Tag Archives: Hanna Alkaf

The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf

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The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf

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A book meant for middle grades, 8-12 year olds, that has depth and layers and culture and strength is not something you find very often.  Over 275 pages, the book is at times dark and haunting, but what is truly remarkable is that it doesn’t talk down to young readers and with its pop cultural references and relate-ability,  the book is not dreary.  In fact, the true “haunting” occurs after the book is finished and the concepts of friendship, being alive, and forgiveness stick around and require thought and consideration.  The book is based on a Malyasian folktale, how much is a fleshing out, or simply a starting point, I do not know, but I do know that the characters are memorable, the concept thought provoking, the writing flawless, and the intertwining of Malay culture, Muslim characters and the supernatural, a combination that makes for an enjoyable read.

SYNOPSIS:

When an old witch dies, her pelesit, her ghostly demon, is passed on to her granddaughter Suraya.  Suraya lives with her mother, a teacher, and is lonely and emotionally neglected.  An adventurous girl, the pelesit, keeps the small girl safe, but waits to reveal himself to her in the form of a grasshopper when she is older.  When he does reveal himself to her, she asks him his name, and he doesn’t know it, so she names him Pink.

Suraya and Pink become best friends, and he provides company for her as she receives very little from her mother and has no friends.  Suraya had no knowledge of her grandmother and Pink modifies the stories to leave out how evil, cruel and vindictive she was through him.  As an evil being with no heart these acts never bothered him, although he stopped enjoying them long before she died.  With Suraya however, he feels things.  He is sad that she is unloved by her mother, teased by the other children, and that she doesn’t have the things other kids have.  Suraya is kind, and forgiving, and tries so hard not to let things bother her.  Pink however, with a twitch of his antenna can make things happen.  Bad things.  Things that might at first seem like a part of life, but when Suraya catches on, she scolds Pink.  She makes him promise never to use his magic to hurt people, ever.  He reluctantly agrees, she is his master after all.  Unfortunately he doesn’t keep his promise.

On Pink’s prodding, Suraya makes friends with a new girl at school, Jing, and their friendship makes Pink jealous.  He harms Jing and Suraya decides she no longer wants to be his master.  As a result Pink is determined to make Suraya’s life miserable.  As desperation mounts, Suraya tells her mom about Pink and a pawang is called in to separate the spirit from Suraya.  Something seems off about the pawang, and when Suraya investigates, she realizes that she must save Pink from him.  Together with Jing, Pink and Suraya are off on an adventure against the pawang and might just learn more than Pink’s backstory in their efforts along the way.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that Suraya and her family are Muslim and that Jing is not and they are best friends.  Suraya and her family pray, celebrate Eid, give salams when at the graveyard, but obviously also believe in magic and ghosts, and somehow in the story it doesn’t seem to be contradictory or odd.  I love Suraya’s strength.  None of the relationships in her life are good.  Yet, she is good, and she forgives and fights to make those close to her better.  Pink is manipulative and controlling and abusive, but she still fights for him to be treated better and that says more about her, than whatever he is.  Suraya’s mom is distant and neglectful, but yet, there is still realistic hope that their future can be and will be better.  I love that all these layers are there and yet are subtle too.  Kids are smart and they will bring their own experiences, understanding, and expectations to decipher these relationships, and that is amazing.  I love that the characters in the story may be so different than the typical western reader, but they will still see themselves in this poor Malay girl from a small village, in her best friend Jing who lives and breathes Star Wars, or even in the religions pawang who is a power hungry charlatan; toxic friendships and family secrets make the book universal.

FLAGS:

Pink makes it look like blood is on a girls back side, implying a girls fear of leaking, but it isn’t explicit or named.  There is death and dying and supernatural and lying.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I am thinking strongly about using this as a book club book, as the discussion would be delicious and varied among the participants.

Interview with the author: https://thequietpond.com/2020/08/20/our-friend-is-here-an-interview-with-hanna-alkaf-author-of-the-girl-and-the-ghost-on-writing-friendship-malaysian-childhoods-being-true-to-your-stories/

 

 

 

The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

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The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

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This brand new middle school read is like a quick picture of a young girl’s life.  You get to know her as she is, you briefly meet those around her, you see a week or so of her life and then the book ends and you aren’t the same.  You wonder about her, you worry about her, and you find yourself wanting to reach out to those that maybe remind you of her.  Truly a wonderful book of 277 hard-to-put-down-pages that give insight into Malaysia in 1969, OCD, and the beauty of people willing to show their humanity in dire circumstances. My only concern is that I don’t know that there is anything relevant to the typical target audience western reader that would compel them to pick up the book and see it through.  All the reviews online that praise it seem to be from people older than the YA demographic.  Yes, I really enjoyed the book, but I know who the Beatles are, who Paul Newman is, I am a Muslim, I recently went to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and saw the diversity of religions and culture, I know people struggling with mental illness to the point of disability and the exhaustion that ensues; yet I don’t know if I could convince my 12 year old daughter to read it.  If I forced her, I don’t know that she would find the book as beautiful and powerful as I do.  I think a lot of it, she simply wouldn’t get, and even less of it she would relate to.  I probably will force her to read it at some point, and I’ll happily revise this review and swallow my assumption about what the youth these days can handle and identify with, but until then, please let me know if you are in the YA demographic and what you thought of the book. Thanks.

SYNOPSIS:

Melati is a 16 year old Malay girl in 1969, living with her mother, a nurse.  Her father, a police officer, has recently died, and with his loss, she has become crippled by OCD and the fear that her mother too, will die.  Counting numbers move from consoling her and keeping the horrific thoughts at bay, to becoming almost like an incantation that must be performed nearly constantly to keep her mother safe.  As race riots between the Chinese and ethnic Malays engulf the city one fateful afternoon when Melati and her best friend Safiyah are at the movie theater after class, watching the latest Paul Newman movie, the reader is shown how even in calm situations, keeping the OCD from consuming her is a full time job.  With no knowledge of treating and even diagnosing mental health, Melati tries to hide her visions and ticks from those around her as it has alienated extended family, and worries her mother.  The conclusion instead is that she is being haunted by a djinn and thus her mother takes her to different imams and healers, to no avail, and knowing that the common treatment at the time is to have those suffering carted off to an asylum and experimented on, something Melati’s mom, Salmah vows never to let happen, Melati suffers alone.

Once the movie ends, gangs enter the theater and Saf and Melati are separated.  Melati is saved by a stranger, a Chinese lady named Auntie Bee, and Saf is left at the hands of a Chinese gang.  Violence erupts, lasting for days, and curfews prevent Melati from searching for her mother.  While Auntie Bee and her family care for her and take in other neighbors, it is made clear that tensions between the two ethnic groups are high and have been for some time, but that good people exist on both sides too.  People who see people as people not just their culture. 

It is a YA book, so there is a little suspension of reality to reunite a number of the characters and give them the happiest ending such a gritty book can muster, but the author does warn the reader before the story begins that this book has violence and anxiety triggers, and death, she actually urges those that will be inversely affect by such things, to not read her book.  And it makes sense, it is graphic at times, and characters also die, and the tone is powerful, and the OCD is intense.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I love that the book embraces all its themes wholeheartedly, there is no happy ending, or magic cure for Melati’s illness, within one family there is racial tension and beautiful examples of selflessness, that two people can save each other but not like each other, and that families can be really disappointing.  At times the presence of the djinn is so annoying that the reader feels how crippling it must be to Melati, as it cripples the story as well, the balance is perfect though, it doesn’t drag the book to the point of wanting to put it down, if anything it makes you cheer harder when her little victories take place.  

I like that there isn’t a huge sappy reunion, because the danger is still going on and the characters presence of mind to the tasks still at hand is actually a subtle, yet powerful nod to the hope that Melati and her mom will be ok.  Can you tell I’m trying not to spoil too much, just suffice it to say, the women in this book are strong and determined and inspiring.

I like that Islam is present and that Melati has to grapple at times with her faith to find where it lies and how she accepts some of the events that have taken place, and the djinn fighting to consumer her. In many teens it is a right of passage, but for her it is amplified by the horrors she has lived through and seen and her own mental state.  Clearly the author is Malay and Muslim as she sprinkles words and phrases and traditions seamlessly into  the narrative that makes it flow with authenticity and vibrance.

I wish at times we knew more about the history of what lead up to the violence, or maybe even more about some of the characters, but alas I think this is Melati’s story and those that have turned their back on her and her mom really don’t deserve the ink needed to share their roles.  Some details about the resolution of the riots or how the country came back together might be nice, but a quick Google search can quell any curiosities.  I appreciate that the writing is smooth and intentional and well crafted and not a distraction to the internal turmoil and story being conveyed.

FLAGS:

Violence, racial tension, graphic death, anxiety triggers.  Melati and Vincent hold hands, it is a bit fuzzy if it is out of reassurance or something more.  There isn’t explicit sexual violence, but Melati does see a soldier pressing his body against a school girl who is of a similar age to her.  

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I want to do this as a book club, but I don’t know that the students will read it voluntarily.  I may have to bribe them and get permission from the school counselor.  I think they would benefit immensely from the insight in to mental illness and feel comfortable talking about their understanding of it, being it is presented in a fictional format.  I think the violence, because it is rooted in history can be understood and be discussed.  

Interview with the author: http://richincolor.com/2019/02/interview-with-hanna-alkaf-the-weight-of-our-sky/

Author’s website: https://hannaalkaf.com/the-weight-of-our-sky-2/