Di mana bumi dipijak, di situ langit dijunjung. Have you heard this before? It means where we plant our feet is where we must hold up the sky. We live and die by the rules of the land we live in. But this country belongs to all of us! We make our own sky, and we can hold it up—together.
Publication date: February 5, 2019
Publisher: Salaam Reads
Genre: Young Adult Historical Fiction
Synopsis: A music-loving teen with OCD does everything she can to find her way back to her mother during the historic race riots in 1969 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in this heart-pounding literary debut.
Melati Ahmad looks like your typical moviegoing, Beatles-obsessed sixteen-year-old. Unlike most other sixteen-year-olds though, Mel also believes that 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 there are things that Melati can’t protect her mother from. On the evening of May 13th, 1969, racial tensions in her home city of Kuala Lumpur boil over. The Chinese and Malays are at war, and Mel and her mother become separated by a city in flames.
With a 24-hour curfew in place and all lines of communication down, it will take the help of a Chinese boy named Vincent and all of the courage and grit in Melati’s arsenal to overcome the violence on the streets, her own prejudices, and her djinn’s surging power to make it back to the one person she can’t risk losing.
Content Warnings: Racism, graphic violence, on-page death, OCD and anxiety triggers
Before I start this review, I must thank Kate @ Your Tita Kate for deciding to buy copies of The Weight of Our Sky to send to readers in the Philippines while she was in Kuala Lumpur. Since I’m a student, she also shouldered the shipping cost, so that’s an additional thank you to her. And if I hadn’t seen her tweet and decided on a whim to tell her that I wanted a copy, I would never have picked up The Weight of Our Sky. Basically, I just have a lot to thank her for. So if you somehow are following me but aren’t following her yet, then you should go do that right now because her blog posts are all so damn eloquent, and her personality is amazing!
I appreciate this book so much because it features a non-white, non-Christian (Malaysian and Muslim) character in a non-western setting dealing with a mental illness. I cannot stress how important books likes this are. We already have a shortage of books with mental illness rep, what more books with intersectional mental illness rep.
You would expect that being in Mel’s head would get repetitive because of her constant need to tap and count, but each time, Alkaf found new ways to show how Mel’s mental illness creeps into her everyday life. Besides that, she does such a good job of transporting us to 1969 Kuala Lumpur, expertly writing the tension between the Chinese and the Malays, while also portraying the sense of community that somehow still prevailed at the time. All of this world building is incorporated seamlessly, and not once was this book difficult to fly through. Coupled with the fact that this book is less than 300 pages, The Weight of Our Sky is very easy to binge-read.
Though I want more people to read this, it does get very dark at times, and you should definitely make sure to read the trigger warnings before you pick it up. Right from the beginning, someone close to Mel is taken from her, and the survival story just continues from there. Mel meets new people and journeys to different places, some safe and some not, trying to find her ever illusive mother.
Speaking of mothers, my own recently finished this book, and I think she was right in calling Mel kawawa, or heartbreaking. It is impossible not to feel for Mel, because she believes that her mental illness is the work of a vengeful djinn who torments her with visions of her mother’s death. And then the unthinkable happens–her mother’s life is actually in danger. But at the same time, Mel is not a human form of her mental illness. She is just a normal teenage girl with a love for the Beatles, and she would do anything for her mother.
Vincent is the sweetest boy ever, and I loved that the author didn’t try to squeeze in a forced romance between him and Melati. Auntie Bee and Uncle Chong are also wonderful people who are perfect examples that an ethnicity, or even just any group of people, aren’t a monolith. They reminded me of Chinese aunties and uncles that I’ve met myself. And Frankie is, well.. a piece of work, but even though his views about Malays are completely wrong and challenged by the narrative, his reasons for it are understandable, and I appreciated how the author chose to end his character arc.
In Alkaf’s author’s note, she mentions how much research went into writing this book, uncovering what it was like during the race riots and how mental health was treated during this time. I think the former really shows because everything that happened in this book seems like it would’ve happened in real life. And for the latter, I appreciate Alkaf so much for writing a book about a PoC struggling with mental illness during a time when mental health awareness was scarce. Even though it’s heartbreaking, it’s not much of a stretch to believe that Melati would call her mental illness a djinn and believe that counting was a form of weaving a protective shield around her loved ones.
This book reminds me of some of the required reading I had to read in school, but not in a bad way at all. My past assigned reading (especially the books O.C.W.: A Young Boy’s Search For His Mother and Chu Ju’s House), are books steeped in Asian culture, with characters driven by their love for family to go on a journey, where they meet different people and different obstacles. If this book weren’t potentially triggering, it would be the perfect required reading.
Earlier, I mentioned that this book wasn’t on my TBR until Tita Kate tweeted about it. That wasn’t because I had seen negative reviews. It was the opposite–all of the reviews I’d seen were four stars or above. But this book still slipped under my radar because not enough people were talking about it. Even now, this book is severely underhyped. So I hope this review encouraged you to read The Weight of Our Sky, because it is an excellent debut and I am so excited to read more from this author!