I first met Hanna Alkaf at Taylor’s University event, Journey to Publishing, last October. The event was organized in hopes of letting aspiring writers gain insights from published local authors and I could honestly say that, out of the four authors who spoke at that event, I found Hanna Alkaf’s session to be the most captivating.
As a mother of two now, Hanna got her first by-line at the age of sixteen in a local newspaper, The Star. In 2007, she graduated with a degree in Journalism from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois and since then moved on to be a content creator in B2B online marketing, became a senior writer at Marie Claire and was also a communications manager at Teach for Malaysia.
Her work as a journalist has appeared in well-known publications such as Marie Claire, Her World, Shape, female, Esquire, The Edge, The Star, The New Straits Times, Makchic.com and cilisos.my. In her works, she covered a wide range of fields including parenting, entertainment, lifestyle, travel, and women’s issues. While being a copywriter, she has developed newsletter content, brochures, video scripts, press releases, speeches and more for a wide range of clientele, including non-profit and developmental organizations, banks and financial institutions, and more. But now as a writer of fiction and non-fiction alike, she strives to tell stories, find a wider audience for the stories of the unheard, the marginalized, the undocumented, the forgotten, the invisible, as she feels a deep responsibility to magnify the voices of issues, causes and communities that we don’t talk about enough because for most people in Malaysia who don’t have to deal directly with mental illness, this topic would not be a prominent topic on their mind or even in their lives.
Since I saw her in October, Hanna has been busy working on her writings and she has a few short stories coming out in a couple of anthologies this year — Fixi’s Little Basket 2017, and a collection called The Binge Watching Cure from Claren Books. She has also just completed her first YA novel and it’s currently with her beta readers. Other than that, she has been freelancing and raising her kids.
In her own words, Hanna explains a little about her book.
My book is called GILA, and it’s what’s called narrative nonfiction (also known as literary nonfiction, or creative nonfiction). Basically, it means that I weave facts — statistics, research, interviews — with storytelling techniques, so that it becomes more fluid and more literary in style. You’re getting the information you’d get from a research paper, but in a way, that feels like you’re reading a novel.
As for the book itself, GILA explores the landscape of mental illness in our country through the eyes of those who experience it, as well as those who love and care for them, work with them and advocate for them. It tells the untold stories of people living with illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety, caregivers, psychologists, psychiatrists, advocates, and volunteers.
You’d think that out of all the literary that has been written and published in the world, there would be books like Gila. So, it is surprising when I asked Hanna, how does her book differ from the ones that have been written before hers, she said,
Well, for one thing, when GILA was released, there wasn’t really anything like it on the market. There was one Malay book, called Aku Nabi Isa! by Dr Rozanizam Zakaria, but that was more of a memoir of him working in a psych ward as a psychiatrist, coupled with some reflections on treatment from an Islamic perspective. Before GILA, most of the writing you got about mental illness in Malaysia fell broadly into two camps: It was either very academic and jargon-filled, making it difficult for the layperson to understand (think research papers and journal articles), or it was the sensationalized stuff you found in the papers, where the illness featured more heavily than the person. I wanted to write something that humanized mental illness and helped others understand it, so they could better empathize with it.
Part of being an author would be to deal with feedbacks and criticism. Curious as to how Hanna deals with them, I asked if she reads her own book reviews to which she wrote,
I do. I think you must, if you want to get a sense of whether you’ve met your goal when you started writing it. Plus, whether it’s good or bad, someone took the time to sit down and write their opinions of your work, and you must respect the time they took to do that. Good ones are nice on those days — and there are many of those days — where you have writing constipation, and every sentence takes huge effort, is incredibly painful to produce, and comes out stinking of shit in the end anyway. It helps you feel not quite so useless. And bad ones are good for keeping you humble.
To some authors, literary success would be #1 on New York Times bestseller’s list. But to Hanna,
It’s having people tell me that my writing has impacted them in some way. In the past year, there are two conversations in particular that still stick with me: The person who told me reading GILA had helped them find the courage to seek treatment for their own mental illness, and the girl who told me the book helped her better connect with her sister, who lives with depression. I mean, I’m sure it must be nice being JK Rowling and boasting those kinds of sales numbers, but man, those comments made me feel ten feet tall.
There is a famous saying that goes, “not all readers are writers, but all writers are readers.” Not all writers can put emotions well into words, especially the ones who don’t feel emotions strongly. But could someone be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly? Hanna thinks that anyone can be a writer. However, she said,
The best writers are deeply passionate people. I think it’s hard to write things that resonate with readers, that make them feel something, if you don’t feel it yourself.
Being an aspiring writer myself, I had to ask this question for myself and other aspiring writers, “did you come across any specific challenges in writing, Gila? What would you do differently the next time?”
The first challenge was in finding sources, and getting them to trust me enough to open up about their most intimate experiences. You have to understand that I was just some random writer, with no guarantee of a book contract to my name. There was no real way to tell if I was legit, and yet people still told me their stories.
The second was, once I had those stories, to write them with the greatest sensitivity and empathy that I could muster. I felt a great responsibility and a great fear of misrepresenting these stories in any way. To have been trusted with them was, and is, a great privilege, and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t guilty of sensationalizing or dehumanizing them. That was a lot of pressure.
One of the most important job of being a writer besides writing the book is to market yourself and the book. So, I asked, “What marketing strategies do you find most helpful? Any resources you would recommend to other authors or aspiring authors?”
I took charge of my own book launch, and used it as an opportunity to call attention to the wonderful work so many organizations are doing on the front lines of mental health here in Malaysia. Organizations like the Malaysian Mental Health Association, the Befrienders and MENTARI had booths to talk about their work, people could get free mental health screenings, purchase products to support the different orgs, and there were sessions on music therapy, stress-relief exercises, and doodling for mindfulness. By making the launch less about me and about the book, I could make sure more people got to know about the resources available out there for maintaining their mental health — and I also made sure the event was blasted out not just to my followers, but to everyone who followed all the different organizations involved. That’s a lot of people I couldn’t have reached on my own.
I never say no to doing talks and workshops, especially for students, and again, I try to make it less about me and my book, and more about the greater issues. Also, get active on Twitter. It’s a great way to connect with your readers.
But here’s the big caveat: No marketing strategy will work if people sense that you’re anything less than genuine. Be open, be honest, and be yourself. If people sense that, and they also happen to like your work, they WILL tell their friends about you. Nobody likes a phony.
To end the interview, I squeezed in a few fun questions!
Is being a writer a gift or a curse?
It’s what you make of it. Words are a tool you wield, and like any tool, they aren’t inherently bad or good — they just are.
What’s the strangest thing you have ever had to research online for your book?
For GILA, if you could see all the Google searches I did to try and find contact information for certain people, you’d probably call me a stalker.
For my novel, this isn’t so much online research, but…I have a book called The Writer’s Guide to Weapons that describes different guns and knives and what they could realistically be used for, what it’s like to be in a knife fight or gun fight, how to dismember a character…It’s very useful, but probably makes me look slightly psychotic.
Give us an interesting fun fact about your book.
Besides my husband and a couple of close friends, nobody knew I was writing it. I only told my parents the day after I got an offer of publication (shoutout to Gerakbudaya!), and I told my siblings two weeks before the launch. Like, “So hey, anyone free in a couple of weeks? I wrote a book.”
Also, GILA was researched while I was pregnant with my daughter and mostly written during and after confinement. The first thing I did post-confinement was drive to Tanjung Rambutan to shadow the Director there for the day — and then drive back.
Do you Google yourself?
Not regularly, but I have a Google alert on so I keep track of any mentions of me/GILA/any other publications.
Special thanks to Hanna Alkaf for agreeing to this email interview! To learn more about Hanna Alkaf or her book, you can do so through the links below:
Goodreads author page: www.goodreads.com/author/show/15075747.Hanna_Alkaf