Originally published at Wait A Minute Now
21 March 2018

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Unapologetically Malaysian: Hanna Alkaf

Representation is a theme I frequently see discussed in literary spaces online: underrepresented groups like queer people, trans people, people of colour and people with disabilities crave fiction they can directly relate to, rather than lazy stereotypes or just plain erasure. Often, though, when a relatable portrayal breaks through, non-Western readers can still only relate at a distance, because the publishing world is so US- and Anglo-focused. In young adult literature, you might identify with a marginalised character navigating American high school - but imagine how different their story might be if they attended SMK instead.

That's just one reason why I'm so excited about former journalist Hanna Alkaf's debut novel, The Weight of Our Sky, which will be published by Simon & Schuster imprint Salaam Reads in 2019. It's set in Malaysia against the backdrop of the May 13 riots, and its protagonist, Melati, struggles with mental health issues. This was already enough to sell me on it, but then Hanna tweeted a partial list of character names and amid the diversity I caught a Punjabi one; I don't remember when I last saw that happen in a Malaysian book, and I take it as a little hint that she's putting in more than a token effort. Hanna laughs (albeit via WhatsApp) when I share my enthusiasm about this. "It's pretty muhibah," she says. "Just don't get too attached to anyone. It was 1969! People died SORRY READERS."

Hanna tells me more about Melati: "[She] seems like your typical 1960s, Beatles-obsessed 16-year-old at first glance. But the truth is that she spends all her time struggling internally with the Djinn she believes is inside her, threatening her with images of her mother's death and forcing her to use a complicated series of counting and tapping rituals to appease him."

It's relevant at this point to rewind to Hanna's debut book, GILA, which came out in 2016 and made an important contribution to local literature on mental health. Her approach to the topic was significant: a commitment to treating marginalised and frequently misunderstood identities with sensitivity. "I noticed that much of the conversation around mental illness was firmly divided between two camps: academic articles in which people were little more than test subjects, and sensationalised news articles that only portrayed the worst bits of mental illness. Both act to either Other or erase the people living with the illnesses from the narrative. I wanted to give them a chance to tell their own stories."

And she succeeded: she continues to hear from readers of GILA who tell her "how much the book has meant to them, how much they felt seen and understood and just not alone".

For The Weight of Our Sky, Hanna sought an agent and subsequently a publisher overseas - while making it clear that she would protect her distinctly Malaysian story from being distorted or repackaged. There was a worry that it would be considered "too different to resonate with readers outside Malaysia", but she took it in her stride. "I think the key thing was that I was very upfront with potential agents and with my editor, later on, that I am unapologetically Malaysian as a writer; this is where I come from, these are the stories I choose to tell, and I have to believe that there are people out there who want to read them. I want kids in other parts of the world to pick up my books and be able to see and understand worlds and experiences different from their own."

The message she hopes foreign readers will take away: "We are here. We exist. Our stories are just as valid as yours, our storytellers just as capable. Give us space to flourish alongside you."

And what Hanna hopes to give Malaysian audiences - besides a damn good story - is a glimpse of the representation she couldn't find for herself in fiction. "I once read somewhere that it's important for fiction to provide both mirrors and windows for young readers, and I think that's true. I want young Malaysian readers to see themselves and their experiences reflected in my books and know that they are real and valid. Besides having a mirror, I also want them to realise that it's possible - the agent, the book deal, all of it - even if you are in Malaysia, even if you're writing about Malaysia, even if you've never been published before - as long as you're willing to put in the work. I think a lot of people count themselves out before they even begin, dismissing it as impossible. But it isn't. If I can do it, seriously, anybody can, and better too."

She added: "And that isn't to say that being published this way is the only valid way. You're still an author if you publish locally, and if you self-publish too! But if this is a dream you're dismissing because it seems too big ... it isn't. You can do it. Forge on."