Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Microreview [Book]: The Weight of our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

A well-crafted delight for YA fans seeking horizon-broadening historical fare

Cover Art by Guy Shields

As a historical YA set in Malaysia with only the lightest of speculative elements, The Weight of our Sky is a bit out-of-lane for this blog, but the author overlaps with a lot of the Twitter writing people that I follow, and this debut has been on my radar for quite some time. I've spent some time in Southeast Asia and am familiar with a fair bit of the region's 20th century history, but I knew little about Malaysia and the complex historical relationships between its ethnic groups. The Weight of our Sky focuses on once incident in particular: the riots set off on 13 May 1969 in Kuala Lumpur, in which hundreds of people (with wildly diverging "official" and "unofficial" death tolls) were killed in sectarian violence largely between Chinese and Malay populations in the city. This is an event that clearly still looms large among Malaysian communities and I think it's particularly important for a book like this for me to note that what follows is an outgroup review and only likely to be insightful to those, like me, coming from an outsider perspective with limited understanding of the specific cultural context. For a more ownvoices take, I recommend The Quiet Pond for a perspective from the Malaysian diaspora.

The protagonist of The Weight of our Sky is a Melati, a young Malay Muslim woman who, since the untimely death of her father, has been suffering from what she feels is possession by a malevolent djinn: trapped by compulsions and by obsessive thoughts about the death of her mother (symptoms which are recognisable to a modern audience as OCD), she is already struggling when the events of May 13 begin.  Caught in the cinema where she and her friend have been watching a film, Melati narrowly escapes the first round of violence, and is taken in by an older Chinese woman, Auntie Bee, who looks after her in the days following the riots. Despite being from ethnic groups on different side of the conflict, Melati connects with most members of the family and integrates into the small community they build while trying to survive the now-lawless city. Still desperate to get back to her mother, however, she convinces the family's younger son, who is volunteering with the Red Cross, to take her out on his trips - and soon learns how dangerous the streets still are and how much courage and willpower it will take to survive, and help others, in the circumstances.

The book wastes no time getting into its historical events, and the opening chapters provide all the necessary information to understand Melati's society and the immediate trigger to the riots. It does so while placing significantly more weight on Melati's personal history, and particularly the symptoms and progression of her illness. Melati's battles with OCD, including her self-talk and her constant rationalising and bargaining with herself over compulsive behaviour, are front and centre of every chapter, and its all-encompassing nature gives her character a broadly relateable and satisfying arc without overstating her agency in a complicated political situation. It also allows Melati to be somewhat distracted about the underlying factors of the riots and for characters to be able to explain these to her, making them more accessible to modern readers, particularly those who may not have a background on the ongoing tensions between communities in Malaysia. By not dwelling on the immediate political triggers and relying on their explanatory power, Alkaf's story manages to drive home the overwhelming senselessness of the ethnic tensions that are driving people to violence, while gently exploring some of the social factors that have made the communities' lives harder through the eyes of a painfully fallible young protagonist.

The treatment of Melati's OCD, particularly in this time and place, could have easily been a story by itself without the historical trauma, and it's treated in a way which feels very real. Melati makes sense of her suffering by assuming is that that there is a djinn in her head who needs constant appeasement through rituals in order to ensure her mother stays alive (or to at least stop the thoughts about her death; the book is deliberately vague and illogical, just as mental illnesses themselves are). The use of this device is explained in the author foreword, but even without the particular cultural touchstones, Melati's internal dialogue makes an unpleasant kind of sense to anyone who has dealt with intrusive thoughts or negative self-talk, and we can only watch in sympathy as she is paralysed with her compulsive behaviours at the worst possible times, or locks herself into vicious cycles where every tiny failure or trauma contributes to a confirmatory bias in which she is the sole person responsible for the fate of her loved ones.

For most of the book, the threat of violence is constant but with the exception of an early incident the individuals who are actually committing the violence remain in the background. Instead we see people who are trying to do their best in bad situations, who have been assaulted offscreen and are now trying to survive, or who condone the racial hatred behind the riots but aren't actually going out and perpetuating it. There's what feels like a deliberate disjointedness between the attitudes of people Melati actually spends time with, no matter how difficult or racist, and the senselessness of the rioting and death that's taken over her city; it drives home the extent to which the causal factors behind the riot - or any incident of this type - just don't justify violence in any rational sense. It's perhaps a little convenient that the one character who is being set up to play an active role in the fighting is then talked down at the very last minute, avoiding the very complex human spin that would put on the tentative reconciliation and collective grief the book ends with. On the whole, though, I think the narrative makes the right choices when it comes to showing how the violence takes hold, steering away from any too-easy explanations or straightforward villains to hang the blame on in favour of presenting a difficult political situation in a way that fits the narrative.

The cultural aspects of the story also feel well told, and I could imagine this level of nuance towards an existing culture and historical moment from anything but an own voices story. My particular favourites were the older women in the story: Auntie Bee and Mak Siti- are fantastic characters, imbued with all the cultural gravitas and expectations of being obeyed that an older "Auntie" has in the cultural context. There's a particularly magnificent scene where, on finding her way back to her home, Mak Siti tells Melati off for not coming home on the night of the riot because the fish she'd cooked had gone to waste. It's a statement so ridiculous that even Melati has to work out whether she means it, but the narrative simultaneously makes it clear that Melati needs to take her Auntie's worries seriously, no matter how banal and unreasonable they appear, while also understanding and caring about the emotion and worry that provoked the statement in the first place. Of course, the Aunties are just a small part of an ensemble that encompasses Chinese, Malay and Indians, young and old, military and civilian, and there's generally impressive character work on display making the individuals and small communities Melati comes into contact with feel real, even when their role in the plot is small (and again, sometimes a little too convenient).

I'm hesitant to call any book "required reading", and Alkaf herself notes that there are plenty of reasons not to read the book given its subject matter and potential trigger points. However, Alkaf doesn't treat her subject matter in a gratuitous or deliberately shock-inducing way, and if you're prepared for a difficult read, The Weight of our Sky is accessible a a book dealing with a traumatic historical event is likely to get. That it's a book about an event in 1969 Malaysia with limited visibility on a global stage, published in English for an international audience, makes it something I'd recommend to any non-Malaysian reader seeking to broaden their horizons and engage with events outside the limited slice of history that so often informs our perspectives.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 Balances two enormous issues - the riots and Melati's OCD - with skill and sensitivity

Penalties: -1 Plot occasionally verges on the too-convenient

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

POSTED BY: Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

Reference:  Alkaf, Hanna. The Weight of Our Sky [Salaam Reads, 2019].