Today we’re thrilled to reveal the cover of Hanna Alkaf’s forthcoming debut, The Weight of Our Sky! Set in Kuala Lumpur during the race riots of 1969, it centers on Mel, a Beatles-loving sixteen-year-old dealing with the OCD she believes is caused by the djinn she carries inside of her. When violent rioting breaks out, she must traverse a city in peril to reunite with her mother.
Alkaf stopped by the blog to reveal her cover, discuss the book and its inspiration—and to share an exclusive and tantalizing peek at her first chapter!
Did you provide any cover inspiration to the designer?
Alkaf: I didn’t, actually—that was between the art director and the designer, and I love what they came up with!
What were your thoughts when you first saw it?
When I saw the earliest draft, my jaw dropped. I may or may not have screamed and scared my kids. I also may or may not have cried.
I love how dynamic it is—it sucks you in and puts you right in the middle of the action. I also love that it’s a gorgeous cover in its own right, but it’s also a distinctly Malaysian cover for a distinctly Malaysian story (I’ll elaborate more on this below!).
Did the cover change much from first image to final image?
I loved the cover the moment I saw it, but there were a couple of things that I asked to change. The bike was different in the first version—it was a model that wouldn’t have been widely used at the time—and since I tried my best to have the text reflect 1969 as closely and accurately as possible, that had to change. There was also nothing about the cover that set it apart as a Malaysian story, and that was important to me, so I asked that Melati’s clothes be changed to her school uniform, a turquoise blue pinafore over a plain white shirt. Those changes may not make much of a difference to most people, but to my fellow Malaysians, they’re immediately recognizable, like a secret password from me to them, a message that this is our story.
Can you tell us a little about the book?
Melati Ahmad looks like your typical moviegoing, Beatles-obsessed sixteen-year-old. Unlike most other sixteen-year-olds, though, Mel believes 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 when tensions boil over in the murky boiling pot that is Kuala Lumpur in 1969, Mel finds herself caught in the middle of the violent race riots between the Chinese and the Malays. And it will take all her grit and courage and the kindness of strangers to get her across a city in flames and back to the one person she can’t afford to lose.
What was your inspiration for the book?
The May 13th riots hold a certain fascination for me, mostly because it’s something we don’t really talk about. It’s covered in a mere two or three paragraphs in our history textbooks, and when people do talk about it, it’s either to downplay it (“let the past remain in the past”) or use it as a sort of vague threat (politicians who warn us about “having another May 13th on our hands” to get us to stop debating important issues as a way of minimizing dissent). It worried me that generations coming after mine will know even less, and the less we talk about our history, our traumas, the more likely we are to repeat them.
I also wanted to write a story that talked openly about the intersection between mental illness, culture, and religion—specifically Islam—which is a subject close to my heart.
What’s your writing process like?
I’m an Extreme Planner! I work from two different outlines: A chapter-by-chapter outline in a Word document, and a spreadsheet that breaks each chapter down into scenes so I can check for flow. I have a spreadsheet of character profiles. I generally have some sort of map to refer to (for fantasy, I sketch it out; for The Weight of Our Sky, I had a vintage scanned map of ’60s Kuala Lumpur that I would compare against Google Maps to make sure travel times, distances, and layouts were accurate). And—maybe because I went to journalism school—I compiled my research first: articles, white papers, survivor interviews, subject matter expert interviews—everyone from a psychologist explaining treatment options available locally for OCD in the ’60s to a weapons expert telling me what kind of firearms our soldiers might have used at the time to a Malaysian music expert who sent me scanned Billboard Top Ten lists for every month of that particular year!
It sounds ridiculous once I’ve typed it out, but really, I do all this because I’m a stay-at-home parent to two kids under five, so my writing time is very limited! Planning it all out this way makes it so I don’t spend what little time I have sitting and staring at a blank screen, because I know myself, and the longer I do that, the louder that little nagging voice in my head that tells me I’m a terrible writer gets.
I know most people also say you should just get that first draft out and not worry about it being perfect, and I think that’s fantastic advice. I also can’t ever follow it. I tend to edit as I go, and if characters go rogue and the story starts to veer from the outline, I need to go back and change the outline AND THEN add or edit what I’ve already written as necessary, otherwise I just can’t go on! The upside of this is that by the time I’m done drafting, it’s more like a third or fourth draft than a first.
Chapter One of The Weight of Our Sky
By the time school ends on Tuesday, my mother has died seventeen times.
On the way to school, she is run over by a runaway lorry, her insides smeared across the black tar road like so much strawberry jelly. During English, while we recite a poem to remember our parts of speech (“An interjection cries out HARK! I need an EXCLAMATION MARK!” our teacher Mrs. Lalitha declaims, gesturing for us to follow, pulling the most dramatic faces), she is caught in a cross fire between police and gang members and is killed by a stray bullet straight through her chest, blood blossoming in delicate blooms all over her crisp white nurse’s uniform. At recess, she accidentally ingests some sort of dire poison and dies screaming in agony, her face purple, the corners of her open mouth flecked with white foam and spittle. And as we peruse our geography textbooks, my mother is stabbed repeatedly by robbers, the wicked blades of their parangs gliding through her flesh as though it were butter.
I know the signs; this is the Djinn, unfolding himself, stretching out, pricking me gently with his clawed fingers. See what I can do? he whispers, unfurling yet another death scene in all its technicolor glory. See what happens when you disobey? They float to the top of my consciousness unbidden at the most random times and set off a chain reaction throughout my entire body: cold sweat, damp palms, racing heart, nausea, light-headedness, the sensation of a thousand needles pricking me from head to toe.
It seems difficult now to believe that there was ever a time when the only djinns I believed in came from fairy tales, benevolent creatures that poured like smoke from humble old oil lamps and antique rings, granted you your heart’s desire, then disappeared when the transaction was complete. I might even have daydreamed of finding one someday. And later, they took a different form, one informed by religious teachers and Quran recitation classes: creatures of smoke and fire, who had their own realm on Earth and kept to themselves, for the most part.
I didn’t realize they could be sharp, cruel, insidious little things that crept and wormed their way into your thoughts and made your brain hot and itchy.
The clanging of the final bell echoes through the school corridors. “Te-ri-ma-ka-sih-cik-gu.” The class singsongs their thank-yous in unison as Mrs. Lim nods and strides briskly out the door in her severe, high-necked navy-blue dress, the blackboard covered in complicated mathematical formulas, the floor before it covered in chalk dust. I stuff my books hurriedly into my bag, smiling halfheartedly and waving as other girls pass—“Bye, Mel!” “See you tomorrow!”—and I concentrate on the task at hand. Biggest to smallest, pencil case in the right-hand pocket, tap each item three times before closing the bag, one, two, three. Something feels off. My hands are frozen, suspended above my belongings. Did I do that right? Did I tap three times or four? I break out into a light sweat. Again, the Djinn whispers, again. Think how much better you’ll feel when you finally get it.
No, I tell him firmly, trying to ignore the way my fingers twitch, the wave of panic rising from my stomach.
Yes, he says.
One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two . . .
I look up, startled. My best friend Safiyah is standing by my desk, rocking back and forth eagerly on her heels, quivering with high excitement from the tips of her toes to the tip of her perfectly perky ponytail, tied back with a length of white ribbon. “Perfectly perky” is actually a great description of Saf in general, whom my mother often jokes only ever has two modes: “happy” and “asleep.” She bounces away through her days, dispensing ready smiles, compliments, and high fives to all and sundry, while I trail along in her wake, awkward, vaguely melancholy, and in a constant state of semi-embarrassment.
I’m pretty sure Saf is the reason I have friends at all.
Saf’s face falls. “Don’t tell me you forgot! You, me, Paul? Remember?”
“Oh, that.” My heart sinks. The last thing I want to do right now is be trapped in the dark, stuffy recesses of the neighborhood cinema as everyone else watches one movie and the Djinn forces me to watch another.
“Do we really have to, Saf?” I sling my bag over my shoulder and make for the door. One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three. There is a very specific pattern to adhere to, a rhythm that’s smooth and soothing, like the waltzes Mama likes to listen to on the radio on Sunday afternoons. A method to the madness.
Not that this is madness. It’s the Djinn.
“Of course we do!” Saf scurries along beside me, taking two steps for every one of my strides. “You promised! And anyway, I always back you up when it’s something to do with your Paul. . . .”
“You leave Paul McCartney out of this.” Right foot first out the door—good. “Or any of the Beatles, for that matter,” I add as an afterthought. I mean, I’m a little iffy about Ringo, but even he’s better than Paul Newman.
One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three.
“Come on, Mel, please. . . .” her tone is wheedling now. “You know it has to be today. My dad’s at some kind of meeting until late. He’ll never let me go otherwise. You know how he feels about movies.” She screws up her face and lowers her voice in a dead-on imitation of her father. “’Movies? Movies DULL the mind, Safiyah. They are the refuge of the UNCULTURED and the UNEDUCATED. They erode your MORALS.’”
I snort with laughter in spite of myself. “Fine,” I say grudgingly. “It’s not like Mama expects me at home anyway; she’s on shift at the hospital until tonight. But can’t we go to Cathay or Pavilion? At least they aren’t so far. We could just walk.”
Saf shakes her head firmly. “The Rex,” she says. “We have to go to the Rex.”
I shoot her a glance. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that Jason’s father’s sugarcane stall happens to be right across the street from there, right?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Saf says innocently, playing with the frayed end of her hair ribbon and doing her best not to look at me, a blush spreading like wildfire across her dimpled cheeks. “I just . . . really happen to prefer watching movies at the Rex.” I can’t help but grin. Saf can fool a lot of people with those good-girl looks and that demure smile, but then again most people haven’t been friends with her since the age of seven, when she marched right up to me on the first day of primary school, while everyone else stood around looking nervous and unsure, and declared cheerfully, “I like you! Let’s be best friends.” On the surface, we’re polar opposites: She is bright where I am dim, cheery smiles where I am worried frowns, pleasing plumpness where I am sharp, uncomfortable angles. But maybe that’s why we fit together so perfectly.
“You are so obvious,” I snigger, jabbing her in the ribs, and we dissolve into giggles as we run for the bus.
I hoist myself up the steps—right foot first: good girl, Mel—and the Djinn suddenly rears up, ready and alert. I feel a sickening weight in my stomach. The right-hand window seat in the third row, my usual choice—the safest choice—is occupied. A Chinese auntie, her loose shortsleeved blouse boasting dark patches of sweat, dozes in the afternoon heat. Whenever she leans too far forward, she quickly jerks her head back, her eyes opening for a split second, her face rearranging itself into something resembling propriety. But before long, she’s nodding off again, lulled by the gentle rolling of the bus.
I can feel the panic start to descend, that telltale prickling starting in my toes and working its way up to claim the rest of me. If you don’t sit in that seat, the safe seat, Mama will die, the Djinn whispers, and I hate how familiar his voice is to my ears, that low, rich rasp like gravel wrapped in velvet. Mama will die, and it’ll be all your fault.
I know it doesn’t make sense. I know it shouldn’t matter. But at the same time, I am absolutely certain that nothing matters more than this, not a single thing in the entire world. My chest heaves, up and down, up and down.
Quickly, I slide into the window seat on the left—still third row, which is good, but on the left, which is most definitely, terribly, awfully not good. But I can make it right. I can make it safe.
The old blue bus coughs and wheezes its way down the road and as Saf waxes lyrical about the dreamy swoop of Paul Newman’s perfect hair and the heavenly blue of his perfect eyes, my mother is floating, floating, floating down into the depths of the Klang River, her face blue, her eyes shut, her lungs filled with murky water.
Quickly, quietly, so that Saf won’t notice, I tap my right foot, then my left, then right again, thirty-three sets of three altogether, all the way to Petaling Street.
Finally, the Djinn subsides. For now.
The Weight of Our Sky is available for preorder now, and hits shelves February 5.