CW: The Weight of Our Sky will be shelved Young Adult/Teen, but I think Adults will enjoy this one—you’re welcome Book Clubs.
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.—jacket copy
I tend to avoid certain decades of historical fiction, but between the setting (Malaysia), premise (race, neurodiversity, music), and the reviews (so many stars!), I decided to go ahead—I’m glad I did. Alkaf is excellent. “Heart-pounding” is not hyperbole; also: heart-wrenching.
CW: Folks, Alkaf is considerate in her depictions, but the author is not going to make the climate of violence and loss of human life too palatable. And the anxiety Melati experiences will translate. In a rare move: the author herself opens the book with a warning.
Before I even begin to say anything else, I’m going to say this: This book is not a light and easy read, and in the interest of minimizing harm, I’d like to warn you now that its contents include graphic violence, death, racism, OCD, and anxiety triggers. If any of this is distressing for you at this time, I’d recommend either waiting until you’re in the right space to take all of that on or forgoing it all together.
Is that weird, for an author to basically say, “Please don’t read my book. No book is worth sacrificing your own well-being for.
Are you still here?
Did you get this far?
If you did, thank you. I appreciate you. I would have, whether or not you’d kept going, but I’m even more grateful because it wasn’t so long ago that a book like this would never even have made it as far as an editor’s desk, much less exist in the tangible typeset form you hold in your hands right now. –”Author’s Note,” first page.
Salaam Reads (Simon & Schuster), 2019
Hardcover, 288 pages. YA Historical fiction, Ages 14-18.
Melati can and will imagine all the ways her mother has died while they’ve been apart. This is on any ‘normal’ day, and the seamless way Alkaf writes it into the narrative shows how ‘normal’ and frequent her mother’s deaths have become for Melati. To counteract the likelihood of the her mother’s often gruesome deaths, Melati must perform small rituals (e.g. tapping, pacing). They must be performed before she can continue onward. She likens her situation to music (referencing her father’s favorite band The Beatles):
There’s all these different notes, different instruments, different sounds. It’s a mess. But you add a beat and a rhythm and somehow everything can come together and make something beautiful. I think that’s what I’m trying to do. Find a rhythm for the mess in my head, so that it somehow…makes sense.
On a normal afternoon of her best childhood friend Safiyah aka Saf persuading her to go to a Paul Newman feature after school, Melati will find herself trying to avoid her own untimely demise.
Political actions spur a race riot between the Malays and the Chinese, with gangs taking to the streets to claim control of different areas of the city. Armed men come to the theater to separate out the Malays from the non-Malays (Chinese, Indian, Eurasian). Right away we are reminded that outward appearances are subject to interpretation as Melati “passes” at the argument and will of another theater attendee.
Melati finds herself in a car with a strange woman and her son as they race home—their home. This will begin days of separation from her mother, a nurse at a local hospital, as Melati looks for opportunities to traverse the city and find her. All options for verifying her mother’s condition are removed. Melati will become desperate, but not completely consumed.
Alkaf introduces characters with stories into an already compelling narrative. They will serve to illuminate Melati’s history and offer character-growing conflict in the future, maybe offer an option for romance…, but they also provide glimpses of life outside of Melati’s—and likely, the reader’s. Alkaf offers depth and nuance, and tension-relieving levity—and you’ll drink it in. And you may cry a little. It’s weeks and I’m still processing Saf and Singh.
I admit that I was confused and put-off by the perceived shift in focus and pacing, but Alkaf knew what she was doing. Thematically, we’ll be reminded over and over how Life is still lived in the throes of adversity, even in times of especially intense conflict. Structurally, we experience Melati’s reality: the fraught journeys between sites of stability; finding moments of respite and safety; outfitting herself for the next step along the way/the process. Those sites will become increasingly tenuous (e.g. invaded, destroyed, necessarily temporary). Her own needs will come up against other’s prerogatives.
Aunt Bee is the woman from the theater and Vincent/Vince is her college-age son. We’ll meet her informative husband Uncle Chong; and the younger son Frankie who makes a conversation on radicalization painfully relevant:
“My parents were never anything but nice and good to everyone—Chinese, Malay, Indian, whoever. But the Malays don’t care. They looked at them and saw outsiders, not worthy of their time or mercy. What’s the use of being good if it just gets you trampled on?”
Frankie won’t seem unreasonable until you put him next to other young people who’ve made a different choice in how they will respond to the injustices. We see similar contemplations with other groups and their reasonings. Melati reflecting on an encounter in the streets:
“Allahu akbar!” they yell. “Allahu akbar!” And for a moment I am struck by how strange it is to proclaim the greatness of God, a phrase we say over and over again in prayer five times a day, while doing the best to destroy His creations.”
The presence of religion and faith is an unusual and marvelous aspect of Alkaf’s YA novel. I was moved by as Melati observed Aunt Bee’s own little ritual near the entrance of her home.
“I am both mesmerized by the little gesture of faith and jealous of her intimate relationship with God. It always bothers me that I can’t seem to connect with Him the way people like Auntie Bee and Mama can. The way I used to.”
And here when she thinks of her father: “Abah would recite the verse aloud, his voice turning the unfamiliar words into a song, and I remember sitting close and letting the words wash over me and feeling…safe.”
The rituals of faith or superstition to cope or comfort, and to shift perception and find hope are utilized in Melati’s struggle with her reality. It’s an interpretive tool, to describe.
“It seems difficult now to believe that there was ever a time when the only djinns I believed in came from fairy tales, benevolent creatures that poured like smoke from humble old oil lamps and antique rings […] And later, they took a different shape, one informed by religious teachers and Quran recitation classes: creature of smoke and fire, who had their own realm on Earth and kept to themselves, for the most part.
“I didn’t realize they could be sharp, cruel, insidious little things that crept and wormed their way into your thoughts and made your brain hot and itchy.”
Melati and her mother “knocked on the door of every religious teacher and healer she could find, asking for their guidance, their wisdom to defeat the invisible enemy who held me so firmly in his grasp.” They would spend considerable sums of money. The result is disheartening, and not only from teachers and healers, but from the medical establishment: “You young people, life is so easy for you. No job yet, no families to raise, no responsibilities. I don’t know what you think you have to worry about.”
Melati is left to navigate her world and its expanding and constricting realities on her own. She draws into herself in order to project a return to normalcy. Remember, nothing has been resolved, and Melati carries the weight of its suffering; and it was only a matter of time before pressure would result in something explicitly life-threatening. Alkaf writing this character against the backdrop of the race riots is brilliant on so many levels. That Alkaf is willing to elicit a need to strangle the protagonist (at no real fault of her Melati’s) is a testament to how determined the author is to allow trajectories to follow, rock-bottoms to be met, realities to bear witness. None of the heroes will always be at their best; but then, we may only require those rare, precious moments of mercy.
It is from Aunt Bee that we learn more about the title of the novel:
The Malays have a saying: Di mana bumi dipijak, di situ langit dijungjung. Where you plant your feet is where you hold up the sky. Wherever you are you must follow what the people there do, their customs, their ways.
The novel will discuss this racially and culturally, but it will take on a specific meaning for Melati who’s need to participate is something we are made to think about throughout the novel; ‘passing,’ hiding. Her mental health is culturally subject to fear and suspicion. It’s a point of contention with her mother, which is one of the many, many beautifully wrought scenes of the novel.
“Every step that brought me closer to her door, the voice in my ear screamed: She’ll disown you, she’ll push you away, she’ll think you’re dangerous and have you carted off to the madhouse.”
“So I blurted it out. All of it: the endless thoughts of her death, the constant counting and tapping and pacing that kept me up at night for fear that doing them wrong meant that I’d wake up in the morning to find her stiff and lifeless in her bed.
“And she recoiled.
“Oh, she pretended she hadn’t. She tried to recover quickly, pulling me in for a reassuring hug. But I’d seen her eyes widen in…fear? Disgust? I’d seen her flinch and turn away. I’d seen her pull her hand back for a minute, as if worried I’d contaminate her, or hurt her. Or worse.”
Vince will give her another opportunity at vulnerability and we begin to make connections between music, mental health, and an inciting event: her father’s death. The mysteries unravel not as easy explanations, but context.
I adore Vince who delivers lines like this: [Melati’s name means Jasmine] :
“Jasmine flowers are so pale, so delicate,” he says, “you’d think they couldn’t survive in this relentless tropical heat. But they thrive on it. they grow strong and gorgeous, and they bloom. Their perfume is…intoxicating, so strong that it leaves its mark on you long after you’ve left it behind.”
What I love even more, is that Alkaf doesn’t conscript Vince to be Melati’s savior, a hero and necessary friend, sure, but he is flawed and he isn’t her only source of rescue or even inspiration. Alkaf writes a community into the novel, and some members will show up later than sooner (e.g. May).
Alkaf portrays a careful balance between considering communal and individual decision-making; it’s the tension in the novel and in that title. We read it in the greater political climate, the neighborhoods, the households, and in the very body of the protagonist. It’s played out at the government and local gang level, as well as in fraught circumstances like negotiating Melati’s fate in the theater and the fate of a pregnant woman in labor in a war zone and in a school bus with a child bleeding out while Melati “bleeding out” in the throes of an episode.
Religion isn’t the only means to interpret the world. Melati’s father uses music as a way to think about his relationship with Melati’s mother. Abah loved The Beatles and he used their song “We Can Work It Out” to talk about him and his wife. The two were “optimism and light” and “efficient to a fault.” McCartney and Lennon were “total opposites in so many ways. But when they get it right, don’t they make the most gorgeous music together?”
I love the way Alkaf writes Melati’s relationship to her parents, the way she sees them. Her father is kept in a sacred place, encased in the sentiment/privilege of memory. Her mother is still living (and imaginatively dying) parent, less perfect, relevant in a different (read crucial) way, no less holy.
“My father’s death a year before had diminished her light a little, but it was as if she’d gone from a wild, raging bonfire to a delicate, tapered candle—she was still bright and beautiful, but somehow more elegant in her grief. My situation took whatever light she had left and extinguished it. before my very eyes, she shriveled and shrank until all that was left was shadows. The Djinn might inhabit my body, be he held us both captive.”
Melati’s awareness of the interconnectedness of life/lives is what makes the novel so profound, and so painful. Her loneliness, alienation, isolation comes into conflict because we have these desires for relationships, relationships, social contracts, people who draws us out of ourselves and into their spheres (Saf, Aunt Bee, Vince, Singh, anonymous pregnant woman, May, The Beatles…). Within her own self we witness the stir of spirit, mind, body strive for some semblance of balance. The world, both within and outside of Melati is terrifying—and beautiful; compelling and worthy of all the emotions and that fight for a resolution (if only for a time being).
We cling to the life-giving moments of The Weight of Our Sky, compelled to seek them with greater urgency as the novel continues—spurred to consider how we can (re)create those moments of mercy in our own landscapes, whether internal to our bodies, in households, communities, nationally, internationally. The novel is one seated in a voice of love and compassion fighting to be heard above the violence of disunity, of imagined loss/scarcity. Melati, the humanity that surrounds her, all are love refusing to be silenced, extinguished.
Remember how far you’ve come. Remember what you’ve accomplished. Remember who you are.
Thank you Hanna Alkaf.
Hanna Alkaf graduated with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in Shape, Esquire, and Marie Claire among others. She lives in Kuala Lumpur with her family, and The Weight of Our Sky is her first novel.
Why reading multiple perspectives is of value (bonus points for well-written):
Maybe that mother in the orange sari tugging impatiently on her little girl’s hand as they exit the sundry shop is irritable because she can’t stop thinking about how dirty and dusty everything is, can’t stay the aching need to scrub every inch of both her child’s body and her own. Maybe that young man so desperate to speak to the pretty young woman next to him at the bus stop is really doing it because he’s trying to save her from an unspeakable fate dictated by the monster inside him. I can’t tell just by looking, but maybe they’ve learned to hide their demons, too.
Where the novel will resound politically (thanks Uncle Chong for this articulated context):
“The Malays resent the Chinese for taking over the urban areas, getting rich while so many of them remain poor in the kampongs…”
“Some shouting about preserving ketuanan Melayu—Malay supremacy. Some trying to push for a Malaysian Malaysia, not just a Malay one. Some insisting the Chinese need to protect our own interests. And the Indians are left to gather whatever scraps they can. How do you expect unity to grow from seeds of self-interest.”
“When you are fighting for your rice bowl, you don’t think about how many hands were needed to grow the grain. You only think about who’s out to steal your portion.
“Blame immigrants or outsiders for stealing their jobs. Taking away our opportunities.”