My parents were eight years old when the May 13 riots happened. They didn’t live in Kuala Lumpur, so they never actually witnessed the event, but they remember the nationwide curfews. My father’s mother made him hide under the bed. Apart from these scant anecdotes, I have no intergenerational knowledge of what happened when the Malays and the Chinese took up arms against each other. No one told me the Rukun Negara my classmates and I recited once a week was created in reaction to the riots. No one told me they led to the creation of the affirmative action New Economic Policy.
As Hanna Alkaf puts it, May 13, 1969, has been reduced to “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.” This, as so many things in history class are, is a strategic omission. On the page and in the minds of the students who must memorise it, the racial violence is flattened, neatly tucked into the past. The 1969 General Election, in which the opposition parties successfully eroded some of the ruling Alliance Party’s power(if memory serves me) are either barely or not at all mentioned. The death toll printed is only about a third of the figure estimated by Western diplomatic sources.
The Weight of Our Sky places the hefty burden of telling this story on an unlikely protagonist, Melati Ahmad, a sixteen-year-old, Beatles-loving, Malay girl with OCD. Because she lives in 1969, when mental illness was even more stigmatized than it is today and little treatment would have been available to her, she understands her OCD as a djinn who has taken control of her mind. The djinn forces her to count for him, always in sets of three, showing her visions of her mother’s death to ensure she complies. Alone, helpless, and scared, it is in the midst of her struggle with this djinn that she finds herself swept up in the May 13 riots and separated from her mother. With the help of a Chinese family, some creativity, and a whole lot of self-realization and growth, Melati must find her way back to her mother’s side through the burnt and broken city.
What struck me hardest about The Weight of Our Sky is the tenderness and care that Alkaf imbues in her writing, without sacrificing any of the brutality of historical events. The book is careful not to tip the blame for the riots in one direction or the other, but subtly weaves relevant details into the narrative: the greater number of Chinese casualties, the Malay-taunting parades celebrating the outcome of the general election, the virulent racism that was—and, in some ways, continues to be—spewed on both sides. The book also highlights the many ordinary people who risked their lives to help others, regardless of race, and the small acts of kindness propagated within communities to protect neighbors and strangers alike. As much as it tells a story about death, destruction, and the devastating impact of propaganda and politics, it’s also a testament to mutual aid and solidarity.
You don’t have to know anything about Malaysia or the May 13 riots to read this book; I would, however, suggest doing a quick Wikipedia dive into the history and demographics of Malaysia, either before or after reading the book, because I selfishly want more people outside of Malaysia to know that my country is not some exotic, opulent, Chinese paradise (as Crazy Rich Asians would have you believe), nor a place devoid of racism for various groups of Asians solely because it exists in Asia. Content warnings for the book include graphic violence, death, racism, OCD, and anxiety triggers. As it isn’t exactly a light read, the author’s note states that, “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.”
“Di mana bumi dipijak, di situ langit dijunjung.” As Alkaf so beautifully translates it, “Where you plant your feet is where you hold up the sky.” As an Asian non-American who literally “went back to where I came from” less than two weeks after the Atlanta spa shootings, I find that I have traded the weight of one sky for another. Like Melati, like Vincent, like every anak Malaysia, I feel the history contained in these pages all around me, inside me. The emotional heft of this book lingers and never quite lets go.