The Weight of Our Sky
By Hana Alkaf
[Salaam Reads, 274 pages]
Owing to its subject matter — the May 13th race riots — and publishing circumstances, The Weight of the Sky was probably the most highly anticipated book to be written by a Malaysian author in the last few years. Hanna Alkaf is a Malaysian who lives and writes in Malaysia, and her publisher is an imprint of American publishing house Simon & Schuster. Malaysians get very excited when our authors are recognised (i.e. given contracts) by Western publishers, but I think this recognition couldn’t have happened to a better writer.
I’ve enjoyed what little I’ve read written by Hanna Alkaf, but perhaps this led me to expect much more of this book than it delivers. Then again, it’s not her writing style in The Weight of Our Sky that I have problems with. The narrative flows smoothly, the characters are well drawn; and some observations and descriptions are truly memorable.
Of course, the subject matter alone is a powerful draw. It was about time that a novel in which the 1969 race riots takes centrestage was written (and published), and I like that Hanna’s is a book for young readers as they are the ones who are less likely to know about the riots. Even if you are a Malaysian adult with zero knowledge of what happened, this novel will also give you some idea of the events that began on 13th May of that year, in Kuala Lumpur.
Besides the sectarian violence, the novel centres mental illness and Hanna’s portrayal of her protagonist’s mental state is superbly done. The way Melati perceives and describes her OCD is thoroughly convincing. I could feel, intensely, her fear of the Djinn, and Hana depicts this so well that the character’s dread and terror seems totally reasonable.
I also like the scene in the cinema (no spoilers). It was the first of, frankly, several scenes that made cry, although I admit that I’ve been known to shed tears over TV commercials. However, I can’t imagine anyone not being touched and horrified by the scene in the cinema. That’s some wonderful evocative and emotional writing right there.
Now, what I think didn’t work so well …
Well, on the whole, I didn’t feel like I was reading a story set in 1960s Malaysia. It felt too modern, too now ...
Melati’s best friend Safiyah is a gregarious, cheerful girl who ‘high fives’ everyone; Melati’s mother ‘floors’ the car she’s driving, rushing assorted victims of the riots to the hospital; someone says that another character has got it ‘covered’; Melati tells herself to ‘get a grip’; a public phone seems to work exactly like the public phones do today (they didn’t); the Chongs are so super woke, to the point of being saintly, and this is does not ring at all true of a Malaysian-Chinese family, especially of that era. These are just some of the examples of how the story doesn’t feel like it’s set in 1969.
Then there’s the novel’s cover illustration. The author has been quoted saying that she specifically wanted the cover to show the protagonist wearing Malaysia’s turquoise-blue school uniform. However, this uniform wasn’t introduced in state-run schools until the early 70s. So, it’s another anachronism, but perhaps it was just important for Hana that the cover feature an image that would resonate with modern Malaysian teenagers.
Do I sound like I’m nitpicking? I do realise that young readers wouldn’t blink at any of the above examples, but I found them jarring. I was only two in 1969, but I remember my childhood in the 70s very well and the Malaysia and Malaysians described in the novel don’t match my memories of Malaysia then. These inconsistencies may seem inconsequential, but, to me, they interfere with the overall feel and authenticity of the story.
On the whole, the spoken language used isn’t realistic either (see the examples above). Modes of speech change, and Malaysians use many Americanisms these days, but I don’t believe it was the case in then. In some scenes, the characters may be speaking in Malay or some other non-English language, but it would have been better if the ‘translations’ reflected the times and the way people spoke. For example, Melati asks the little girl, ‘Do you have to go?’ meaning if she has to use the toilet. I can’t imagine Malaysians of that era saying that, particularly to a small child. Neither would many Malaysians say something like ‘Cat got your tongue?’ as does the man with the Chinese accent whom Melati encounters.
With my editor’s hat on I’d say that the problem with this book being published by an American imprint is that the editor will not know what it’s like in Malaysia now, let alone in the 60s. The novel would have benefited from having Malaysian beta readers of an appropriate age, but they would have had to be experienced enough to detect anachronistic phrases, words, objects and practices. Their knowledge and memory of 1960s Malaysia and Malaysians would also have to be accurate of course.
Another thing I did not appreciate about the novel were the author’s attempts to highlight racial unity and brotherhood by having Malaysia’s three main races represented in some scenes. I found those scenes somewhat contrived, although, granted, such situations may very well have occurred. I even found the scene in which the proverb (‘Di mana bumi dipijak, di situ langit dijunjung’ or ‘Wherever we stand, it is the weight of the sky above that we bear’) from which the title is derived, rather cringe-worthy. I suppose the author thought it more significant to have a Malay proverb being taught to a Malay by a Chinese, but, again, I was unconvinced. As for Melati confronting both Malay and Chinese factions, hellbent on retribution, with the proverb and stunning them into silence … I felt that really required a suspension of disbelief.
Nevertheless, this was a novel that needed to be written and published. To my knowledge it is the first novel to use the riots as its main backdrop and I would be interested to read other portrayals of the events she describes. (Actually, I’d just like to see more fiction about life in Malaysia, and not just set during significant historical times. That, I hope, will come in time. Right now, I suppose publishers are still pandering to the West’s taste for an exotic and/or turbulent Asia.)
In fact, while it’s quite understandable that Westerners would be unfamiliar with the race riots described in this novel (this was not the only race riots that happened), many Malaysians are equally ignorant of them, for various and quite different reasons.
One reason is that this is not a topic that gets discussed much, either officially or informally. When I was at school, the history books covered the incident in just a few lines. I grew up being told to never mention the date and the fear of what would happen if I did, lingers (irrationally) to this day. This is why I’m glad Hanna Alkaf got her publishing deal with an American house. Who knows if a Malaysian press would publish such a novel: We still, avidly and habitually, practise self-censorship.