May 13 for Young Adults: A Review of Hanna Alkaf’s The Weight of Our Sky

I am a little ashamed to say that Hanna Alkaf’s The Weight of Our Sky is the first and only novel written by a Malaysian author I have ever read, even though I am Malaysian. It is probably because my personal poison is fantasy and sci-fi, and there are simply not a lot of SFF coming out of Malaysian authors. The very few there are just never managed to snare me. Furthermore, the only historical fiction books I’ve read is the Alexandros trilogy by Valerio Massimo Manfredi and Robert Harris’ Cicero books, so Hanna’s book is a real departure for me, genre-wise. I have very few yardsticks to judge it against, so I apologise ahead of time if I sound ignorant or unlearned.

Even before winning Hanna’s book in a giveaway, I had intended to read it because I felt that I should—I would have bought it regardless. The premise is solid: a young girl struggling with OCD (attributed to the mischiefs of a djinn) tries to make her way through the bloody chaos of May 13 in search of her mother. As a member of the minority Chinese community in Malaysia, May 13 is not just the dark clouds of a receding storm in the distant skies of history for me. It is the still dripping sword of Damocles that the Malay majority of Malaysia wave in my face daily, from the highest corridors of political power to the comment sections on social media. Sometimes, this spectre of bloodshed is raised apropos of nothing, in situations that I don’t expect at all—like in January this year, under a Facebook post about rising costs, a random person named “Yusuf” simply commented “13 mei” even though nothing racial was being discussed. Besides, as a mental health worker, I am also curious to see how a protagonist with OCD is written. We get a lot of depression, schizophrenia, and autism representation in literature, but the only work I know of that portrays how debilitating OCD can be is Orson Scott Card’s Xenocide (#3 in the Enderverse series). The OCD depiction in Xenocide is a good one. The book less so.

I found The Weight of Our Sky to be a very brisk read. It is not often that I am able to finish a book in one day, but I did with this one. What immediately struck me was how unapologetically Malaysian it is, so much so that I got a little concerned if non-Malaysians are able to access it. I was surprised there was not a glossary of terms at the end of it either. I felt welcomed immediately, because this book told me that it is meant for Malaysians like me. I noticed that very early on, Hanna decided to not concern herself with the complicated political tinder that lit the fires of May 13 because we are limited to Melati’s point-of-view, and a high school kid isn’t likely to be very well informed on such matters (even if she wasn’t so preoccupied by her own demon) and the little we were given was enough. The “war” that Melati and the people around her got caught in was between the ethnic Malays and the Chinese, but Hanna is more interested in the real conflict, one that is more urgent today: between those that just want to coexist peacefully, and those that hate the “other”.

As a Chinese person, I couldn’t help but bring all my biases with me into the read, and perhaps that is why I (almost automatically) resisted the centrist view on the matter; as if both sides are equally at fault. Perhaps they are—both sides certainly did horrible, inexcusable things to innocent people. When Mel and Saf went to the cinema, I knew what was coming, and my tribal hackles rose: “This will make it look like the Chinese started it first.” I found my defensiveness unpleasant, because I felt a little childish, as if I was telling my mother “she started it first” in a quarrel with my sister. Like I said earlier, May 13 isn’t history to me, but an ongoing threat that makes it difficult for me to remain unemotional about.

In a fit of sorrow earlier this year after being threatened with May 13, long before I read Hanna’s book, I wrote:

Some people may say that both sides are at fault. But then again, I don’t think I have ever seen a Chinese person threaten a Malay person with the spectre of May 13. Not once. It is always a sword held over the heads of Chinese people by a Malay person. And it will not go away. I think this is why I must eventually leave this country, because I really don’t want my son to grow up living under this bloody sword too.

To be honest, out of all the characters, I found Frankie to be the most interesting, and I felt we didn’t get enough of him. It’s not that I identify with him, nor do I condone his undisguised racism. It’s because aside from Melati, he SPOILERS (Highlight to Reveal): [underwent the most character development and had a redemptive arc, and I like that he never fully changed, because that’s reality. I am thankful that the author took the time to make us understand why Frankie is the way he is, because the resentment we feel towards others who are not like us does not erupt out of thin air, but nurtured in poisonous soil]. I am reminded of the banned film Gadoh (2009) directed by Brenda Danker and Namron, which is my favourite Malaysian film simply because it is the only Malaysian film I know that realistically portrays the racial tension in Malaysia to me (minus its ending). Gadoh also showed how racism is nurtured in our youths by their environment. I grew up in that environment, all of us did, and I fear sometimes I am irreversibly tainted by it. Sometimes, our situations simply make it so damn hard for us to be decent people who just want to live together, and Hanna manages to convey that very well in her book; how Mel and Vince are constantly running into either Malay or Chinese murder gangs, always putting one of them in danger because they were in each others’ company.

I am a little indifferent towards the other side of The Weight of Our Sky: Mel’s mental health issues. Mel suffers not from vanilla OCD, but probably psychosis as well as the djinn literally whispers and talks to her throughout the book. Or perhaps that is just artistic license, like how they exaggerated John Nash’s schizophrenia in A Beautiful Mind with full blown visual hallucinations that the real Nash never experienced because those are more cinematic. I understand that the OCD added a greater element of personal struggle for Mel, but I can’t help feeling like they distracted from the more interesting human stories with the incessant, repetitive intrusion of the djinn’s threats, and Mel’s repetitive counting rituals, which in real life are equally debilitating to the sufferers and irritating to the people around them (perhaps that is the authorial intent). And it is true we have progressed little since Mel in the 60’s. People do still attribute most mental disorders to supernatural agents, and most of my patients only come to us months or even years after the onset of their symptoms, after they and their families have exhausted all magical and religious avenues of treatment. I just didn’t feel that that entire subplot connected with the greater story, and wondered if the book would have been stronger without it because it added a layer of detachment to the actual horrors going on around Mel et al. I wonder if I would be more invested in the characters if the time spent on Mel’s OCD was devoted to developing them instead. I felt that I never really gotten to know Mel’s mother, and didn’t get enough of their relationship either, which I feel is the most important relationship in the novel as it is what motivates Mel most. I also wondered if Saf’s fate would resonate more with me if SPOILERS (Highlight to Reveal): [Mel and Saf actually went through part of Mel’s journey together. I feel it was a missed opportunity to explore how a Malay teen like Saf, growing up with a racist father, would think and act during the riots].

I just told a filmmaker friend of mine that I think The Weight of Our Sky would translate well to the big screen (if there isn’t one already in the works). It is short, grounded, and has a pretty straightforward structure. I also can’t help thinking that it would be an excellent book to read and interrogate in our high school literature classes, because it is high time our children are exposed to a different narrative than the one they are soaked in. I believe that we as a nation simply cannot heal from our May 13 wounds because we have never sought to give it the treatment it needs while they are allowed to fester and stink. In our minds, May 13 tended to be black-and-white, and we argue endlessly about who is black and who is white. They need to see that the real battle isn’t between the Chinese and the Malays, but between those who want to hold up our sky, side-by-side, and those who would let the sky crush all of us with its weight rather than coexist as equals.

I mentioned earlier that I was feeling despondent from the constant racial abuse I face, and how I wrote that I must eventually leave this country so that my son won’t have to live under the constant threat of a May 13 encore. I also wrote this:

I want to ask any Malay person if you know what it is like living under this continuous threat of violence and death in this country; if you have ever been curious about how I feel. I want to ask if you have ever reached out to non-Malays like me to tell me that they stand by me against those than want to hurt me and my family just because our skin colour is different. I wonder if any of you are aware.

Thanks, Hanna, for responding; for showing me that you are aware, for telling me that I belong here, and most of all, for writing this book.

Rating: 3.5/5 Naga Pearls

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Published by A Naga of the Nusantara

A Naga is a divine dragon from Eastern Hindu-Buddhist tradition. The Nusantara is made up of nusa (island) and antara (between) and describes the Southeast Asian archipelago that includes Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. This particular Naga is Malaysian, born and bred. He loves reading and hoarding books, and enjoys bothering humans with what he thinks of them.

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