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Writers' Fortnight 2020: Hanna Alkaf has a passion for writing, and wants to change the world of literature

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Writers' Fortnight 2020: Hanna Alkaf has a passion for writing, and wants to change the world of literature

The author of Weight of Our Sky, a riveting story that contrasts many books around the world that we are all familiar with; incorporating Hanna’s culture and language, further enhances its page-turning storyline. She is the first Malaysian author to win the Freeman Book Award and does not only write because it’s her passion, but because she wants to change the world of literature.

Hanna Alkaf is a KL-born Malaysian who has had two books published - Gila: A Journey Through Moods & Madness, and The Weight of Our Sky. She was born in 1984 and is currently 34 years old and is a mother of two children. She graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism and has been writing ever since. Her work has appeared in many forms such as in the Malaysian iterations of Marie Claire, Esquire, Shape, Female, Her World, and more. 

Image by Azalia Suhaimi

Her passion for literature started developing from a young age. In her family, they have a strong reading culture. “I would go to the bookshelf and I would choose the longest book that I had because I liked being read to.” Hanna had been read to from a young age and has always had an interest in various stories.

“That’s the kind of kid that I was, and that’s the kind of house that I grew up in. I grew up in a house where reading was a priority, where books were a priority, where reading to the youngest one in the family was a priority.” 

Hanna listed some of her favourite books - A Christmas Carol, Enid Blyton’s books, Jane Eyre, Charles Dickens’ books, Little Women, Harry Potter, Terry Pratchett’s books, Ballet Shoes and Matilda. Each one of these books is a classic, they are books that have been read all around the world, capturing the interest of many children of diverse cultures. 

Out of all the books listed above, the two books that she highlighted as important are Ballet Shoes and Matilda. Reading Ballet Shoes “ the first time that I ever saw a glimpse of my own home in a book” In Ballet Shoes, there is one character that has a business card with Kuala Lumpur, Malaya as his address. “And I, sitting in my living room, in Kuala Lumpur, got so excited. Because I thought: Oh my god, they know we exist!” This was the first time Hanna read something that helped her ‘see herself’ in a book. “For a minute, it made me feel so seen, it made me feel like I existed.

“This is the first time that I saw a part of myself in a book.”

When we read books, we tend to sympathise for the characters, we empathise for them, we even see ourselves in them; Hanna saw herself in Matilda, she identified with Matilda “because she was a child who loved books, just as much as I did.” “I learnt to see myself in her. It’s the first time I identified so deeply with a fictional character.” However, Hanna couldn’t actually ‘see herself’ as Hanna does not look like Matilda - a girl with blond hair, blue eyes and pale skin.

“One of the things that tie all of those books together, is that if you look at all of the covers, none of those characters on the covers looks like me.”

Huyck, David and Sarah Park Dahlen. (2019 June 19). Diversity in Children’s Books 2018. sarahpark.com blog. Created in consultation with Edith Campbell, Molly Beth Griffin, K. T. Horning, Debbie Reese, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, and Madeline Tyner, with statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison: http://ccbc.education.wisc.edu/books/pcstats.asp. Retrieved from https://readingspark.wordpress.com/2019/06/19/picture-this-diversity-in-....

Hanna Alkaf showed this picture during her talk. This is an infographic that was created in 2018 of the percentage of books in America depicting characters from diverse backgrounds.

"27% animals or other, which is great, really glad that bear is getting such good representation..."

“To be seen should be a right to everybody,” she said. In the infographic above, every individual can see themselves, but not in the same ways. The small boy that is used to show white representation in books not only has a perfect mirror that reflects who he is, but has a variety of perfect mirrors. However, the other children see themselves in smaller, cracked mirrors because this does not refer to good representation, it refers to any representation at all. 

As a mother of two, Hanna instils the importance of reading into her kids’ lives, constantly reading to them, but wanting them to have a different experience to her own. “I have children, and I don’t want them to grow up without any mirrors. I don’t want my kids to grow up, having to look for pieces of themselves in characters that don’t look like them.”

“In her books, Hanna incorporates her culture and creates characters that look like her, that look like her children, so that her children are able to see themselves. “In order to get my own mirror, I had to make it.” 

Attending Hanna Alkaf’s talk really opened my eyes to what I had accepted as normal. Growing up, I too read many books with white main characters by white authors. As a student in our UWCSEA community, I have always been taught to include everyone regardless of what they look like or where they come from. Isn’t that sad? Despite being taught the importance of equality, I had always assumed that’s what characters in books look like and never questioned it. Like what Hanna shared in her talk, there is almost two times more white representation in books than the other four ethnic groups combined. Everyone should have a perfect mirror, all of the same size and quality.

There are many people around the world who are protesting and taking action for various issues around the world, most of which connect to the lack of equality; one example is an issue that has been around for centuries - the lack of equality between races, those of colour versus the white majority. A lot has been accomplished with this, but we cannot be satisfied until all inequality is abolished.

As UWC students, we aim to include everyone of all ethnicities. However, I think that there is more we can do than just acknowledge the issue. We can make a difference in terms of literature as many may take this for granted, as I did. For example, I think that inviting more speakers like Hanna to educate us of the significance and weight that this issue holds can inspire many students and open their eyes. In addition, including a section in our library that celebrates our diversity and the unique cultures we share can also be beneficial in eradicating this issue.

Ms Ernie is a librarian in our Secondary school library and she said that “As of now, I think that we have a wide variety of books with Asian authors and characters, but these books aren’t being promoted as much.” Many students are not aware of these books, perhaps more open promotion of these books could help us tackle this lack of awareness.

What could be a possible source for this inequality? How can we eradicate this issue, when it has been entrenched into our minds since we were children? The list of Hanna Alkaf’s favourite books above, is a list of classics. Everyone has read at least one of these books, if not, have heard about these books.

Children around the world read these classics, reading about different characters with different stories, but yet, they all look the same. This can create a false impression for many, that the ‘default ’ of what a person should look like is someone with blond hair, blue eyes and pale skin. Does this not further create discrimination and establish unwanted stereotypes?

Even for those books that do have characters of the other four ethnicities - African/African American, Asian Pacific Islander/Asian Pacific American, Latinx and American Indians/ First Nations - they aren’t necessarily portrayed with an accurate representation of them and their culture.

Many around the world do not get the representation that they deserve, and even if they do, it may not be an authentic depiction of who they really are. Not everyone can honestly say that they have ‘seen’ themselves in their favourite book.

We should all be able to see ourselves.  Everyone should have a perfect mirror, all of the same size and quality.

 

11 May 2020
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