“The Weight of Our Sky” Uses Fiction to Reckon with Malaysia’s Unspoken History

Hanna Alkaf on the May 13th riots and writing for a story for Malaysians about their collective scars

Two children on a bicycle Mural Penang, Malaysia
Photo by Poh Wei Chuen on Unsplash

In The Weight of Our Sky, Malaysian author Hanna Alkaf places her protagonist Melati, a Beatles-loving teenager afflicted with obsessive compulsive disorder, alone and directly in the line of the country’s 1969 race riots. In May of that year, Chinese-led opposition parties made electoral gains in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital. The gains unnerved the dominant Malay Muslim community, who feared losing political power to the Malaysian Chinese community. These tensions simmering since the country’s colonial period, when the British pursued the colonial ethnic management policy of divide-and-rule, exploded on May 13 after two political rallies by competing groups. Amid this extremely volatile setting, Hanna writes to the humane by having the Malay Muslim Melati’s life saved by a Christian Chinese family, who are in themselves divided in how they view the riots.

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In Malaysia, the incident has historically been only minimally discussed, usually as a cautionary tale and an excuse for silencing dissent over preferential economic policies to favor Malay Muslims over others put in place in its aftermath. In 2019, the shadow cast by May 13 and its legacy remains over the country.

For Malaysian readers, many of whom have family memories of the riots, the novel offers a dramatization of that moment in ways never seen before on the page. As a minority with generations-deep roots in the capital, I found Hanna’s depiction to be respectfully complex and deeply emotional. The close rendering of Melati’s OCD episodes aided by a djinn figure further escalates the book’s turmoil and realism. For readers unfamiliar with the complexities of The Weight of Our Sky’s historical landscape, the novel is a rollicking, imaginative ride.

I spoke to Hanna Alkaf over email about digging up and honoring the past, mental wrestling with djinns, and being seen.

J.R. Ramakrishnan: Your disclaimer at the start of the novel is pretty intense. You tell readers that if they are not ready for the violence, OCD, racism, and other triggers, to not proceed. Melati’s story was pretty harrowing for me—even as (or maybe because of it) an adult aware of the history. How did this story begin for you?

Hanna Alkaf: I had been thinking about writing the May 13th riots into a story for a long time; it had sort of sat in the recesses of my mind waiting for me to decide what form it wanted to take. Part of that comes from how little we’re actually taught about the incident in school, and how rarely people are willing to even talk about it. It’s held over our heads as a specter, a threat to make us fall in line—“Don’t do this, or there might be another May 13th” our politicians warn us—but so much of the narrative is obscured or missing, and I always wanted to know why. What was it that we weren’t being told?

As for the OCD component, I’d just finished working on a nonfiction book that explores the landscape of mental illness in Malaysia, and was still very much in that headspace—so when I decided I wanted to begin working on my first novel, it became a way of marrying two topics very close to my heart.

JRR: When you started writing, who was the reader you had in mind? Did you consider writing an adult novel at all?

Our young people deserved a story about their own history, a story that explains the collective scars we carry.

HA: I wrote this story for young Malaysians. I never considered making it an adult novel. People—adults, mostly—ask me this question of “Why YA?” a fair bit, and my response is always: Why not? The implication seems to be that heavy, complex stories are beyond the scope of YA literature, and honestly, that just isn’t true. Teens and young adults want all sorts of stories, and they deserve stories that challenge them, make them think, reflect their experiences, stories that are written for them and not just about them, stories that speak to them and not at them. Our young people deserved a story about their own history, a story that explains the collective scars we carry. And they deserved to see themselves reflected in the pages of a book.

JRR: Outside of a brief introductory note, you don’t explain too much to readers unfamiliar with the May 13 riots, one of the defining events of modern Malaysia. You also leave a lot untranslated—to cite just two examples, cibai and kapcai (a slang curse word and the nickname for a commonly used motorbike, which are derived from Hokkien and Cantonese respectively but widely used by all in Malaysia). While writing (or in the editing process), were you concerned about readers “getting it”?

HA: Not particularly. Like many of us outside of the Western world who read in English growing up, I very quickly grew comfortable and familiar with entire worlds and vocabularies that weren’t mine. I could read tales of tea and crumpets, bluebells and midnight feasts, brownies and pixies, fairy circles and trolls under bridges, and bat not one eye. Is it too much to ask that non-Malaysian readers do the same? If you can read books that tell you to accept Elvish as a language, then surely a sprinkling of Malay is doable?

JRR: Tell us about your title and why you decided to use it. You have the words (in Malay) come out of the mouths of the non-Malay characters of the book–Auntie Bee and later, Vincent.

If you can read books that tell you to accept Elvish as a language, then surely a sprinkling of Malay is doable?

HA: I am always hugely gratified when people tell me they love the title of the book, because I am quite honestly terrible at titles, usually. TERRIBLE. But I was writing a particular scene, and trying to think of a peribahasa (a saying) that would fit the situation best, and when I settled on “di mana bumi dipijak, di situ langit dijunjung” (where you plant your feet is where you must hold up the sky, meaning that you have to follow the rules and customs of wherever you decide to put down roots), I knew it was perfect. And after that scene was written, I knew that I wanted the title to call back to it somehow. It’s such an intimate, quiet scene in the middle of all this chaos, but it means so much.

JRR: You don’t avert our eyes from the racism of that moment, and you depict racial slurs towards all parties. You also remind us of Malaysia’s deep Hindu and Chinese roots. Did you have concerns about taking on this “sensitive”  (in the context of politics in Malaysia) era as a subject matter?

HA: I wasn’t concerned that I was going to get into trouble—which is not to say I won’t, I just wasn’t particularly concerned about it. What I was concerned about was getting it right. I was, and I still am, if I’m completely honest, extremely anxious about letting down my fellow Malaysians, about telling our story in a way that’s harmful or disrespectful or lacking in nuance. I know what it means to see yourself on the page; I would hate to do it in a way that is hurtful.

JRR: I attempted to read your novel as if I didn’t know the historical background or the geography of the city. Obviously, it was impossible. I feel like May 13 was mostly an episode, at least on personal level, that was not meant to be discussed—or there was no way of discussing it without being inflammatory.

In your research, you interviewed many people who lived through these times. How did the interviews go? How did you get them to tell their stories?

HA: I tried to seek out as many people as I could to interview, and from as diverse a range of ethnicities, backgrounds, and ages that I could. Some were willing to talk to me almost immediately; some needed some coaxing; all preferred not to be explicitly named in my acknowledgements. Their reasons were varied: Some were worried that the things they were talking about might hurt friends or family; some were worried that their stories portrayed them in a bad light; many were worried about the repercussions of speaking about “sensitive” topics.

I can’t say with any certainty why they were willing to talk to me. I was frank and honest about my intentions and the story I wanted to write, and I did not push them for details they might not have wanted to talk about. Mining those memories was painful for many, and I was acutely aware of the need to be as sensitive and respectful as possible, and to show that I had a genuine interest in them and their stories—not just as fodder for fiction. They put so much faith and trust in me, and I took that trust very, very seriously.

JRR: How have young Malaysian readers responded to the book’s history especially since the present seems to be increasingly contentious? What have been the conversations you’ve been having with young people at your readings and events?

HA: There are a few different layers to the reactions that I get. The first is usually from people who are incredibly excited at just seeing themselves, their families, their communities, their culture, in a mainstream, traditionally-published, internationally-available book. For some, it goes even deeper. They get to see a protagonist who looks like them wrestling with mental illness, as so many of us do. Then they hit the history aspect, and for many, this is where things get emotional. I get disbelief at first; people asking me if I made up incidents, especially some of the more violent ones. Nobody wants to believe those parts are true, even though they are. There is a lot of sadness, and a lot of anger. But there is also a strong undercurrent of hope.

I get asked a lot if I learned anything that surprised me in the course of writing this book, and I always say that I was surprised by both the violent, crazed inhumanity of it—and the humanity that shone through as well. There were so many acts of heroism, big and small, that carried people through those dark times, and I love that this is what people cling to when reading this.

JRR: There is still so much stigma around mental illness. The last time I was discussing a work position in Kuala Lumpur, I was asked to sign a declaration to affirm that I hadn’t suffered any mental illness ever. It was for a media company—I am sure you know from your experience of the industry, everyone is 100% sane all time!

In the book, you don’t shy away from the anguish Melati suffers. This line especially affected me: “It feels as if the Djinn’s sharp teeth are gnawing away at my frayed nerves.” I was wondering if you could talk about your past writing on mental illness, how it came to influence Melati’s creation, and maybe a little bit about the Djinn’s role in it.

I wanted to create a story where both religion and mental illness were part of the hero’s identity, but neither of them defined her.

HA: As I said earlier, before I started writing The Weight of Our Sky, I’d just completed a nonfiction book, published locally, that explores the landscape of mental illness in Malaysia, and I really wanted to work with this intersection of mental illness and faith that seemed to come up in every conversation, because it seemed to me to be such a uniquely Malaysian condition.

In Malaysia, you can’t escape faith; you’re constantly surrounded by it even if you don’t practice it yourself. The streets are lined with places of worship; chances are your own family has at least one religious person in it—and every person I spoke to in the course of writing that nonfiction book operated within this very specific context. They turned to faith to find solace and relief; they visited spiritual healers, whether willingly or unwillingly; one was made to go through an exorcism.

For my Malay Muslim character, it made sense to blame a condition she didn’t understand on djinn possession. As Muslims, we believe in the existence of djinn, and even today, it’s not unheard of to blame what some may recognize as symptoms of mental illness on spiritual weakness. The bottom line is that I wanted to create a story where both religion and mental illness were part of the hero’s identity, but neither of them defined her.

JRR: How have Malaysian audiences responded to your depiction of Melati’s OCD struggles?

HA: I’ve seen some people confused as to whether the djinn in the story was actually real, as the term “OCD” is never specifically used within the text, it being a term Melati wouldn’t have been familiar with at all. I’ve seen people talk about how repetitive and tedious and painful it can be to read as Melati goes through her OCD flare-ups, and I do have to say that yes, that’s the point, that’s what OCD is: It is all of those things. But the reactions that mean the most to me are from people—teen readers especially—who send me heartfelt emails and messages to tell me how Melati made them feel seen. This writing business can feel long and lonely and exhausting, but if I can make even one person feel that way, it’s all worth it.

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