By Maureen Tai, 3 October 2022
The place is Kuala Lumpur. The year is 1969. A Paul Newman movie is playing at the Rex cinema and the Beatles are big. Melati is a 16-year-old Malay schoolgirl whose recently-widowed mother, Salmah, works as a nurse in a hospital. To Melati, Paul McCartney is the best Paul in the world. Her best friend Safiyah begs to differ. These are the normal, comforting parts of the opening scenes in older teen/young adult novel, The Weight of our Sky (ages 12 and up). What is less usual is how Melati constantly taps her fingers and desperately counts in threes. What is more disquieting are the visions that persistently fill Melati’s head: graphic, gory, uninvited images of Salmah being killed in any number of violent ways. What is grippingly page-turning is the story of Melati’s separation from, and search for, her mother during the Chinese-Malay riots that plunged the newly-independent Malaysia into bloodshed and chaos on 13 May 1969.
The significance of Alkaf’s debut novel is not just the emergence of an exciting, compelling voice in traditional children’s publishing but the prominent feature – I think, for the first time – of Malaysian history, culture and language in a children’s book published by a large, Western publisher. Malay and Chinese words are not italicised. There is no glossary. Just as any book from the US or UK appears to readers in Asia without an explanation of what a snickerdoodle is or how snow angels are made, this unabashedly Malaysian story stands on its own. Without apology and without footnotes, the strong, convincing storytelling an authentic, important and welcome contribution to diversity in contemporary children’s literature. We look forward to hearing more from Alkaf in the years to come.