliantly-written. Hanna’s vivid and emotional writing transported me to this incredibly dark and terrifying day in Malaysia’s history. But it is also through Hanna’s writing that we understand, and see through Melati’s eyes, the horror of what transpired, and the eerie, messy, and complicated aftermath of the riots and the curfew, the government’s attempt to quell dissent. Indeed, the story wastes no time in building momentum. As Melati’s search for her mother grows increasingly desolate and desperate, the narrative leaves little room for breath. I felt incredibly invested in her search for her mother; I really wanted Melati to find her. And that’s why The Weight of Our Sky was so compelling – and heart-breaking – to me: Melati’s desperation to find her mother was also mine. I rooted for her, my heart broke for her, my stomach dropped for her, and her joys, however big or small, were mine too.
Malaysian rep that captured my heart and a historical exploration of mental illness
I loved Melati as a protagonist and a narrative voice. Melati is a Malay teen and is the first Malay character I’ve read about; I’ve never read a book with a Malay teen before, so I hope Hanna’s story will pave the way for more Malay representation in the future. The other characters in the story were gems, from Malaysian-Chinese Aunty Bee, who has a heart of gold and saves Melati’s life, and Vincent, a Malaysian-Chinese teen who helps Melati search for her mother (and the dynamic between Melati and Vincent was complex yet brilliant). I particularly loved the casual nods to Malaysian culture across the story; the inclusion of important geographical locations (the place where my father grew up is mentioned in the book), Malaysian food (bubur cha cha!), our really strange yet endearing and unapologetic love for puns, and the aunty-isms that any South-East Asian would be familiar with. Seeing these small things made my heart sing.
An profound theme in the book is Melati’s experience with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Not only does the narrative explore the experiences of being Malay, particularly in a time fueled by racial resentment and violence, but the story also examines her experiences of being mentally ill in the 1960’s. Through glimpses of the past and Melati’s memories, we witness how Melati’s OCD affects her relationship with her mother, and thus provides insight of how mental illness was perceived and treated in the past. What was particularly provocative in The Weight of Our Sky was its candid and honest portrayal of mental illness. Mental illness is something that is still heavily stigmatised in Asian countries and there is a prevalent poor understanding of what mental illness is, what it is like being mentally ill, and how to support those with mental illnesses. Thus, The Weight of Our Sky examines the past without condescension, but portrays it for what it might have been like in the 1960’s, in the hopes to raise awareness of how stigma and poor understanding of mental illness can have detrimental consequences.
Why this book means so much to me
You see, my parents survived these riots. My parents were young — younger than Melati in The Weight of Our Sky, were Malaysian-Chinese, and lived in Malaysian-Chinese neighbourhoods. For a long time, particularly when I was a child, May 13th existed in my mind as an abstract idea, something that existed in history but didn’t really happen. I think it’s easy, not being born in Malaysia and being far removed from the fears associated with May 13th, to feel like this has nothing to do with me, and that it was merely a terrible event in history. However, whilst reading The Weight of Our Sky, I realised, truly, for the first time: the riots depicted in The Weight of Our Sky actually happened. Melati’s story may be fictional, but her story was real for many Malaysians. It was real for my parents, my grandparents, my aunties, uncles, cousins. I was hit with the realisation that I am here, able to write this review and my thoughts on this book today, because my parents survived it. I won’t delve into the details, but if it was not for the kindness of others, I probably wouldn’t be here today. It’s a pretty chilling and humbling thought.
However, The Weight of Our Sky is not all despair and darkness and violence and pain. At the heart of the story, The Weight of Our Sky is about how, at times of crises, people will put aside their differences – even if those very differences were what fueled resentment and fear – and will come together to help each other. The story also examines the complexities and the danger of doing the right thing and helping others when doing so might put your life in danger. It is also about the bravery of those that did the right thing anyway. It’s about searching and holding tightly to love, to light, to hope, particularly during a terrible and dark time in Malaysian history. Moreover, it is also about how Malaysian people are more than this tragedy; they are diverse, they are resilient, they are complex, they are compassionate, they are human.
MY CONCLUSION: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
The Weight of Our Sky is a story that is dear and important to me, so it probably comes as no surprise to anyone that I unequivocally love this story. On a personal level, you can understand why this book means a lot to me. (And yeah, I gave my parents a hug after finishing this book.) There is so much that I don’t know about my Malaysian identity – things that I am still learning – but this event, though in the past, is important too. Nonetheless, The Weight of Our Sky is a gripping, heart-pounding, and haunting read, and I absolutely and wholeheartedly recommend it.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: A Malay girl with OCD searches for her mother during the 1969 racial riots in Malaysia.
Perfect for: Readers who enjoy historical fiction; readers who like well-paced books; books with mental illness representation; Malaysian readers, especially teens.
Think twice if: you are triggered or upset by the trigger/content warnings below.
Genre: young adult, historical fiction
Trigger/content warnings: graphic violence (multiple), death of a loved one, racism, OCD, anxiety triggers.
Author Interview with Hanna Alkaf
“And this is the really exciting part, friend! A surprise! Stay here, okay?” says Xiaolong, and she turns around and rushes into the bush.
Oh! You thought that the exciting part was her telling you about The Weight of Our Sky. You wonder what the surprise could possibly be.
When Xiaolong returns a moment later, her eyes sparkling with a joy you’ve never seen before, she is followed by someone you’ve never seen before! She’s a teal elephant who towers over Xiaolong in comparison. She is wearing a baby pink headscarf, and peers at you over her glasses with a gentle smile.
“Friend, this is Hanna!” You wave, and Hanna waves at you with her trunk. “She is the author of The Weight of Our Sky! Hanna is traveling across different places of magic and she’s visiting us today, and she’s agreed to talk a little about her book because I loved it so much! Isn’t that so cool?”
It’s very cool! you say. You can tell that Xiaolong is super excited. And as Xiaolong and Hanna begin talking, you get comfortable and have a listen to what they have to say.
Xiaolong: Hi Hanna! I’m so excited you are here at the Pond today, and that we can talk about your book! Tell us about The Weight of Our Sky; what is it about?
Hanna: Hi Xiaolong! I’m honoured to be a guest at the Pond today; you have a lovely home!
The Weight of Our Sky is the story of Melati, who looks like your typical music-loving 16-year-old, except for one thing: She believes that there is a djinn within her holding her hostage, threatening her with images of her mother’s gruesome death unless she counts and taps her way through a series of increasingly intricate rituals. It’s a price she’s willing to pay to keep her mother safe. But there are things Melati can’t protect her from. On May 13th, 1969, the simmering racial tension in the melting pot that is Kuala Lumpur boils over, and riots break out between the Malays and the Chinese. With a 24-hour curfew in place and horrifying violence on the streets, Mel finds herself separated from her mother by a city in flames, and must fight both internal and external demons to find a way back to the one person she can’t afford to lose.
Xiaolong: I read The Weight of Our Sky and really enjoyed reading it. What gave you the idea to write a story based on the racial riots of 1969?
Hanna: I’ve always been fascinated by the 13th May riots, perhaps because we learn so little about it — it’s covered in a couple of sterile paragraphs in our history textbooks. It dawned on me that as the population who actually lived through the riots begins to die out, younger generations won’t ever know the intensity, the terror, the violence of what happened that week, which had such huge repercussions for us as a people. And for me, the best way to get people to understand, and hopefully to remember, is through the medium of story. Because people are hardwired for narrative; nothing settles under our skins the way the best stories do.
Xiaolong: The racial riots took place 50 years ago this year, which is astounding to think about. What sort of research did you do to write The Weight of Our Sky, and do you have advice for writers who want to write about significant historical events?
Hanna: The Weight of Our Sky was complicated because there were so many different threads that I had to research in order to make sure the whole thing was as authentic to the time as possible.
The first thing I had to do was familiarise myself with life in Kuala Lumpur in 1969: What people were wearing, what cars were being driven, what public transportation options were available. That involved digging into a lot of photo archives, watching local movies produced at the time, doing everything from Googling to find out what movies would have been playing in the theatres and what the posters would have looked like to calling my aunt and asking her how she would have travelled from point A to point B as a student in the 60s. A very nice man named Ghaz helped me tremendously in consulting on the music of the time, including sending me Billboard top 10 lists for the region for most of 1969 and talking to me endlessly about transistor radios, record players, and where people would have procured records at the time.
Then there was the actual makeup of the city itself, its geography and demographic and architecture — how the neighbourhoods were set up and connected, how long it would have taken to get from place to place, road names and area names, what homes would have looked like in different neighbourhoods. That involved a lot of poring over old maps and comparisons with Google Maps to make sure travel times were consistent.
I also had to research mental illness and its treatment in 1969, which involved a lot of consultations with local psychiatrists and practitioners of traditional medicine.
And finally, there was the research that had to be done on the actual race riots. That came from a combination of the official government white paper that was produced after the events, declassified documents, articles produced at the time and in retrospect, and most importantly, first person interviews with survivors. I’m still beyond honoured that they trusted me with their memories.
I think the key for anyone who plans to historical fiction is doing so with the utmost respect and care for the people and places and events you depict and interpret in your story.
Xiaolong: Something that I loved was the Malaysian representation, specifically the subtle nods to Malaysian culture, the geography, the food, the puns and sense of humour, and the aunty-isms! What does including Malaysian representation in your story mean to you?
Hanna: With every step of this journey to publication, I have been upfront about my desire to tell unapologetically Malaysian stories. There’s so much more to us as a people than most of the world knows; it’s time we were written into the narrative.
Xiaolong: I haven’t read a lot of books that center on a Malay character, and I’m overjoyed that The Weight of Our Sky has a great protagonist such as Melati. What was it like to write a character that shared the same identity as you?
Hanna: To be completely honest, I was extremely nervous — and I still am! On a personal level, Melati is me in so many little ways people may not even realise, and there is something uniquely terrifying about bleeding onto the page like that. And on a more general level…there aren’t any Malay protagonists in mainstream YA that I know of, and I know what it means to so many people to see themselves outside of locally produced literature for the first time. Like many (all?) #ownvoices creators, the responsibility to represent them the best that I can is one I feel keenly. I hope I don’t let anyone down.
Xiaolong: Melati’s obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and her ongoing battle with the djinn within her is a significant element in The Weight of Our Sky. What was your motivation, if any, of including a Malaysian character that is mentally ill?
Hanna: Like many other Asian communities, mental illness is something Malaysians don’t acknowledge or talk about enough. There’s still a lot of stigma attached to it, a lot of sensationalism, and often a poor — or total lack — of understanding as to what it means to live with it. I wanted to create a wholly Malaysian character who has to grapple with this existence, who has to figure out a way to make it work — and who can still live her life, who can still be multidimensional and complex and real, and who can still be the hero of her own story. I wanted to create a wholly Malaysian character whose mental illness is clearly a part of who she is, but who isn’t defined by it. Because I think it’s important for young Malaysians to see that.
Xiaolong: There will be Malaysians and people from all over the world who will be reading your story; some that will be learning about what happened in 1969 for the first time. What is something that you want to achieve with this story?
Hanna: I state this in my author’s note, but my hope is that by reading, there will be more people to bear witness to a part of our history that has long been glossed over and pushed aside. I hope in some way that this helps honour the memories, both of those lost and the ones still living. And at the same time, I hope that readers who aren’t Malaysian don’t limit your understanding and knowledge of Malaysia to one tragic event in our past — I hope this is just a taster that helps you discover us in all our present-day idiosyncrasies.
Xiaolong: Last question, and I hope this is a fun one! What food tastes like ‘home’ to you, and what is your favourite Malaysian dish?
Hanna: I answered with Nasi Lemak in another interview, and that is DEFINITELY one of my favourites, but luckily I’m Malaysian and I can give a different answer to this every day! Today, my answer is asam pedas ikan kari, piping hot from my mother’s kitchen: stingray stewed in a gravy flavoured with tamarind, chilis and spices. It’s sour, savoury, spicy, and absolutely heavenly served with steaming white rice.
About Hanna Alkaf
Hanna Alkaf graduated with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University and spent over ten years writing everything from B2B marketing emails to investigative feature articles, from non-profit press releases to corporate brochures. She worked in Chicago as an online copywriter for several years upon graduation before coming home. She’s been a senior writer at Marie Claire Malaysia, the communications manager of education non-profit Teach For Malaysia, and a freelance journalist. Her articles have appeared in the Malaysian iterations of Marie Claire, Shape, and Esquire, as well as a host of other media both print and online.
Hanna now spends her time making it up as she goes along, both as an author of fiction and as a mom. THE WEIGHT OF OUR SKY is her first novel. She lives in Kuala Lumpur with her family.
(Photo credit: Azalia Suhaimi)
Blog tour stops!
Don’t forget to check the other stops of the blog tour!
Jessica @ Endless Chapters (Review + Favorite Quotes)
Lily @ Sprinkles of Dreams (Review + Favorite Quotes)
Zoë @ If the Book Will Be Too Difficult (Interview)
As Told by Zaheera (Review + Playlist)
Vinny @ Artsy Draft (Review + Aesthetic)
Erika @ The Nocturnal Fey (Review + Favorite Quotes)
May @ Forever and Everly (Review + Aesthetic)
CW @ The Quiet Pond (Review + Creative Interview)
Bookevin (Review + Creative Post)
Friends, thank you all for joining me in my blog tour stop for The Weight of Our Sky! I hope you all enjoyed reading my review as well as my author interview with Hanna – I’m so grateful to her for writing this splendid book, and for joining our friends at the Pond for The Quiet Pond‘s first ever author interview! (aaaah!)
If you all enjoyed having Hanna here at the Pond, and like how it is formatted, please let me know – I’d love to do more author interviews like this in the future, and would love your feedback! 💛
And now for the last bit of good news: you can enter a giveaway for a copy of The Weight of Our Sky! Enter the Rafflecopter giveaway here. I have my fingers and toes crossed for you!
- So friends, how excited are you to read The Weight of Our Sky?
- Or, have you already read it? I’d love to hear what you thought of the book, and welcome all opinions!
- Malaysians love talking about food, so here’s a fun foodie question: what ‘food’ reminds you of home and your identity?