Review by Catherine Bae
Without reading the blurb but seeing the cover, I automatically assumed this was a dystopian story set in Asia somewhere. But seeing Hanna Alkaf’s name on the cover, I knew it was going to be good. This was her debut novel back in 2019, and since then she has won multiple accolades.
The start of the story is an experience in itself. There is a strong introduction, or a warning, from Hanna Alkaf herself. It begins with, “This book is not a light and easy read…’ and proceeds to warn about graphic violence, death, racism, OCD and anxiety triggers. She even pleads with the reader not to continue the book if it will hurt them in any way. I had to pause to reread her warning. What could this story be about? Alkaf then shares that this is historical fiction based on the 1969 Race Riot in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. As a non-Malaysian living and working in Malaysia, this was new to me.
The story begins with one of the most shocking first sentences I’ve read: ‘By the time school ends on Tuesday, my mother has died seventeen times.’ I think back to the warning. How would graphic violence, racism and OCD create this first line? I re-read it just to get my head around the shocking first line. What a way to grab your attention!
Then the main character slowly emerges in the first few pages. We meet a 16-year-old Malay girl named ‘Mel’, short for Melati, who seems to be battling images of her mother being killed in numerous ways whilst counting numbers in her head to appease the djinn that has taken residence in her mind.
This counting ritual, part of her OCD and anxiety she developed since the death of her father a year before, is nail biting and exhausting. It also adds intensity to her context of seeking safe refuge in the middle of a chaotic riot. In the midst of the chaos, there are kind and generous people, regardless of the color of their skin, reaching out to help one another. Mel is taken in by a Chinese woman named Auntie Bee. Auntie Bee’s benevolent acts are shown further when her neighbors also seek safety in her house. Yet, the plot also depicts a mob mentality where racial insults are exchanged and innocent lives are taken. At one point, Alkaf points out the contradiction of a mob who chants ‘Allahu akbar!’ while doing their best to destroy God’s creation. At a later point, Mel’s poignant exclamation to another mob, ‘We make our own sky, we can hold it up – together’ had me elated, impressed with the way Mel had changed over the course of a few days, but also panicked by what was to follow.
However, the story is not just a ball of tension. Earlier in the story, Auntie Bee’s son, Vincent, comes to Auntie Bee and Mel’s aid by driving through the curfew to pick them up. Auntie Bee greets him by asking if he has eaten. Vincent is shocked that his mother would ask such a trivial question when a riot is taking place where people are being killed, houses burned and shops looted. But this simple question of ‘Have you eaten?’ is so important in an Asian culture. It’s not so much asking about the matter of partaking in a meal recently as much as inquiring about someone’s general well being. Mel’s response of, ‘I can feel the eye roll even from the back seat,’ had me giggling at the welcome comic relief.
With help from Vincent’s Red Cross Volunteer pass, Mel and Vincent become members of two different races who work together to help those in need and set Mel on the path to find her mother.
It’s shocking to think such an event took place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and I carefully wonder if these tensions have since dissipated completely, and whether peace-loving neutral ground has been achieved.
Alkaf is a great story teller, a wizardess of words who allows you to vividly experience Mel’s world. Her warning is warranted, as I am left utterly exhausted from the pacing of the plot, the chaos of Mel’s internal monologues, and the pervasive sense of guilt she felt. Yet, the reader is definitely rewarded for persisting through this difficult terrain, as we share and celebrate Mel’s sense of triumph in locating the most important person in her life and finally being able to grieve her loss.
Read a review from Kirkus Reviews on The Weight of our Sky here
You can read a Webtoon version of the story here.
You can purchase this book here.
You can learn more about 1969 riot here.
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- Winner, 2019 Freeman Awards, Young Adult/High School Literature
- Kirkus Reviews Best YA of 2019
- YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults 2020
- Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year selection 2020
- A Children’s Book Council Notable Social Studies Book for 2020
About the Author:
Hanna Alkaf is a Malaysian writer of YA and MG books, a self-proclaimed doodler and writer, and a proud mama of two ‘little humans’. Before writing full time, she held various writer’s roles as a copywriter, and senior writer of a magazine publication. Her first book ‘The Weight of Our Sky’ published in 2019 won a Freeman Award for Young Adult/High School Literature. Her debut middle grade novel ‘The Girl and the Ghost’ was on the finalist list for Kirkus Reviews. She is a passionate storyteller, both in written words and orally. Follow her on Twitter.
Reviewer: Catherine Bae
Catherine Bae is the ES Teacher Librarian at The International School of Kuala Lumpur (ISKL). A collector of cookbooks, she is a Korean-Australian, passionate about picture books and books that represent our students. Catherine has been teaching internationally for the past 16 years in South Korea, Taiwan, Qatar, and now the evergreen country of Malaysia.
Curator of the second #IntlYALitMonth at Global Literature in Libraries Initiative:
Linda Hoiseth is the high school librarian at the American School of Dubai and has previously worked at schools in the US, Japan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Poland, Peru, Qatar (where she worked with Catherine Bae), and India. She has a B.S. in English and Secondary Education, an M.S. in Curriculum and Instruction, and a graduate certificate in School Library Media. She’s currently a member of the ECIS Libraries Special Interest Group committee. She’s a fierce advocate for all students to have access to all the books. Follow her on Twitter.