Review by: Jaclyn Heng
The Weight of Our Sky
Author: Hanna Alkaf
Publisher: Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster, 2019
It’s definitely uncommon to see an English fiction book by a local author published and promoted on shelves of mainstream bookstores nationwide and even worldwide, even more so a book based on Malaysian history and culture! Hanna Alkaf has broken the boundaries of Malaysian literature with the skyrocketing international and local popularity of her first book, The Weight of Our Sky.
The modern Malaysian literature scene, so long dominated by Malay romance novels and horror fiction, is given a breath of fresh air with the new addition of Alkaf’s historical fiction novel.
To be honest, I had been eyeing this book for quite a while after first finding out about it. But being a seasoned deal-hunter for cheap books, and usually turning away from books above RM20 (think Big Bad Wolf and BookXcess), I convinced myself to hold on to my curiosity until the demand for this book had died down enough for the prices to be lowered. However, my interest in this book got the better of me when there was a 20% deal for it at the recent Popular Bookfest. It was worth about RM33 usually, I would not consider spending that amount on a single book! Still, I was so hesitant to put it back on the shelf, telling myself I’d keep it in the basket until I reached the cashier and decide there. In the end, I played the “support local authors” card with myself and evidently, it worked. I do not regret it. It’s notoriously difficult for local authors to break out into popular literature so it was worth the money to support Hanna Alkaf who had actually managed to do just that.
The Weight of Our Sky is a fictional story, but based on actual historical events that took place here in Malaysia. The story is about Melati, a teenage girl who is unknowingly battling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which she believes to be a Djinn living inside her mind in the 1960s when she is caught in the middle of the 13th May racial riots in Kuala Lumpur (an actual event that happened in Malaysian history).
Note: a Djinn is believed in Malay culture and Islamic folklore to be a genie-like spiritual entity
To provide a little backstory, 13th May was a historic and notorious incident in Malaysian history that was sparked by racial tensions between the Malays and the Chinese after the 1969 Malaysian General Election. The ruling coalition, the Alliance, had lost the majority of parliamentary seats to the Chinese-majority opposition party. With racial tensions at a high, the Chinese and Malay communities took matters into their own hands and sparked clashing in the streets, causing days of death and destruction in the town of Kuala Lumpur, which ended with an official total death toll of 196. It was extreme to the point that a National Emergency had to be declared by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and a twenty-four hour curfew imposed on the citizens. A detailed and informative retelling of the before, during and after of the riots can be found here.
Helpless and surrounded by violence, Melati has to overcome the merciless Djinn and find her way back to her mother in the midst of the dangers of the riots.
The Weight of Our Sky captured my attention from the first page, where Hanna Alkaf wrote a foreword for the book. The foreword consisted of trigger warnings for sensitive topics such as mental illnesses as the protagonist suffers from OCD. What really got to me was the way Hanna Alkaf introduced the 13th May incident.
“This seminal point in our past becomes nothing more than a couple of paragraphs in our textbooks, lines stripped of meaning, made to regurgitate in exams and not to stick in your throat and pierce your heart with with the intensity of its horror.”
This line in her foreword struck me with such truth. Over the years, as the memories faded, such a horrific part of our history had been reduced to merely being referred to as an event or incident, another meaningless paragraph in our so-detested Sejarah textbooks. Much so to the point that Malaysians and Non-Malaysians alike can barely even comprehend the horrors of what went down in those dark days. Given that I was almost in tears from the foreword itself, I could tell this was going to be an emotional read.
Minor spoilers ahead! Read at your own risk!
This book really hit home with the Malaysian representation, a story based in our own motherland, with reference to cultures we have grown up alongside. But make no mistake, this was not a light read. Melati’s story covers many heavy topics that are hard to swallow, but, with proper execution under Hanna Alkaf’s hand, they were made digestible.
Hanna Alkaf’s writing had me eagerly reading on as the plot took readers on a rollercoaster of emotions together with Melati. As a reader, I really could feel in sync with Melatis thoughts and inner struggles as we listen to her inner monologue for a majority of the book. I particularly loved how Melati’s OCD was described as a character, the Djinn, as an entity with a mind of its own that sits in control of Melati’s mind. Mental illness is so often described by those suffering from it as losing control over oneself, and the characterization of the Djinn makes that much easier for readers to understand and empathise with. As the story was set in the 60s where acceptance and knowledge of mental illnesses was basically nonexistent, the Djinn became the demon disrupting Melati’s thoughts, some form of structured representation of what was causing Melati the turmoil she had with her mind since people then wouldn’t believe in mental disorders. There is a poignant, genuine expression of Melati’s emotions throughout the story, especially her struggle with overcoming the Djinn’s whispers and her own fears. Readers are made to really empathise with Melati’s mental suffering. Her experience with being put through her loved ones’ deaths over and over again struck a chord inside me with the fear and pain Melati had to deal with, especially since the 13th May incidents made her nightmares even more of a vivid, real-life possibility. It is a commendation to Alkaf’s writing that Melati was portrayed, in my opinion, as one of the strongest female characters we’ve seen in modern fiction in a while. Compared to most YA dystopian novels that line bookshelves nowadays, Melati’s struggles with race, family, and her OCD brings in a new level of relatability, especially for Malaysians like us.
Hanna Alkaf portrays a raw image of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in it’s true, un-romanticised form, showing it’s true horror in its effects on a person and the people around them. It wasn’t the overused cliche of wanting to keep everything clean and organised and colour-coded, the (sadly) normalized practice of reducing a debilitating disorder to a trivial inconvenience in life. But, it was OCD in its full traumatizing, life-destructive form. From the way Melati herself suffered and the way people around her reacted to her, the way people around Melati kept their distance, tried to “cure” her, became irritated by her tapping rituals — all the reactions towards Melati’s illness reflected the general public’s views on mental illness, whether in the 60s or today. It manages to draw a very explicit focus towards the sufferings of those with mental illnesses and the societal stigma surrounding those illnesses.
Alkaf also went on to provide an emotionally devastating description of the scenes of destruction and death that went on during the riots. I think I can speak for all of us that though we know about the 13th May incident the same way you know the name of a fellow coursemate but nothing else about them, our knowledge of what went on in the burning city would barely scratch the surface of the intensity of the pain and suffering at the time. Alkaf’s storytelling of the riot scenes, the people cowering inside their homes, the people hellbent on destroying people of another race, is like a slap to the face for us, here, in 2019. From the story, you get to zoom in on the details of the destruction, the individual pain of the people caught in the riots. The bodies in the river was an especially jarring scene for me as I was reading. Despite knowing that the riots caused a death toll high enough to be etched in history, we would not usually willingly conjure up the image of that scale of death in our minds, but The Weight in Our Sky makes sure you face it head on and can’t look away. The clashing perspectives of the people that incited or were involved in the riots were also taken to the forefront of the readers’ focus: Vince, who would avoid violence at all costs, Jay, who tried to inject humour into a dark situation just to make it a little more bearable, Auntie Bee, who never saw any difference in Malays, Chinese, Indians, just that everyone was human, Frankie, who was fueled with hatred and the desire for revenge, and Saf’s father, devastated with grief and turning to blame. The clashing between the Malays and Chinese, the slurs being thrown around, the desire to claim each side’s own rights while the other side objected. The readers act as the third observing party, able to understand both sides of situation but at the same time helpless to do anything about it.
A running theme throughout the story is the Malay idiom “Di mana bumi dipijak, di situ langit dijunjung” meaning in a literal translation, “Where the earth is stepped on, the sky is held up”. This idiom carries the meaning that wherever one is, they should follow the rules and customs of the place; when in Rome…
As the story progresses, we see the take on the meaning of the idiom shift. Before, it was used in the context where Auntie Bee had to adhere to the customs of the Malay kampung she lived in and still face subtle racism from the neighbours. But later on in the story, most prominently when Melati faced the Chinese and Malay gangs, the idiom was used by Melati to call everyone to band together regardless of race, to hold up the sky together.
Despite the fact that I enjoyed the story, certain parts of Hanna Alkaf’s storytelling didn’t quite speak to me. I found certain parts of the story to be draggy, while some action sequences lacked in depth and description. The storytelling also left several loose ends that weren’t tied up by the end of the story. For example, Jay’s disappearance, the sick boy who had to get to the hospital, the numerous characters who helped Melati find her mother, to name a few.
I do have a bone to pick with how abrupt the ending was before shifting to the epilogue and how there was no finality with the ending. In my amateur opinion, we were too quickly introduced to characters like May before the scene came to a close. Frankie’s reappearance in the story was not fully met head on with the storytelling, but simply seemed like it was put there to add a final climax to hook readers. As is with Melati’s “revelation” and sudden courage when facing the Chinese and Malay gangs.
And while this isn’t so much a critique but a personal opinion, I would have very much liked for Melati to have reunited with her mother in The Rex Cinema. Given that the story of this book basically started in the Rex, with Saf and Auntie Bee, I was hoping for the story to come full circle with Melati ending her search where she (technically) started it, especially since Hanna Alkaf wrote the later Rex Cinema scene in a crescendo that showed Melati gathering her courage to face the place where she had left her best friend behind. But what could have been an emotional reunion only ended with a air-slowly-leaking-out-of-a-balloon-until-it-becomes-a-limp-piece-of-rubber-on-the-ground anticlimax.
I may be tough to please (which is a laugh considering that I’m not the one who published a book internationally), but one thing I’m sure of is that while The Weight of Our Sky is a work of fiction, the entire 13th May incident that was described explicitly throughout the story is something that every Malaysian should read and understand. Understand every detail of the cause and the happenings of 13th May that is still spoken of in hushed whispers in a modern Malaysia, understand what the people went through, understand what made it happen, and understand why it can never ever happen again.
I would recommend this read to all Malaysians and Non-Malaysians alike. If you’ve studied your history, you would know that many policies were put into place following the events of 13th May to avoid anything like it from ever happening again. But policies or not, the decision ultimately lies in the hands of the people. Fighting is incited by the people, but so is peace. It all comes down to whether or not we want to see each other as Malaysians, as people, and whether or not we are willing to hold up our sky together, no matter the forces that try to drive us apart. This is our country, our Malaysia, our home.
Hanna Alkaf has also published a non-fiction book about mental illnesses in Malaysia from the perspectives of patients, loved ones, doctors and therapists. It is called GILA: A Journey Through Moods and Madness. Considering how well Hanna Alkaf did with OCD in The Weight of Our Sky, GILA is definitely next-up on my to-read list.