It is the dream of every book nerd to meet the author of a book they like. This writer was lucky enough to interview Hanna Alkaf, author of ‘The Weight of Our Sky’, after staying up till 3am to finish the book the day before the interview.
The intention, initially, was to just read a few chapters. You know, just to get an idea about what the book is all about and the author’s style of writing and all that. But then, chapter three came and there was no turning back.
It’s Hanna’s first novel, but it sure packs a punch. From the first chapter you’re sucked into the story and struggles of the main character, Melati, who suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in a time where there wasn’t much information on the disease.
By the time you hit the beginning of the May 13 riots and it’s almost immediate impact on Melati’s life in chapter three, it’s too late to put the book down and get some sleep. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
In a way, it’s a good thing that the book is not too long - only 724 pages of intense emotions, if you get the paperback version.
The book is not for the faint-hearted, though. Two very heavy topics – mental health issue and May 13 – are combined in the book that was determined to put you through an emotional whirlwind.
Hanna has even added a trigger warning at the beginning to warn people that they have to be ‘in the right frame of mind’ to read it.
Rojak Daily spoke to the young adult (YA) book author about ‘The Weight of Our Sky’ about her book and here’s what she had to say.
How does it feel to have your first novel on the shelves?
I was a wreck...I'm still a wreck. There is a sense of accomplishment but it’s really tempered by a fair bit of concern. There were a lot of layers of identity within the story: between being Malay and being Muslim, being Malaysian and having mental illness and all these things.
There were a lot of concerns in that I don’t misrepresent anyone’s experience. That’s not to say one book can be everything for everyone, but I did want to make sure that I wasn’t downright harmful in my portrayal.
I didn’t want to play into any stereotypes and make things worse for those in that identity. So, there was, and still is, a fair amount of concern around that. Luckily, so far response has been largely positive…which is great.
There’s this cliché in YA that’s ‘like she release a breath that she didn’t know she was holding’ and that’s me. I’m allowed to breath now.
You covered two very heavy topics in one young adult book. Why is that?
First of all, I really like YA and that is why I wanted to write it. I’m an adult who is a YA reader. It’s a sphere where writers are doing really innovative things, where writers are on the forefront of the diversity movement in lit.
It’s been quicker to adapt but obviously there's still a long way to go. It’s still very much white-focused and west-focused, but in terms of the greater publishing industry it's definitely in the forefront.
It’s sort of an overlap of a lot of different things. I was just finished writing and promoting my book, 'Gila', which was on mental health issues in Malaysia. So, the topic of mental illness was very much in the forefront in my mind.
I still grappled with the things that I had learned through writing that book. It forced me to think more deeply about a lot of things, including what it means to be a person of faith and have mental illness, and how those two things overlaps.
‘Cos while its not distinct to Malaysia but I think it's something that most Malaysians have to deal with. So, I was already thinking about that.
The May 13th incident...I like the way they call it an incident like it was just a blip on the radar. The May 13 riot is something that I have always been fascinated with and it’s because we weren’t told very much about it.
I think people who end up being in journalism in particular; you end up with a real interest in the voices that are missing and the stories that are not being told.
Your interest is in the things that are obscure rather than things that are obvious. And that’s what it was with me.
I always wondered what we’re not being told. If what we’re being told is just this small amount, then what’s not being told. All this kind of came together in one story.
But it is a very heavy story. I do try to caution people before reading it that they have to sort of be in the right mental head space to take all of that on because it’s a lot.
Note: Gila is Hanna Alkaf’s non-fiction book on mental health in Malaysia.
May 13 is a very sensitive and very much politicised incident in Malaysia. Was there any concern of censorship and did you try to self-censor to avoid any negative repercussions?
I try not to think about that in the process of writing. You don’t want to write fearfully. You don’t want to write already thinking of the consequences that might come.
What I tried to be mindful of was in the way that it was portrayed...to be very respectful, to be very sensitive to the nuances of that time rather than painting a very broad picture of black and white, Chinese versus Malays, which is the sort of thing we’re usually told.
I just tried to remember that behind the riots, actually behind everything that happened, were people. Try and tell their story in a respectful and dignified way as possible.
So, if you just remember that behind the stories and behind the statistics are people, then I think that it’s very hard for you to go wrong. The problem is when you forget. Then it becomes caricature la. I tried very hard not to write caricatures.
There’s a lot of talk about the story being ‘unapologetically Malaysian’. There were even Malay and Chinese words that were used in the book without direct translation and the ‘foreign’ words were not even italicised. Is there a reason for that?
First of all, I’d like to think that I have enough skills as a writer to provide the context where people are not completely blindsided by what I mean.
Not to italicise was a conscious decision that I spoke to my editor and felt very strongly about. The reason is those words are not foreign to my characters and it wouldn’t make sense for me to set them off.
Of course, there are languages where that might be necessary; where the language may be too close to certain English words that could create confusion. I know some Tagalog words are spelt quite similarly to English so you can’t really use a blanket rule like that.
But Malay is not like that, nor is Mandarin or any smattering of other languages that appears in the book. None of them had that similarity.
I just felt very strongly about it. Readers are not incapable. You don’t have to spoon feed them everything. I think readers who are outside of Malaysia are capable of looking it up if they really find the message didn’t come through in the text. Although I also think that they are perfectly capable of gleaning meaning from context.
Frankly, it’s something that non-western readers are expected to do all the time. We didn’t grow up with foreign words being italicied. Then all the English books will be in italics.
But we didn’t grow up like that. If we can be expected to understand English words, I don’t know… elfish or whatever made up language appears in books, I think western readers can be expected to just accept that there are words that they might just need to look up.
How has the reception for the book been outside of Malaysia?
It has been extremely kind. I didn’t know what to expect. It’s a very Malaysian book. It was a book written with primarily Malaysian young people in mind, so I didn’t really know how it was going to go.
Will it be unfamiliar? Will it resonate? But I think a book about race relations in 1963 Malaysia, unfortunately, is still relevant in 2019 in most parts of the world.
So, it’s not an alien a narrative as you might expect, and that’s incredibly sad to think about but it’s true.
So the trappings of it… it’s dressed in different clothes, but the core narrative of racism and race relations are a thing that are still relevant to most countries now.
The reception has been very kind. Starred review from trade publications… just in general, people have been very nice.
They send me pictures from their libraries or bookstores and it’s been really nice. Thank you so much.
OCD is not a common topic nor are the way it manifests same for every patient. How did you decide how exactly you wanted to portray your main character, Melati?
Really, I wanted to shy away from the way OCD is presented in a way that’s cutesie quirks: lining everything up straight, cleaning your hands and things like that.
Yes, those things exist in OCD spectrum as symptoms but I wanted to show just a different point of the range. ‘Cos it is such a range. Everything in mental illness is a spectrum and OCD is a huge spectrum.
People talk about these quirks a lot… like having to clean things, switch lights on and off…things like that. But the other part that I really wanted to talk about is the intrusive thoughts element of it.
When people talk about those quirks, they don’t talk about what drives those habits and actions. They just talk about it the way it comes out.
I’ve read reviews about the book where people said reading about the OCD was both stressful and tedious, and that’s exactly what OCD is.
Nobody wants to be stuck in this loop of having to do these things over and over again and thinking of these things over and over again.
But that’s what it is and that’s what people live with.
People don’t understand that. Because OCD is a term that gets misused a lot. Your cutsie little quirks are not OCD. It doesn’t make you OCD.
I really did want that tedium, frustration and stress to come through. That’s what it is, that’s what you live with everyday.
The way it manifested itself in this case was in tapping and counting, which are actually fairly common OCD mannerisms as well but yah, I just wanted to make sure people knew the obsessions that’s driving the compulsions.
Your thoughts are in constant loop and it’s hard to break that loop, which is something people don’t talk enough about.
Tell us a little bit about the characters in your book and how they symbolise heroism.
A lot of these people (in the story) show hope and strength, and not just in the way that you’d usually expect.
There’s a lot of humanity in that book in the midst of all the lack of humanity. At least that’s what I tried to do.
You don’t need a sword to be a hero. In her own way, Melati is one of the strongest characters.
That being said, somebody asked me the other day what are my favourite characters to write and I was like the aunties! More old people in YA, please.
I love Aunty Bee so much. She’s my favourite. YA don’t write enough good old people. The parents are always like dead or just not supportive or whatever and I’m like no no no. We need more aunties.
What are you working on right now? Can we expect more books from you in the near future?
I started writing the moment I submitted the previous book. I’m the type of person where when I wait too long, the doubts start coming in. My style is, finish a project, turn it in, try not to think about it and work on next.
I can’t say anything more because I’ve signed a contract saying I can’t and it’s really difficult not to talk about it. But I can’t yet.
‘The Weight of our Sky’ is the latest book by a Malaysian author to be released internationally and has received amazing reviews so far.
Hanna, during the interview, mentioned that as an 11-year-old, she realised that there were no characters like her in the books she read.
“There were no characters that had names like mine or life like mine. That’s when I decided to become a journalist. Fiction wasn’t really realistic at that point,” she said.
She added that after writing short stories in her teens that got published, she gave up on writing fiction till she turned 30. That eventually led to ‘The Weight of Our Sky’, which looks like it’s going to be a success.
If you want to meet the author in person and get a copy for yourself, head over to Kinokuniya on 16 February or Lit Books on 17 February.