Salaam Reads, $10.99, ISBN 978-1-5344-2608-5
Historical Fiction, 2019
While Salaam Reads is a Muslim-friendly imprint of Simon & Schuster, Hanna Alkaf is a Malaysian author, so you know I have to pick this one up. I initially cringed when I realized that this one was in hardcover, but still, I should support a homegrown author so why not – especially since the price of the Kindle edition turns out to be the same as the hardcover, and I’m old school enough to want to hold something I’m reading.
I digress, though. I’m not sure how The Weight of Our Sky will resonate with younger readers, even Malaysians who would only read about the May 13 Incident, as it is euphemistically known as, in sanitized glory in history books. You see, that incident, which happened in 1969, was actually a racial riot between the Malays and Chinese in Malaysia. I lived through those days myself, although I’m fortunate in that the Malays and Chinese in my part of the neighborhood didn’t really partake in the violence that escalated in many parts, some frighteningly close to where I was, and I didn’t have to travel long distance to work, unlike some of my older sisters. Reading this story – which is set in the very neighborhoods I grew up in – gives me the feels of the most bittersweet kind. Let’s just say that I’m glad I actually read this one after I ate my dinner, as I would be in no condition to work up an appetite after finishing this one in a single sitting.
Melati is a 16-year old girl, an ordinary secondary school student in all respects except that she has OCD. Her OCD revolves around wanting to obsessively check whether her mother is safe. She can’t help envisioning all the ways her mother can die on a daily basis, egged on by the voice in her head which she calls a djinn. When she and her friend went off to watch a movie in a cinema, only to be caught in the racial riots, her fears of her mother – a nurse in Kuala Lumpur – really dying compel her to brave the dangers and travel to Kuala Lumpur to find Mama.
Despite the mentions of djinns, this story isn’t a paranormal young adult story. It’s an accurate reflection of how mental disorders were considered the handiwork of the supernatural, even to this day, by a considerable number of folks in this part of the world. Melati is spared from the worst brunt of violence by being of mixed parentage and hence she doesn’t appear very Malay, but the author doesn’t make things easy for our protagonist here. This story is not sugarcoated or sanitized – while the depiction of actual violence is far from graphic, this story can be terrifying on a visceral level, as violence based on racial tensions turns the people you know for a long time into dangerous predators, and the pointlessness, senselessness of the ravages caused by such violence cuts deep into the heart.
At the same time, I appreciate how the author doesn’t lay blame of the Incident on any parties here – that is a different can of worms best left for another day – and focuses instead on how there are still some sanity and even reason during the chaos. Melati finds help from some Chinese people here, and what I really like here is how these Chinese people are not portrayed as one-dimensional beacons of virtue. These folks are recognizably human – they may not partake in the senseless violence around them, but they are also allowed to have some flaws and even what some folks today would call “wrong think”. I like that the take home message here is that you don’t have to be a one-dimensional stereotype to be considered a good person.
The ending is appropriately bittersweet, and as a Malaysian, while I’m confident that we aren’t going to have a repeat of the May 13 Incident, racial tensions are still high. It doesn’t help that politicians and the media weaponize this issue for their personal gains without any heed for the long-term damage it can do to all of us. Hence, I personally feel that The Weight of Our Sky is a solid, relevant story that should be read by more folks in this country. The effective portrayal of OCD and how those people affected by it and other mental conditions fail to receive help due to superstition is only icing on the cake. Read this powerfully visceral book, stop following race-baiting news on social media, and don’t support politicians, corporations, and news platforms that weaponize identity politics for their own gains – that’s a start in regaining some sanity in this mad, mad digital world.