The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf
Published February 5th 2019 by Salaam Reads
Genre: historical fiction, young adult, mental illness – ocd, contemporary, asian literature
A music-loving teen with OCD does everything she can to find her way back to her mother during the historic race riots in 1969 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in this heart-pounding literary debut.
Melati Ahmad looks like your typical moviegoing, Beatles-obsessed sixteen-year-old. Unlike most other sixteen-year-olds though, Mel also believes that she harbors a djinn inside her, one who threatens her with horrific images of her mother’s death unless she adheres to an elaborate ritual of counting and tapping to keep him satisfied.
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.
Content warnings: Racism, graphic violence, on-page death, OCD and anxiety triggers.
What a devastating story of the dark times in Malaysia. As a child who grew up in Singapore, I was aware of the brutality and the violence in 1969. It was something I learned in my social studies classes but it felt distant. In the past. It was history. It felt far because I grew up in a peaceful time where there are little to no racial discourse in Singapore. But now, upon reading Mel’s story through Hanna’s words, it became a reality. A reality that actually happened to Malaysians. The war torn families apart, hundreds died, and animosity rose between races. I can’t help but be so invested in Melati’s quest to find her mother during the violence.
Hanna really did a fantastic job in portraying the faults of both the Chinese and the Malays. I love that there wasn’t an imbalance. Both sides were at fault yet both sides were helping each other to survive.
It was an incredibly emotional read for me. Seeing the representation of the people I interact with everyday was an incredible experience. There were people of all races – Malays, Chinese, Indians. They aren’t the usual people I get to read about in YA so I had a fun time reading The Weight of Our Sky.
“We make our own luck in this world, girls,” she’d say.
Experiencing OCD through Mel was a whole new experience, especially with her belief that it’s linked to the Djinn. All those little things that she must do to calm herself down, to make her less anxious and feel better already felt restrictive and suffocating for me, an outsider who doesn’t have OCD. Hanna Alkaf perfectly described Mel’s constant fear and anxiety which was palpable and felt incredibly real. Her self-deprecating thoughts were heartbreaking. I loved watching her journey into her acceptance of the mental illness and every brave moments she had in the book. She grew stronger in the toughest of times. Her sense of justice and willingness to help others despite her own inner demons was so inspiring.
A thing with the dialogue, I loved the inclusion of “lah”. I’m not sure if Malaysia have their own name for it, but in Singapore we call it Singlish (coined word for “Singapore English”). Which basically the term for words like “lah” and “aiya”. Also, I spotted a Hokkien profanity with a balance of shock and excitement.
Meeting Auntie Bee and Uncle Chong amidst all the chaos was a wonderful delight. Despite the war raging on between the Chinese and the Malays, the couple opened up their doors to anyone who needed shelter or help regardless of their race.
“Do not ever let anyone tell you that you do not belong here,” she had said, looking at us intently. “We all do . There is space for all of us.”
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