The Weight of Our Sky

The Weight of Our Sky

Hanna Alkaf

For Malik and Maryam, as proof that dreams do come true.

For Umar, without whom this one wouldn’t have.

And for anak-anak Malaysia everywhere.


Before I even begin to say anything else, I’m going to say this: This book is not a light and easy read, and in the interest of minimizing harm, I’d like to warn you now that its contents include graphic violence, death, racism, OCD, and anxiety triggers. If any of this is distressing for you at this time, I’d recommend either waiting until you’re in the right space to take all of that on or forgoing it altogether.

Is that weird, for an author to basically say, “Please don’t read my book”? Maybe. But I mean it. If this will hurt you, please don’t read my book. No book is worth sacrificing your own well-being for.

Are you still here?

Did you get this far?

If you did, thank you. I appreciate you. I would have, whether or not you’d kept going, but I’m even more grateful because it wasn’t so long ago that a book like this would never even have made it as far as an editor’s desk, much less exist in the tangible, typeset form you hold in your hands right now, a dream made real.

I appreciate you because you will now bear witness to the events that have shaped my beloved Malaysia into the country it is today: The events of May 13, 1969, when, in the wake of a contentious general election when opposition parties won unexpected victories at the expense of the ruling coalition, the Malays and the Chinese clashed in a bloody battle in the streets of Kuala Lumpur, in flames and fury stoked by political interest. One week later, the death toll climbed to 196—the official number, though Western diplomatic sources at the time suggested it was closer to 600—and the powers that be had an excuse to put policies in place that differentiated between racial groups and kept those at the top firmly, comfortably aloft on airy cushions of privilege, policies with repercussions we still live with to this day.

I appreciate you because without your eyes, your attention, your willingness to listen, as the memories and voices of those who lived through it begin to fade, this seminal point in our past becomes nothing more than a couple of paragraphs in our textbooks, lines stripped of meaning, made to regurgitate in exams and not to stick in your throat and pierce your heart with the intensity of its horror.

I appreciate you because this is our story, and without an audience, a story dies. And we cannot afford to let it.

I can’t say all of what you’re about to read is true; this is a work of fiction, after all, and even in nonfiction, so much relies on the memories of traumatized survivors and the words of those who write the history books, and both of those can lie. So I will say that many, many hours of research went into this, including wading through reams of articles both academic and non-, first-person interviews, expert advice, and more. You’ll notice themes you might find unbelievable in a modern context, like the fact that Melati would believe she’s being controlled by a djinn instead of consulting a mental health professional. But this was 1969: There was little treatment available for OCD in Kuala Lumpur then, and even if there was, there was also a heavy cloud of stigma associated with seeing a psychiatrist, with many believing they would be institutionalized—or worse still, lobotomized—for “being crazy.” It wasn’t uncommon then to seek traditional or religious treatment for illnesses you couldn’t quite explain to your regular doctor; in fact, it’s not uncommon now, either.

As you read, you may also want to keep in mind that for Muslims, djinn are real. They aren’t just wacky blue creatures with a Robin Williams voice, or mythical beings that pour out of old lamps and ancient rings to grant you three wishes; they exist for us in ways that they may not for you.

And now that I have said all this, I leave it to you, dear reader, to forge on and make of this story what you will.

I appreciate you. Still. Always.




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.

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