Interview with Hanna Alkaf

 

As a Southeast Asian Chinese, I am so excited for Hanna Alkaf’s upcoming book THE WEIGHT OF OUR SKY. I’ve never read a fiction book about the Malaysian race riots of the 1960s, much less one from the point of view of such a compelling protagonist, and I’m sure my fellow Southeast Asians will understand how strange and beautiful it feels to have our stories told by one of us.

Here’s the official summary below:

Melati Ahmad has imagined her mother’s death countless times. Plagued by gruesome thoughts she believes are put into her head by a djinn, Melati has developed an intricate set of tapping rituals to tame the monster within and keep her mother safe.

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.

See what I mean? We just had to get hold of Hanna before the book’s publication date on FEBRUARY 5, 2019 (mark that in your calendars, or better yet, pre-order the book now!) and get her thoughts on her writing process and her “unapologetically Malaysian” stance. Spoiler: she’s awesome and has some important things to say.

 

How did you get started as a writer? Do you remember the first thing you’d ever written?

There are a few different answers to this question.

I was a kid who was always surrounded by books, and so, somewhat inevitably, I first tried to write my own short story when I was about 7. I’m hazy on the details, but it was about talking baby farm animals, and I spent so long carefully drawing chicks and ducklings, puppies and kittens in such detail that I forgot that stories have to have a plot. So I gave it up.

The first time I was ever published, I was about 10 years old. I got a poem into an issue of Highlights Magazine in honour of my sister’s birthday. She has never let me live it down.

The first short story I ever wrote got accepted into a local anthology when I was 18 years old. I was paid in five copies of the book; I felt rich.

But the first time I ever realised I might have something, that I could be a writer if I wanted to, I was about 8 or 9 years old. I’d just had one of those incredible birthday parties, at an arcade, with rides closed off just for me and my friends, and I was desperate to remember every minute. I wrote it all down on paper ripped from a spiral notebook, printed carefully in pencil. Then, in an act of self-doubt that would come to be terribly familiar, I reread it, decided it was absolute rubbish, crumpled it up and threw it away. Later, my mother fished it out of the trash can, smoothed it out and read it. “You have a way with words,” she told me. “You should keep writing.”

It was the first time anybody had told me that words that came out of my own head had value.


We are huge believers of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s statement that the world needs multiple stories from the perspectives of those who live them and that there is a danger in a single narrative determining an entire culture or group of people. We see being “unapologetically Malaysian” as part of this movement. Can you tell us more about when and how you came to write “unapologetically Malaysian” stories and what the impetus behind that is?

There’s a question I like to ask when I run workshops here in Malaysia: Without thinking too much about it, can you name the book that’s had the greatest impact on you, that has helped shape who you are as a person? Inevitably, the majority of the titles I get back are a) published in the west, b) feature a white main character, and c) surprisingly, often books that were read as a tween, teen, or young adult. What that tells me is that so much of our most formative reading happens at that age, and yet so much of it features characters that don’t look like us at all. Rudine Sims Bishop talks about books as mirrors: stories in which
children can see themselves, see their experiences, backgrounds and communities reflected and valued. Malaysian kids and teens deserve more mirrors.


It’s an unfortunate reality for many of us who live in Asia that being published by a Western publisher guarantees more interest (and probably even sales) locally. We’d like to ask if you have any thoughts about what it would take for the local publishing industry to gain more support and/or recognition (beyond getting over colonial mentality) from local readers? 

Yes, a lot of this is colonial mentality and the idea that West Is Best. Overcoming that is a struggle. But I also think we need more of an emphasis on quality; we need to be willing to invest in good editors, good illustrators, good layout designers and cover designers. We need to care a lot more at each stage of the process about making the end product the best book it can be. We need to work to regain the trust of readers who may have been burned before by shoddy editing, a story clearly rushed through production, covers that share the same design sensibility as 80s textbooks. And it would certainly help if the government made more grants, funding, opportunities available for local authors, provided more support for publishing and the arts, and helped bolster the industry…but I don’t see that happening any time soon.

It’s not all bad. There are indie publishers who are flourishing, local authors writing amazing, imaginative works in English (check out Creatures of Near Kingdoms, written by Zedeck Siew, illustrated by Sharon Chin, and published by local outfit Maple Comics, the short story collection Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho and the novel Devil’s Place by Brian Gomez, both published by Fixi Novo), and a sense that the best is yet to come for us. But we won’t be able to unearth it without putting in the work.


Can you walk us through your writing process? How do you begin a story, what is your process as you write it, and do you utilize any outside help like beta readers, and very importantly: how do you know when you’re done? 

It begins with the germ of an idea, and I have to let that sit for a while, turning it over and over in my head, letting it work its way out. Once I have a gist of a story, I outline – I need to know the story beginning to end. Once I have that, I expand it further, dividing it into chapters so I know how it flows. I write character profiles for all my main characters. I start doing some basic research, making notes on things I know I need deeper dives into later on. Once I’m armed with all this, I start writing. At the same time, I start conducting that more in-depth research – digging up texts and books that I need, looking up photographs, emailing experts, even watching movies to get a sense of time and place, if I’m writing something historical.

It sounds exhaustive and over-the-top, but I’m a stay-at-home mom and my writing time is unpredictable and finite. I have to make sure every second spent at my laptop counts.


On a more positive note: what are some of the stories that you’d like to see coming out of Malaysia?

Honestly? Everything! I want fantasies and retellings based on Malaysian myth and legend, I want contemporary, funny, heart-wrenching romances, I want stories that help us process our history. We are large; we contain multitudes. I want to see every facet of us written into the narrative.

 

Hanna Alkaf graduated with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University and spent over ten years writing everything from B2B marketing emails to investigative feature articles, from non-profit press releases to corporate brochures. She worked in Chicago as an online copywriter for several years upon graduation before coming home. She’s been a senior writer at Marie Claire Malaysia, the communications manager of education non-profit Teach For Malaysia, and a freelance journalist. Her articles have appeared in the Malaysian iterations of Marie Claire, Shape, and Esquire, as well as a host of other media both print and online.

Hanna now spends her time making it up as she goes along, both as an author of fiction and as a mom. THE WEIGHT OF OUR SKY is her first novel. She lives in Kuala Lumpur with her family.

Visit her site here for her blog and more information!

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