The Weight of Our Sky

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.

Find it here: Goodreads | Simon & Schuster | Amazon.com

I received an eARC of this book through Edelweiss and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

She Wore Red Trainers by Na’ima B. Robert

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I’m sorry to say that I did not get on at all with the very popular She Wore Red Trainers, by Na’ima B. Robert.
It’s a YA contemporary novel about Ali and Amirah, two Muslim teens living in South London. They each have “a past” but are both committed to practicing Islam the best way they can. The main plot is the romance between them; other topics are family issues and career choices.

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A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

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It’s 2002, a year after 9/11. It’s an extremely turbulent time politically, but especially so for someone like Shirin, a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl who’s tired of being stereotyped.

Shirin is never surprised by how horrible people can be. She’s tired of the rude stares, the degrading comments—even the physical violence—she endures as a result of her race, her religion, and the hijab she wears every day. So she’s built up protective walls and refuses to let anyone close enough to hurt her. Instead, she drowns her frustrations in music and spends her afternoons breakdancing with her brother.

But then she meets Ocean James. He’s the first person in forever who really seems to want to get to know Shirin. It terrifies her—they seem to come from two irreconcilable worlds—and Shirin has had her guard up for so long that she’s not sure she’ll ever be able to let it down. [Taken from the publisher’s blurb.]

I really enjoyed this YA contemporary about a Muslim high school student who is the victim of constant microaggressions. 

The main character, Shirin, is the best part of this book for me. She is such a complex and fantastic character. So used to being disappointed, she has given up on her fellow human beings, and even stops looking at the people around her, out of fear. But she’s so smart, beautiful, and badass that she intimidates everyone. So the irony of the shell she’s built up around herself is that she’s put it up for her own protection, but everyone else thinks they need protection from her. View Post

Mirage by Somaiya Daud

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While this book does not have Muslim representation, Somaiya Daud is a Muslim author, and I’m all about supporting Muslim authors. 

Blurb from the publisher:

In a world dominated by the brutal Vathek empire, eighteen-year-old Amani is a dreamer. She dreams of what life was like before the occupation; she dreams of writing poetry like the old-world poems she adores; she dreams of receiving a sign from Dihya that one day, she, too, will have adventure, and travel beyond her isolated home.

But when adventure comes for Amani, it is not what she expects: she is kidnapped by the regime and taken in secret to the royal palace, where she discovers that she is nearly identical to the cruel half-Vathek Princess Maram. The princess is so hated by her conquered people that she requires a body double, someone to appear in public as Maram, ready to die in her place.

As Amani is forced into her new role, she can’t help but enjoy the palace’s beauty―and her time with the princess’ fiancé, Idris. But the glitter of the royal court belies a world of violence and fear. If Amani ever wishes to see her family again, she must play the princess to perfection…because one wrong move could lead to her death.

A Moroccan-inspired sci-fi/fantasy YA that tackles colonialism, rebellion, and identity by a Muslim author? Yes, please. View Post

Saints and Misfits Discussion Questions

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I reread Saints and Misfits this month for my real-life book club, and I thought it would be helpful to share the discussion questions we used.

Instead of going through the questions one by one, we used it to spark conversations by taking turns choosing the questions we found interesting. There are generic questions and more specific questions so that everyone had a chance to speak to whatever interested them about the novel.

Here’s the printable PDF:
Saints and Misfits Discussion Qs

Let me know if you use it or if it’s helpful for you! I’d love to have feedback!