I’ve gotten used to keeping my little quirks hidden. I’m pretty smart anyway, but it doesn’t take a genius to realize that to be inflicted with djinns ranks right up there as among the worst things that can happen to you when you’re sixteen years old and studying in an all-girls’ school. Girls are vicious creatures… Every day for me is like its own special, specific challenge: find ways to appease the Djinn and his voracious appetite for numbers, without letting anyone realize I’m doing it.
The Weight of Our Sky by Hanna Alkaf is the newest YA release from Salaam Reads. It’s the story of sixteen-year-old Malaysian Melati who loves music and especially the Beatles. She lives with her mother and has to deal with a djinn, who whispers to her and fills her head with images of horrible things happening to the people she loves. The only way to appease him and to protect those around her is to count in threes. Her “djinn” is in fact OCD, but in 1960s Malaysia, mental health awareness doesn’t exist yet. There is a stigma around mental illness and the accepted explanation is that there is a djinn (a creation of God that Muslims actually do believe in, albeit not in this form) inhabiting her. That is how she interprets the voice in her head.
On the day the book begins, Melati goes to the movies with a friend, and the 1969 race riots have broken out by the time they leave the theater. The two friends are separated, and Melati spends the rest of the novel trying to find her mother and discover what happened to her friend.
I love that this YA book tackles some serious topics. Melati’s first-person narration gives readers a glimpse of what life with OCD might be like.
I concentrate on the task at hand. Biggest to smallest, pencil case in the right-hand pocket, tap each item three times before closing the bad, one two, three. Something feels off. My hands are frozen, suspended above my belongings. Did I do that right? Did I tap three times or four? I break out into a light sweat. Again, the Djinn whispers, again. Think how much better you’ll feel when you finally get it.
I really liked the Muslim representation. We see some characters practicing their faith and others choosing not to, but best of all, we see Melati grapple with her beliefs, which is so refreshing to see in YA. Of course teenagers struggle with their faith and think about God and question their decisions, just like adults. Seeing it on the page was wonderful.
Something else I enjoyed seeing on the page was Melati coming to terms with her privilege. Kuala Lumpur in the 1960s was a multicultural city of Malays, Chinese, Indians, and others. This book explores what it means to live in a such a multifaceted place and who a place belongs to. The title comes from a Malay proverb: “where you plant your feet is where you hold up the sky.” As a Chinese character explains, it means that “wherever you are, you must follow what the people there do, their customs, their ways.” She says it out of resignation, out of a sense of “what else can we do?” Melati thinks back to the jokes and slurs she has heard about immigrants: “The phrases are familiar; I feel a distinct, unsettling sting when I realize I grew up with them, heard them so often they were reduced to nothing more than background noise.”
I highly recommend this really solid YA debut for anyone who reads YA, wants to read a book with Muslim or mental health representation, or wants to read about the 1969 race riots in Kuala Lumpur.
I received an eARC of this book through Edelweiss and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.