Review: The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

35614314A music-loving teen with OCD does everything she can to find her way back to her mother during the historic race riots in 1969 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in this heart-pounding literary debut.

Melati Ahmad looks like your typical moviegoing, Beatles-obsessed sixteen-year-old. Unlike most other sixteen-year-olds though, Mel also believes that she harbors a djinn inside her, one who threatens her with horrific images of her mother’s death unless she adheres to an elaborate ritual of counting and tapping to keep him satisfied.

But there are things that Melati can’t protect her mother from. On the evening of May 13th, 1969, racial tensions in her home city of Kuala Lumpur boil over. The Chinese and Malays are at war, and Mel and her mother become separated by a city in flames.

With a 24-hour curfew in place and all lines of communication down, it will take the help of a Chinese boy named Vincent and all of the courage and grit in Melati’s arsenal to overcome the violence on the streets, her own prejudices, and her djinn’s surging power to make it back to the one person she can’t risk losing.

Content warnings: Racism, graphic violence, on-page death, OCD and anxiety triggers.

RATING: ☆★☆★

The Weight of Our Sky is a labor of pain, but it’s also a labor of tremendous love.

I went into this book knowing very little about the race riots of 1969 in Kuala Lumpur, but Hanna Alkaf has delivered a very informed, yet intimately personal account of one of the most tragic incidents that are folded into the history of Malaysia.

The Weight of Our Sky feels deeply resonant in its somber portrayal of humanity’s violence against itself. The weight of the riots’ reality falls upon Melati, a Muslim Malay teen, when a Chinese execution mob irrupts into the theater where Melati was hanging out with her best friend, Saf. It’s all frantic, sluggish panic when Melati is saved by a Chinese lady and forced to leave Saf behind, and, in the gasping gnaw of her fear and guilt, Melati is running furiously through her options and finding precious few that hold even a glimmer of hope. But even when her mind played these unkind games, Melati’s courage unbowed, her determination searing a path through the haze of despair. Death is ambling through the empty streets of Kuala Lumpur, and Melati wants to break and run, in any direction, so long as it led to her mother.

Dread was a steady drumbeat in my throat while reading this book. It caught at my guts like a cold hand and sat a nauseating quiver in the marrow of my bones, this realization that a person could be driven mad by hate, how a stranger—someone you’ve never met, much less wronged—could look at you with odium etched into every line of their face, hatred pounding through them like blood and their hands tangling with it, and wish you harm. The thought is unutterably sad. After I finished, I spent some time researching and got even more out of the story. Not in the sense that I didn’t get stuff before, but that I understood it more after some mining. All that research didn’t squelch the storm that had kicked up in my mind, but it did leave a faint sickness behind.

“Di mana bumi dipijak, di situ langit dijunjung. Have you heard this before? It means where we plant our feet is where we must hold up the sky. We live and die by the rules of the land we live in. But this country belongs to all of us! We make our own sky, and we can hold it up—together.”

The Weight of Our Sky shines in the integrity of its themes. To see Alkaf also devote substantial effort and attention to the subject of mental illness and treat it with seriousness, and to see her use Melati’s experience as a fulcrum from which to examine the taboo surrounding mental health, especially within Muslim communities, snagged at my heart the most.

Melati’s mind has been a realm of horrors since her father’s death drained all color from her life, his loss like a hole torn in the world. Ever since, Melati has settled into the belief that a djinn has stolen into her consciousness, a shadow across any possibility she might have had for happiness, and worse, it had seen in her the softest, weakest part of her heart where she held her mother and delighted in dragging into her mind festering images of her dying again and again. Because it was Melati’s deepest and most wretched fear and the djinn knew it. Now, the monster had set the clock ticking and Melati can only mollify him by counting and tapping in threes.

The Weight of Our Sky is a riveting, bold, and honest story that allows for complexness in the reality of what living with mental illness is like. This kind of honesty is bracing and builds into something heart-wrenchingly resonant. Reading about Melati’s struggles filled my chest with that strange mixture of sorrow and understanding that I could never explain, a feeling that words could neither shape nor own. It made me feel unmoored, like I had nothing of my own, not even unspoken secrets. Talking about mental health is rarely an option in our Muslim communities. Family pride and honor hangs over everything and mental illness remains something which we would prefer the world to remain ignorant. Like Melati, moving deep among my memories are voices of people telling me my struggles are due to deficiency in faith, or weakness of character, that it was a trial, an act of punishment, that I was readily inviting demonic possession.

Melati’s story put me back into the feeling of my own world exploding into bright fragments of agony. How it kept spilling out of me, grabbing whatever it could, and how I learned to pretend it away. I stopped asking for help too. It was as if I was viewing my own illness from the end of a long tunnel, set apart from its immediacy, removed from the currents of its need. The gnawing misery did not ease, but stronger than that, more than that, was the mixture of guilt and shame and fear—fear that I’d be shunned, that I’d be labeled “crazy”, or “possessed”. What happens when your faith doesn’t cure that little rip in the middle of you, that black bruise on your soul struggling to heal? Does that mean Allah hates you? That you’re not praying properly? Is this your punishment for being a terrible Muslim? The questions surface from the wreckage, sharp and cold enough to impale.

There’s a real stigmatization of mental illness in Muslim societies, and in many ways, this owes more to culture than Islam in itself. Books like The Weight of Our Sky are so important because they open the door wide open for conversation. It’s important to talk about mental illness. It’s important to address the extremely negative and non-medical perceptions a lot of Muslims have about mental illness.

Adults rarely like being told that they don’t have all the answers, or worse still, that the answers they do have are all the wrong ones.

But The Weight of Our Sky isn’t all grim. Alkaf allows hope to buoy to the surface and lances through the story with a shot-silk shimmer of gaiety and tenderness. And even though the book feels like an array of heartrending moments, it feels more like an exuberant celebration of the small acts of courage and kindness that make huge differences, and an appreciation of each day as a renewed opportunity.

With all that being said, I wish this book were longer, or that the story had a slower, more organic build. Instead, the novel’s tight pacing feels rushed, and the plot unfolds in fits and starts. I think a little more breathing room or build-up might have led to a smoother conclusion. A bit more ink in the pen would have also helped drawing out some of the characters, instead of making them special only to the extent they serve a purpose. The novel could have provided a more harmonious and detailed counterpoint to Melati’s journey rather than painting Vincent’s and Frankie’s storylines in very broad strokes, rendering them almost trivial.

All these quibbles are the reason why I initially gave this book a three-stars rating, but upon reflection, I realized that these snags dissipate in the warm tide of an immensely affecting story, and an important, veracious voice.

Overall, highly recommended!

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