The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf

Hello, Hanna Alkaf! Welcome to Watch. Connect. Read.! Thank you for stopping by to chat with me about The Girl and the Ghost. What are three things you want everyone to know about Suraya?

Hanna Alkaf: Thanks for having me, Mr Schu! Three things I’d like everyone to know about Suraya are:

1. She’s an artist! She brings a notebook with her everywhere and uses her drawings as a way to cope with and process the world around her. And she only draws in black ink, even though that can’t be erased, because in her words: “Mistakes aren’t really mistakes — just opportunities to make something new.”

2. She’s 12 years old and in that weird, confusing time where she’s transitioning from primary school to secondary school and feeling both grown up and not grown up enough at all.

3. Even though she gets nervous every time she has to do something new and unfamiliar, she’s a lot braver than she knows — which is true, I find, for most of us.

What ran through your heart the first time you saw Anastasia Suvorova’s cover illustration and Alice Donalty and Alice Wang's design for The Girl and the Ghost?

Hanna Alkaf: I was already super excited when we started discussing cover concepts, and when my editor sent me samples of Anastasia’s work, I knew immediately that whatever the end product would be, it was going to be gorgeous. The cover is beautiful and whimsical, with just the right hint of darkness looming, and I’m so, so happy with how it turned out. Pay special attention to Suraya’s outfit — it’s a traditional Malay outfit called baju kurung that I asked to be included. I always want my book covers to convey to Malaysian readers that this is a story for us and about us, and I always look for ways to incorporate those little winks and nods to them on the cover. I was very, very happy that Anastasia was so accommodating, and I love the way it all came together!

Please finish the following sentence starters: 

A pelesit is a dark spirit or ghost (the Malay word hantu is used interchangeably for both), usually commanded by a woman, that can transform into a grasshopper. It’s not a pleasant thing, and I don’t really recommend you try to make friends, but should you encounter one it’s probably best to be very, very polite.

Did you know Pink has a lot of hard lessons to learn too? This is a story that belongs equally to both Suraya and Pink; Suraya must learn to be brave and to face down the darkness, but Pink must learn to fight that darkness and reach towards the light. He starts out insisting he has no heart — he’s a ghost, after all — but in the end, I think you’ll find that Pink has far more heart than he gives himself credit for.

I hope The Girl and the Ghost entertains and horrifies kids everywhere, but also that it shows kids who share my identities — Malay kids, Malaysian kids, Muslim kids, Southeast Asian kids — that our stories don’t have to be about our traumas. They can be about us having adventures, encountering ghosts, dealing with making new friends and figuring out how to get along with our parents. We don’t have to exist in stories only to educate, or to inspire. We can just exist. And that’s not to say those stories aren’t important — they are, and they should be told — but we are far more than the most painful parts of our existence.

Mr. Schu, you should have asked me if I’ve ever encountered my own ghosts! The answer is...probably, even if I didn’t realise it at the time. For Malaysians, ghosts and spirits and supernatural things are woven into our culture — we’re a people made up of many different communities, and each one comes with their own spooks and spectres. And in that way, every Malaysian you meet has their own firsthand or secondhand stories of ghostly encounters!

Look for The Girl and the Ghost on August 4, 2020.

Photo by Azalia Suhaimi
Ever since graduating with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, Hanna Alkaf has worked as a copywriter in online B2B marketing, a senior writer at a major fashion & lifestyle magazine, and a communications manager at a non-profit organization in education. She’s written everything from profiles to press releases, from corporate annual reports to long-form investigative features, from social media posts to email newsletters, and her work has appeared in the Malaysian iterations of Marie Claire, Esquire, Shape, Female, Her World, and more.

Hanna has lived in Malaysia her entire life except for the six years she spent studying and working in and near Chicago. She currently lives near Kuala Lumpur with her husband and two children, and attempts to write books while juggling her never-ending to-do list (this works on some days better than others).


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