The stars are bright in the sky tonight as you lie down on the grass, the Pond around you restful and serene. It’s been a long day, and you nearly fall asleep in the lull of the surrounding cricketsong, but just as you begin to drift off, the ground beneath you moves with a faint tremor.
And then—a smell. It is light and sweet, a whisper of fragrance blooming against the fresh grass.
From the nearby bushes emerges Sprout, their little sapling glowing faintly verdant, and a familiar friend that you’ve seen before: it’s Hanna the elephant!
Hanna raises her trunk in a cheerful greeting, and you wave hello back. You remember Hanna from when she visited the Pond for her YA historical novel The Weight of Our Sky, and she’s back! Her hijab looks a little different from last time too, and you can’t help but admire the lovely streaks of green that now adorn the headscarf.
Sprout hops with excitement, “Hanna is here to talk about her new book, friend! Both Xiaolong and I have read it already, and we both really love it! Would you like to join us?”
You begin to nod yes, but then remember the sweet smell from before. You ask Sprout if they smell it too, and their eyes light up. “Oh yes! I picked some frangipani along the way here!” They hold up a handful of small, white flowers. “Did you know, friend, that frangipanis are associated with spirits and ghosts in Malaysia? Hanna’s new book is all about Malaysian spirits too!“
You smile as you sit down with Sprout and Hanna: ghosts are certainly fitting for a nighttime story!
It’s no secret that we here at the Pond absolutely adore Hanna’s stories, and her most recent middle-grade fantasy The Girl and the Ghost definitely lived up to all my expectations and more! I absolutely devoured the book, and friend, I cannot express how positively heartwarming to see my own Malaysian childhood and upbringing reflected in the pages of Suraya’s story. It felt like coming home.
So if you’re in the mood for a creepy, lushly-written tale about friendship and growing up set in a tiny kampung where a girl encounters an inherited ghost that changes her life, this is absolutely the book for you. We’re so honored today to have Hanna here at the Pond to talk about her story and her craft, and what it means to be true to who you’re writing for.
But before that, let me formally tell you what the book is all about too!
A Malaysian folk tale comes to life in this emotionally layered, chilling middle grade debut, perfect for fans of The Book of Boy and The Jumbies.
I am a dark spirit, the ghost announced grandly. I am your inheritance, your grandmother’s legacy. I am yours to command.
Suraya is delighted when her witch grandmother gifts her a pelesit. She names her ghostly companion Pink, and the two quickly become inseparable.
But Suraya doesn’t know that pelesits have a dark side—and when Pink’s shadows threaten to consume them both, they must find enough light to survive… before they are both lost to the darkness.
Author Interview: Hanna Alkaf
Sprout: Hello Hanna! Thank you so much for joining us today here at the Pond! For anyone just now discovering your work, could you tell us a little about yourself?
Hanna: Hello Sprout! It’s lovely to be back. My name is Hanna Alkaf, and I write unapologetically Malaysian stories. You might recognise me from the last time I was here talking about my YA debut, THE WEIGHT OF OUR SKY! Today, I’m here to tell you about my first MG book, THE GIRL & THE GHOST.
Sprout: Where did this story idea come from? What drew you to exploring the folklore surrounding the pelesit, specifically?
Hanna: The story blossomed from the seed of the basic, not entirely original idea of “what if your imaginary friend was real – and nobody knew that but you?” and thinking about what that would look like in a Malaysian context, which is where the genesis of a lot of my ideas, taking common tropes and thinking about what they would look like when viewed through a Malaysian lens. I was especially drawn to using the lore surrounding pelesit because I love the idea of something so dark and powerful being able to hide itself in the form of something so common, so innocuous. How many Pinks might you have encountered in your lifetime, if you’d known to look?
Sprout: I’ve said this a lot in other places, but one thing I particularly love about THE GIRL AND THE GHOST is how nostalgic it feels for Malaysian childhoods! From iced gem biscuits to the trepidation and giddy excitement of cutting school to go on an adventure, every last second of the reading experience felt like coming home to me. Is there any part of the book that holds special meaning or resonance to you personally?
Hanna: Suraya’s experience isn’t mine per se – I’ve thankfully never had to deal with a ghost (YET) – but all those little pockets of Malaysiana are mined from my own childhood: Eating the icing off iced gem biscuits before the biscuit part, painting over your canvas shoes with liquid chalk to make them whiter, idealistic young teachers lecturing students in too-earnest, ever-so-slightly cringy ways, lying on a tiled floor because it’s the coolest part of the house, and of course, every single time you read a gratuitous description of food. If you’ve read THE WEIGHT OF OUR SKY, you’ll also notice that I always weave in one particular thing: A parent asking their child to make sure they get home before Maghrib prayers. This was how time was marked for me as a kid as well; whenever I went out to play with the other children in the neighbourhood, my mother would tell me I had to be back before azan (and woe betide me if I was late…).
Sprout: Friendship is such a strong theme in this book — both the healthy, healing kind of friendship, and also precarious ones that slowly turn toxic. Why was it important that these evergreen topics were explored through Suraya’s story?
Hanna: To me, 12-13 is such an in-between age – you’re on the cusp of being a teenager, but you’re not quite ready to let go of the best bits of childhood just yet, and it feels like everything is pulling you both ways. And so much of that plays out in your friendships. At that age, my biggest worry was my friends – making them, keeping them, maintaining them. But I didn’t have the ability back then to recognise what the difference was between the ones worth keeping and the ones that weren’t; the ones that were good for me and the ones that dragged me down. I figure maybe writing about it will help kids see things more clearly than I did.
Sprout: Ultimately, what do you hope young readers take away from THE GIRL AND THE GHOST?
Hanna: I hope that first and foremost they walk away entertained and enthralled and more than a little bit creeped out from reading a damn good story, but I also hope they walk away knowing that we all have it in us to be brave when we need to be.
Sprout: Now I’d love to talk to you briefly about your writing craft: THE GIRL AND THE GHOST is your sophomore novel! What was it like transitioning from YA to MG for your second book?
Hanna: It took me a while to get the hang of it – somewhere on my desktop there exists about 15,000 words of a first attempt at writing MG fantasy that I dearly hope never sees the light of day – but once I settled in, it was incredibly fun! They’re entirely different voices and mindsets, and these days I enjoy moving between them because it gives my brain the opportunity to take a break and use slightly different muscles. One thing that helps me when I’m going from a YA project to drafting MG or vice versa, is to read really amazing books in the category I’m about to work on. It really helps me to flip that switch and I’m always inspired by the incredible work my fellow authors put into their books. Before starting THE GIRL & THE GHOST, for example, I read ARU SHAH & THE DEATH OF TIME by Roshani Chokshi and THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON by Kelly Barnhill, and I reread SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL by Claire Legrand and CORALINE by Neil Gaiman.
Sprout: I’m so grateful for your books, and I know a lot of people admire you for writing stories that, while being fun and illuminating journeys, are uncompromising in their Malaysian-ness. Do you have any advice for aspiring young writers looking to weave their background and unique experiences into the stories they tell, especially while writing for an audience that might not necessarily ‘get it’?
Hanna: The trick, for me, is twofold. First, I know who I’m writing for – Malaysian kids like me who grew up not seeing themselves in the English stories they read. And it’s cool that other people enjoy these stories, but it’s for those kids first and foremost. Knowing your core audience is like having an internal compass; as long as you keep them as your true north, then you can’t lose yourself.
Second, if you’re going to write yourself into the narrative, DON’T APOLOGISE FOR IT. This one took me a long time to learn, because I went to university in America and took on all sorts of habits that I only later recognised as being apologies – allowing people to mispronounce my name and brushing it off as no big deal, explaining myself and my culture and agreeing that yes, this thing I grew up doing is so strange, isn’t it? All sorts of things that were really just different versions of saying “sorry that I am who I am.”
These days I call myself an unapologetically Malaysian author because I am, and apology looks different to different people (heck, even “Malaysian” looks different to different people) but to me it means not translating, not italicising, not over-explaining, and not inserting a Western character or gaze where it doesn’t belong.
Sprout: Before we cap off this interview, I’m dying to know more about your next YA project about murder set against a backdrop of competitive Scrabble (what a pitch!) — is there anything about it you can tell us yet?
Hanna: QUEEN OF THE TILES is about loss and grief and memory, all wrapped up in Scrabble and murder and filled to the brim with intrigue and unreliable narrators and an incredible amount of word nerdery. It’s a book that took me six drafts and half-drafts to get right, and I’m immensely proud of it. I’m in the middle of revisions right now, and I can’t wait to share more!
About the Author
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 now spends her time making it up as she goes along, both as an author of fiction and as a mom. Hanna lives in Kuala Lumpur with her family. Her first young adult novel, THE WEIGHT OF OUR SKY, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2019; her middle grade debut, THE GIRL & THE GHOST, will be published by HarperCollins in 2020.
Photography credit: Lim Eng Lee, Azalia Suhaimi (banner)
Thank you so much for reading our discussion with Hanna today, friend! I hope you’ve enjoyed your time at the Pond today, and that Hanna’s answers have helped to illuminate some of your own path too, especially if you’re a storyteller yourself. ❤
The Girl and the Ghost is ALREADY OUT as of the writing of this post, and you can add the book to Goodreads, or hopefully find it at your friendly local bookstore!