KUALA LUMPUR -- Beyond being young and Muslim, Malay girls Melati and Suraya share more than their backgrounds initially suggest. Melati, who was a teenager in 1960s Kuala Lumpur, loves The Beatles and watching films featuring the actor Paul Newman. Suraya lives in a nondescript Malay kampong (village) where she inherits a ghost from her grandmother, who is a witch.
Though their lives are wildly different, both girls share an ability to speak about the pain of growing up, keeping and losing relationships, and being Muslim in Southeast Asia. And it is that articulate picture of the trials of youth that has resonated with the thousands of young international readers who have read and loved the novels "The Weight of Our Sky" and "The Girl and the Ghost," by Kuala Lumpur-based writer Hanna Alkaf.
Hanna's novels have turned heads globally. Published by the New York imprint Salaam Reads (part of Simon & Schuster), "The Weight of Our Sky" won the 2019 Freeman Award for young adult/high school literature, and "The Girl and the Ghost," from HarperCollins, is a finalist in the young readers category of the 2020 Kirkus Prize awards, in which winners receive $50,000.
"It's an honor I would hardly have allowed myself to even imagine when my first book came out last year," says 35-year-old Hanna, a Malaysian native who graduated in journalism from Northwestern University in the U.S. and worked as a freelance writer before becoming a full-time author.
Turning 30 was her main motivation to test herself and write something of novel-length. "I didn't have any expectation of finding an agent or landing a deal with an international publisher," says Hanna, whose work provides a staunchly authentic depiction of her country to international young adult and middle-grade fiction readers.
"I wanted to write a young adult story because I can still remember so much of what I was reading at that time of my life," she says of her debut novel. "Those are very important formative years which can shake and inspire young readers profoundly, and yet I was struck by how little I could read about myself, my own culture and my own people in those books."
Published in 2019, Hanna's historical fiction debut "The Weight of Our Sky" is her way of filling that gap in perspective. The book tells the story of 16-year-old Melati, a 1960s Malay teenager with an obsessive-compulsive disorder that she perceives as possession by an evil djinn (genie). If Melati doesn't tap and count objects, the voice inside her head drives her insane by triggering images of her beloved mother dying in gruesome ways.
Melati's life turns upside down when she is caught up in race riots between ethnic Chinese and Malays that shook Malaysia on May 13, 1969 -- still one of the most politically sensitive events in the country's history. Official records put the death toll at 196, mostly Chinese, but the independent commentator and human rights activist Kua Kia Soong claimed in his 2007 book "May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969" that at least 1,500 were killed.
The episode has been explored in a few other nonfiction books, and in novels by Lloyd Fernando, Shirley Geok-Lin Lim and Preeta Samarasan, which are set just before or just after the riots, but Hanna's debut work is the first Malaysian novel in English to use that hushed truth as its main setting. "We don't have an understanding of how ethnic relations degenerated [in Malaysia]," says Hanna, adding that the violence of May 13 is only mentioned briefly in Malaysian school textbooks.
In the novel, Melati is helped to get home safely by a Chinese family. "I wanted people to see that things that are constantly portrayed as black or white are never just one or the other," says Hanna.
The novel, written in English and initially published for international readers, was subsequently translated into the Malay language and published in Malaysia by the Novo imprint of Fixi, an independent Kuala Lumpur publisher.
"It's an instrumental vehicle for young Malaysians to discover one's personal memory of racial unrest that turned into fatal tragedy, all the while encapsulating the experience of living with a mental illness that was lesser-known in those days," says Penang-based writer Fahmi Mustaffa, who translated the text.
Hanna's second novel, "The Girl and the Ghost," targets readers from 8 to 12 years old and was published in August despite the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has delayed many film and book releases. Like "The Weight of Our Sky" the novel builds on Malaysian settings and has another young Malay girl, Suraya, as its protagonist. But the mood switches to a dark and captivating ghost tale rooted in the vast netherworld of Malay spirits and black magic -- a choice of topic that seems a harder fit for a younger audience.
Suraya's witch grandmother gifts her a pelesit (a spirit familiar in Malay folklore) which belongs to a class of heritable ghosts called sakas. People can transfer a saka to a blood relative, but a pelesit can be passed down only in the female line. It stays alive by sucking blood from its master's ring finger and appears to humans in the guise of a cricket or grasshopper.
"I have always been a fan of stories that send tingles creeping down your spine, and I wanted to write one of my own, but particularly one that features Malaysian ghosts, which are some of the scariest ones out there," says Hanna.
Spooks aside, "The Girl and the Ghost" develops as a dark-tinged universal fable about the value and the nature of friendship. "At that age, nothing was more important to me than friendships -- making them, maintaining them, keeping them, without necessarily being able to recognize which of those friendships were good for me, and which of them weren't," says Hanna.
"The breakup of a close, intimate friendship is in many ways just as painful -- or even more so -- than that of any other relationship, and I think it's important that kids have space to explore that in the narratives they consume."
During the pandemic Hanna has stepped back from her writing career to take care of her two children and work with friends in a movement called #kitajagakita, which verifies and lists organizations and individuals working with vulnerable groups affected by Malaysia's social distancing rules.
"One thing that the pandemic has done for me is provide a healthy dose of perspective," says Hanna. "It was hard not to feel frustrated and disappointed in the beginning, to miss the excitement of events, the ability to meet readers in person, to let go of travel opportunities and speaking engagements. When you spend so much time writing a book, it takes on a weight and importance that is sometimes perhaps uncalled for."
Hanna is currently at work on her next novel, a murder mystery called "Queen of the Tiles," which is aimed at young adults. Set during a Scrabble tournament in Malaysia, it is scheduled for publication in 2022. Her aim, she says, is to continue writing stories that highlight her country's cultural heritage, history and folklore in "unapologetically Malaysian" ways.
"What I hope to do is to just keep writing books and weaving Malaysian stories into the narrative," Hanna adds. "Because 2020 has been a series of hurricanes, each leaving a trail of devastation in its own specific wake, the only thing that will get us through is our ability to cling to the things and people we love, link arms, and hold fast, together, until the storms pass."