Please welcome Malaysian storyteller, Hanna Alkaf, to Rich in Color. Her book, THE WEIGHT OF OUR SKY, is out today from Salaam Reads.
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.**
After many years writing nonfiction, what was it like to jump into the world of fiction?
It’s sort of scary because I set out to write stories that centered my people and my culture and my homeland, and there’s a unique vulnerability you open yourself up to when you put so much of yourself on the page. There’s no way to hide behind the facts and the statistics and other people’s quotes; when you write fiction, it’s pieces of yourself that you weave in between the words, and the idea that people may read and recognise them — and therefore you — by what they are is a special kind of exhilaration and terror.
What drew you to the topic of the Kuala Lumpur race riots?
The fact that I knew very little about them. I’m always curious about the things that stay obscured and the stories that we don’t hear about.
Tell us a little bit about Melati including some of her struggles and her strengths.
Melati is your typical 16-year-old girl in so many ways: She hangs out with her best friend after school, she longs for more records than she can buy and absolutely loves the Beatles, she worries about what other people think of her. But Melati has even more reason to worry about that than most other 16-year-olds, because she believes she harbours a djinn inside her, one who threatens her with gruesome images of her mother’s death unless she completes a series of complicated tapping and counting rituals to his satisfaction. She struggles through so much, and she doesn’t always dare to let people in because she doesn’t want people to see through her, but she is also loyal and kind, and braver and stronger than she realises.
How did you feel when you got to hold your book for the first time?
At the time of answering these questions I haven’t actually received my finished copies yet, so I don’t know! But I can tell you that when I received my ARCs, I got them out of the package and then promptly burst into tears. Up until that point, none of it had felt quite real; holding a book-shaped thing in my hands with my words in them was overwhelming. I actually kept thinking “they can’t take it back now, it’s real!”
What is your favorite part of the writing process?
When you get a fresh idea that excites you and burrows its way under your skin and you can’t stop thinking about it. Research — I’m a huge research nerd. Those amazing stretches when you hit your stride and the words just flow and you don’t even realise the time passing by. And that magical moment that you get to type THE END.
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.