Title: The Weight of Our Sky
Author: Hanna Alkaf
Publisher: Salaam Reads / Simon Schuster Children’s Publishing
Page counts: 288 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
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 movie-going, 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.
A trip to the movies after school turns into a nightmare when the city erupts into violent race riots between the Chinese and the Malay. When gangsters come into the theater and hold movie-goers hostage, Mel, a Malay, is saved by a Chinese woman, but has to leave her best friend behind to die.
On their journey through town, Mel sees for herself the devastation caused by the riots. In her village, a neighbor tells her that her mother, a nurse, was called in to help with the many bodies piling up at the hospital. Mel must survive on her own, with the help of a few kind strangers, until she finds her mother. But the djinn in her mind threatens her ability to cope.
Little facts about this book
🍂 Tagged: #ownvoices, diverse characters; Malay & Chinese rep, mental illness (OCD) discussion
🍂 Favorite character(s): Melati, Vincent and May
🍂 Favorite shelf: yes. It was a tough read, but this is one of the best books I read in 2020.
🍂 Will I recommend it to you? Of course! Especially if you’re a Southeast Asian reader, you HAVE TO read this book!
Trigger warnings: Graphic violence, on-page death, racism, OCD, anxiety triggers.
“Di mana bumi dipijak, di situ langit dijunjung. Have you heard this before? It means where we plant our feet is where we must hold up the sky. We live and die by the rules of the land we live in. But this country belongs to all of us! We make our own sky, and we can hold it up—together.”
A historical fiction that takes place during 13 May Incident or Peristiwa 13 Mei as Malaysians called it. Throughout the book, I felt a huge wave of familiarity; be it because of the cultural reference or that there was a similar riot in Indonesia 22 years ago. Racial and ethnic conflict is one of the issues in Southeast Asia countries that sadly is still happening until now. Not only that it warmed my heart to see Malay rep in mainstream media, but also I can relate to Melati’s situation.
At first glance (aka, judging the book by its cover), I thought The Weight of Our Sky is going to be like those middle grade or young adult books; where the authors sugarcoated almost everything to make it PG-friendly. But, it didn’t apply to Hanna Alkaf. Like I said earlier, racial and ethnic conflict is the issue we still have to face today, although less violent than in the 1900s and early 2000s. The riots were brutal, traumatic and terrifying—yet Alkaf didn’t try erasing those facts. Rather than saying, “oh the riot is brutal!” Alkaf showed us—explained to us. It is one of the reasons why I love this book. It was a tough read and I admit I cried few times, but it hits too close to home.
“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 their best to destroy His creations.”
My favorite part? Is when Melati was confused why people shouted “Allahu akbar” before making a big mess in Kuala Lumpur. This? This is something I still see happening now.
Speaking of hitting too close to home, the cultural reference in The Weight of Our Sky left me feeling warm and happy! Malaysian and Indonesian cultures are not so different from one another, and every small cultural reference I noticed put a smile on my face. Parents’ warning that we should be home before Maghrib, a legend of Pontianak—infamous female ghost in Malaysia and Indonesia, calling every people in your parents’ age uncle and auntie, jajan—buying food and drink from local market after school…I really want to scream, “Hey!! I do that too! I can relate to this!!” so bad.
One of ugly truths about our culture is how people see mental illness as sign that we’re not devoted enough to God. As a Muslim living in Southeast Asia, I’ve been taught that lack of faith is the main reason why you’re depressed. Your parents are shamed to admit that you need professional help. Everyone think you’re possessed by a djinn. Your parents would take you to Ustad (Islamic scholar) hoping he’ll cleanse your soul from djinn. All of books with Muslim character I’ve read, no one ever mentioned this issue. Alkaf successfully breaks my heart and makes me proud in one book. She really delivers a strong message; mental illness is serious problem and it has nothing to do with lack of faith.
That being said, Alkaf was doing an excellent job representing OCD. It was very present and may be triggering for some people, but Alkaf didn’t even romanticizing this. It was written, again, without sugarcoating everything. Melati wasn’t instantly “healed” after she met a guy, and I appreciate Alkaf for that.
Overall, I would recommend everyone to read this beautiful book, only if you are in the right headspace to do so. This book may be very triggering and disturbing to some people, but if you think you can handle all the warnings, you’re free to go!
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What about you? Have you read The Weight of Our Sky? Are you planning to read it? Let me know in the comment section below! See you on the next post!