When Hanna Alkaf unveiled the cover of her first novel in July last year, there was an instant buzz of excitement among Malaysian readers. It wasn’t just the fact that a local writer was being published internationally; it was the image on the cover itself. Against a sombre background of flames and smoke, a boy and a girl are riding a motorcycle. To Malaysian eyes, two things stand out immediately: the girl is wearing a secondary school pinafore, and the bike she’s on is unmistakably a kap chai (slang for an underbone motorcycle).

For Hanna, the cover is a symbol of the kind of books she wants to write, stories that she describes as “unapologetically Malaysian”. And one could argue that not many books are as unapologetic or as Malaysian as her young adult (YA) novel, The Weight of Our Sky.

May 13 and the Malaysian memory

There are few events as vivid in the collective Malaysian memory as the race riot that happened in Kuala Lumpur on 13 May 1969, often referred to by most Malaysians simply as “May 13”. Nor have there been many incidents in the history of the nation that have had such far-reaching consequences and shaped so much of the country’s political discourse. It is against this historical backdrop that Hanna’s novel is set.

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Sharmilla Ganesan

Sharmilla Ganesan is a radio producer/presenter, features journalist, and culture writer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She has previously written for The Star (Malaysia), The Atlantic, South China Morning Post, and ArtsEquator.