Whenever author Hanna Alkaf gives talks, particularly to university students, she’s fond of asking this question: “What book has most impacted your life so far?”
The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling is a popular answer. Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird is also mentioned a lot, as is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings books.
Among the many different answers she’s received over the years, however, Hanna noticed one thing: Most of the books mentioned by Malaysians reading in English are books read when they were quite young. And most of them are books by white people about white people.
“There are all sorts of Malaysian writers out there now doing great things. But in the young adult fiction sphere, where you receive your most formative works, we have nothing,” says Hanna, 33, during a recent interview at independent bookshop Lit Books in Petaling Jaya.
“I think young people should have a mirror of them in fiction. Not just mirrors reflecting other cultures. But their own.”
This lack of local YA fiction is a major reason for Hanna writing her first novel, The Weight Of Our Sky. Her book is the story of Melati, a young Malay Muslim girl living in Kuala Lumpur, who gets caught up in the violent race riots of May 13, 1969. With a 24-hour curfew in place, and racial tensions sparking everywhere, Melati has to get back to her mother. It will, however, take the help of a kind if somewhat reluctant Chinese boy named Vincent to do so.
As any Malaysian knows, the May 13 incident is one of the darkest times in local history. It’s a date that still carries much baggage even five decades on. It’s certainly not an easy topic to write about, but Hanna was determined to do so.
“I had always been fascinated by the May 13 riots. We know they happened, and we’re threatened by the spectre of it every once in a while by some politician. But we never really hear about what actually happened.
“In our textbooks, it’s just a couple of paragraphs, and it’s really sterile. I wanted to know what it felt like, what people actually went through,” says the KL-born author.
“I had never seen it (May 13) reflected in our literature, especially literature targeted at young people.
“And I was worried that, even in my generation, we don’t really know about it. The further we get away from it, the less that young people know, and the less people will remember it.
“If we gloss over the worst parts of our history and we don’t make an effort to preserve it, we run the risk of repeating it. We have to learn from it.”
Also noteworthy is that Melati struggles with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder); a young female Malay Muslim protagonist coping with mental illness is a rarity in local English YA fiction.
In the novel, Melati believes the struggles in her mind are caused by a djinn and she develops an intricate set of rituals to cope with them.
“It’s one of those things we don’t talk about enough,” says Hanna.
“We are getting better, though. There’s still a tendency in many pockets of our society to view mental illness as spiritual weakness.
“And you can’t get away from a conflation of religion and faith with mental health here because they’re such big parts of everyone’s life.”
She speaks with the authority of the author of 2016’s well-received nonfiction book, GILA: A Journey Through Moods And Madness, for which she researched the Malaysian mental health industry.
“Being mentally ill in Malaysia is very different from dealing with mental illness in other parts of the world. And I wanted to see that play out in a book. I had never seen mental illness and Islam intersect in a young adult book before.”
What is particularly important to Hanna, though, is how Melati is portrayed.
“I wanted to write a story of a hero who has to deal with these things that she can’t understand. It’s 1969, and not many people understand her condition.
“But I also wanted to show she could learn to live with it, on her terms, and still be a hero. She could still save the day instead of being only someone who needed saving,” says Hanna.
“I didn’t want a caricature, portrayed as crazy or a villain because of her mental illness.
“We see a lot of that, ‘Ha, ha I want to blow up the world because I’m crazy’, even in really amazing media. There’s still a tendency to default to those kinds of portrayals. But we deserve better than that.”
The path to The Weight Of Our Sky’s publication was long and colourful. Especially because Hanna is a bit of a reluctant novelist. The younger Hanna was a huge fan of reading and writing; in fact, she was just 18 when she had her first short story published in one of indie publisher Silverfish Books’ anthologies.
After that, however, Hanna found that she simply couldn’t write any more. Fiction, she decided, was not for her – creative writing was not something one did to earn a living. So she turned her attention to journalism instead, earning a degree in the subject from Northwestern University in the United States in 2007.
When she returned home, her nonfiction writing started to appear in magazines such as (the Malaysian editions of) Marie Claire, Esquire and Shape, among others.
Her fiction block lasted 12 long years. After that, though, Hanna had had enough. The only thing stopping her from writing fiction, she came to realise, was herself. So at 30, she sat down and wrote her second short story.
That story, “The Tryouts”, won the inaugural D.K. Dutt Award for Literary Excellence, and was published in the anthology Champion Fellas put out by indie publishers Gerak Budaya.
After thoroughly demolishing her block, what was Hanna going to do next? Write a full length novel, apparently.
She began work on The Weight Of Our Sky in December 2016, finishing in February the next year. She decided to get it published overseas, so she began sending samples of her work to agents in Britain and the United States.
And three hours after sending the first batch of samples out, Hanna received a request from an agent, asking for more – three hours! In fact, her manuscript attracted a lot of attention and, long story short, she ended up signing with Victoria Marini at the Irene Goodman Literary Agency in New York.
Not long after that, her book was picked up by Salaam Reads, Simon & Schuster’s children’s book imprint that publishes Muslim voices.
So what’s next for Hanna? Might there be a follow up to Melati’s story? While Hanna never likes to say never, she does think that character’s story is done.
The author hints, however, at a host of new projects we can look forward to seeing in future.
“There are so many things! I always have at least three projects on different burners. There are a lot of things I can’t talk about yet.
“But it’s safe to say, this is not my last book. And you will be hearing from me, sooner rather than later,” Hanna says.
We can’t wait.