Her Story: Ladies In Literature is a special, month-long series on Pop! Goes The Reader in which we celebrate the literary female role models whose stories have inspired and empowered us since time immemorial. From Harriet M. Welsch to Anne Shirley, Becky Bloomwood to Hermione Granger, Her Story: Ladies In Literature is a series created for women, by women as twenty-six authors answer the question: “Who’s your heroine?” You can find a complete list of the participants and their scheduled guest post dates Here!
About Hanna Alkaf
Hanna Alkaf is the author of unapologetically Malaysian young adult and middle grade novels. She graduated with a degree in Journalism from Northwestern University and, after years of writing for magazines, brands and corporations, now spends most of her time making things up as she goes along, both as a writer of fiction and as a mom. Her debut young adult historical fiction novel, The Weight Of Our Sky, will be released by Salaam Reads in 2019.
There’s a popular question that often does the Twitter-go-round, at least among the bookish set. It goes: When did you first see yourself in fiction?
I’m 33 years old, and I never have.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen bits and pieces of myself, shards of a mirror that never quite come together to make a whole. I’ve seen my hijabi struggles brought to life in SK Ali’s wonderful Saints and Misfits, I’ve seen my battle with anxiety gorgeously portrayed in Akemi Dawn Bowman’s Starfish, I’ve identified deeply with a range of female characters from Jo March to Anne Shirley. But there is a reason that I have multiple copies of Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes. And it’s because it’s the first time I read a character that I saw a piece of myself in – and they saw me back.
There is a scene early on in Ballet Shoes when the middle sister, Petrova Fossil, opens the door and meets a potential new lodger for the first time. His name is Mr Simpson and he has just come back to London from Kuala Lumpur, where rubber comes from trees. Petrova enunciates the unfamiliar name carefully. “A long way,” she says. “Long enough away to be in a Geography lesson.”
I read this as a little girl curled up on my favourite reading bench in my home in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and it was as though Petrova had reached out of the page to give me a high five.
You may laugh. What a small thing to be excited about! Yet that’s exactly how young Hanna felt when she read this. It was the early 90s in Malaysia, and books for children with Malaysian protagonists were unheard of, let alone protagonists that were Muslim and Malay, like me. To see my home just mentioned in a book – it was a thrill I can’t explain.
And who was it who mentioned it? Petrova Fossil, a dark-haired child who read voraciously, was always compared (usually less favourably) to her accomplished siblings, had interests that were entirely her own, and found a way to forge on and pursue them despite everything in her way. She was me in so many ways, big and little, and she was my hero. Other girls loved reading about Pauline’s glamorous acting escapades or Posy’s incredible ballet talent – I read and re-read Petrova’s journey, my heart soaring when she finally got her dream of studying to become a pilot no matter how many times I read it.
It was Petrova I thought of when I first made the decision in secret, at age 10, to become a novelist; Petrova who witnessed my first scribbled stories in spiral-bound notebooks; Petrova who cheered me on when my first poem was published in Highlights magazine. And I’m not sure where I would be right now if I hadn’t seen, when I was very young, a little girl in a book who spoke about my home and rejected everything so many of the adults around her hoped for her and chose her own path, one very different from everyone else’s.
But here I am, in a world where books like Saints and Misfits and Starfish and The Hate U Give and Children of Blood and Bone and so many more exist and thrive, in a world where kids get to see themselves, ALL of themselves, reflected in the books they read, in a world where I get to be one of the people creating those mirrors, solid and whole and perfect, for someone just like me. And I have Petrova Fossil to thank for that.
Title The Weight Of Our Sky
Author Hanna Alkaf
Pages 384 Pages
Intended Target Audience Young Adult
Genre Historical Fiction
Publication Date 2019 by Salaam Reads
Find It On Goodreads
A music-loving teen with OCD does everything she can to find her way back to her mother during the historic race riots in 1969 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in this heart-pounding literary debut.
Melati Ahmad looks like your typical movie-going, Beatles-obsessed sixteen-year-old. Unlike most other sixteen-year-olds though, Mel also believes that she harbors a djinn inside her, one who threatens her with horrific images of her mother’s death unless she adheres to an elaborate ritual of counting and tapping to keep him satisfied.
A trip to the movies after school turns into a nightmare when the city erupts into violent race riots between the Chinese and the Malay. When gangsters come into the theater and hold movie-goers hostage, Mel, a Malay, is saved by a Chinese woman, but has to leave her best friend behind to die.
On their journey through town, Mel sees for herself the devastation caused by the riots. In her village, a neighbor tells her that her mother, a nurse, was called in to help with the many bodies piling up at the hospital. Mel must survive on her own, with the help of a few kind strangers, until she finds her mother. But the djinn in her mind threatens her ability to cope.