Everything is okay until it is not. People greet each other pleasantly until they turn to killing the other. Just like that, everything can change.
It is the suddenness of it all – the thought that a single spark can set raging fire to hidden racial tensions – that fills me with a chill. The chill lingers all the way through as I devour Hanna Alkaf ’s best-selling debut novel The Weight of Our Sky.
The story is set in one of Malaysia’s most painful times – the race riots of May 13, 1969 – as seen through the bewildered eyes of Melati Ahmad, a 16-year-old schoolgirl. One moment, Melati and her friend were watching a movie in Rex Cinema; the next, they were fighting for their lives with deadly mobs on the streets.
Melati escapes with a middle-aged Chinese woman who takes her into her home. As the story unfolds, we learn about this Chinese family’s personal experiences with fellow Malaysians of different races, and how this had shaped their own perspectives.
As she struggles through the riots, Melati also struggles with a “djinn” in her head who fills her mind with gruesome images of her mother’s death if she does not constantly count in permutations of three. The djinn is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Both struggles form the narrative, one flowing into the other.
This story, dark as it is, found immediate resonance with Malaysians with copies of the book flying off the shelves. Barely three weeks after its launch in early February, the international edition had gone into a second print run.
Hanna, 34, said “relevance” is the word most often used when people discuss the book, and that’s from both Malaysians and foreigners. The story resonates even among non-Malaysians abroad, and this tells us a lot about the world.
“That’s the saddest thing – that it is relevant. It’s a sad indictment of where our society is,” she says. “As much as we want to believe that this belongs to the past, it doesn’t.”
The fictional story of Melati took place 50 years ago this month. Yet, even today, prickly race relations continue to mar Malaysia’s socio-political landscape. Melati’s story offers a way for us to grasp, in very human terms, what happened on May 13, and to think about its lasting impact.
Hanna says she wasn’t trying to write an exploration of politics or the socio-economic circumstances at that time. “I wanted to focus on the people, and what it was like to live at that time,” she says.
She had previously worked as a journalist writing long-form features for magazines. Her first non-fiction book, Gila: A Journey Through Moods & Madness, was born out of her desire to explore mental health and illness.
She wanted to do the same for May 13, to shine a light on the human experience of the riots, and chose to explore it through fiction.
Malaysia’s silence around May 13 had long puzzled her, ever since she gained a strong political consciousness as a 19-yearold journalism student in Northwestern University in Illinois, the US.
“It was difficult not to compare and contrast,” she says. “In the US, people talked openly about racial issues, and that opened my eyes. I didn’t feel we were talking enough about it here.”
It puzzled her that such a major event as a race riot is recorded in a scant few lines in history textbooks. “It was made sterile and boiled down to a couple of numbers without a narrative,” she recalls. “And when we do talk about it now, it is in ways that strips it of its meaning. It is held up as a spectre, a threat by certain parties.”
Her parents, who were university students at that time, did not talk about it to her, either. She does not fault them because she understands that it may be too painful to talk about, and there may be a desire to avoid raking up old issues.
Hanna filled in the gaps through research as she dove into official accounts, academic texts, fiction, news stories and interviews with people who had lived through that time. The depth of her research shows, as she demonstrates an uncanny knack of getting into the heads of her characters. Her narrative is presented through the lenses of both sides, allowing us to see how each perceives the other – in empathy or bitterness.
To her, it is important that the story does not have clear-cut villains and heroes; no one party is in the right and the other in the wrong. It was a complex blend of factors then, and now.
“I can’t say I know what it’s like to be the other person,” she says, “but I have friends of all races, and my parents too. It wasn’t so difficult to put myself in their shoes.”
The novel shines a rare introspective spotlight on race relations in Malaysia, and on mental illness, in a way that is rarely attempted. Along the way, it also smashes a few gender stereotypes with its central character being a teenage girl, and her rescuer a woman with a spine of steel.
In this story of violence, it is strong women who are the key story-tellers.
“They are strong women but their strength doesn’t come from kicking butts – it’s not based on physical strength. Their strength comes from a different place. It’s okay to show strength in a different form – there is value in someone who is struggling and still gets to be a hero,” she says.
It took strength as well for Hanna to put this book out there. Though the response has been overwhelming, Hanna recalls a few hostile reactions about stirring up a hornet’s nest and rekindling painful memories.
Yet, ironically, it is the silence that has failed Malaysians by not allowing us to delve deep into the tensions that divide us, or to bridge the gap. This novel nudges the door open for a more thoughtful and introspective look at ourselves.
As Hanna noted, it can be done with respect and humility. Ignoring it, she says, is dehumanising and disrespectful of those who died in the riots and those who hold painful memories of it.
“It doesn’t help us,” she says.
Carolyn Hong lives in Ba Kelalan sometimes, in KL sometimes. A former journalist who once chased the big stories for a regional newspaper, she now hunts for the small stories in Malaysia’s smallest places.