By Steve Dunk
Today we’re pleased to welcome Hanna Alkaf to the WNDB blog to discuss young adult mystery Queen of the Tiles, out April 19, 2022!
noun: a substance that speeds up a reaction without itself changing
When Najwa Bakri walks into her first Scrabble competition since her best friend’s death, it’s with the intention to heal and move on with her life. Perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to choose the very same competition where said best friend, Trina Low, died. It might be even though Najwa’s trying to change, she’s not ready to give up Trina just yet.
But the same can’t be said for all the other competitors. With Trina, the Scrabble Queen herself, gone, the throne is empty, and her friends are eager to be the next reigning champion. All’s fair in love and Scrabble, but all bets are off when Trina’s formerly inactive Instagram starts posting again, with cryptic messages suggesting that maybe Trina’s death wasn’t as straightforward as everyone thought. And maybe someone at the competition had something to do with it.
As secrets are revealed and the true colors of her friends are shown, it’s up to Najwa to find out who’s behind these mysterious posts—not just to save Trina’s memory, but to save herself.
Hi Hanna, thanks so much for speaking with We Need Diverse Books about Queen of the Tiles! What is the book about and where did the idea come from?
Queen of the Tiles is about a 16-year-old girl named Najwa Bakri who is a competitive Scrabble player, but who hasn’t been competing for the past year since the sudden death of her best friend Trina Lau during a competition. And so she’s been dealing with that loss for the past year while slowly building her way back to being able to compete again, because Scrabble is such a central part of her life. But when she turns up at her first tournament, coincidentally, the one where Trina died, Trina’s long inactive Instagram account suddenly begins posting these cryptic clues and messages that hint at the fact that her death was anything but natural, that it was actually murder. And it’s now up to Najwa to figure out whom amongst the people that she considers her friends and peers might have been the one to do it.
Queen of the Tiles is actually inspired by the fact that I used to play competitive Scrabble when I was in high school. I was influenced by my brother who played at an even more intense level, and I have many memories of accompanying my parents to ferry him to and from weekend tournaments at this hotel in downtown Kuala Lumpur. Watching him play, watching his friends play, and watching his preparation for it.
So, when it came time to think about my second book, I was thinking I had never seen a book that centered on competitive Scrabble, and this was way before Queen’s Gambit made chess cool again. The first draft was very different from the draft from the final draft because it took me a really long time to get a grasp on the shape of the story, and also because I don’t think I was skilled enough to pull off a murder mystery as my second novel ever. I don’t think I was quite ready for it yet and so it took a lot of tooling with the story and writing a whole other book in-between to actually get it to where it is. So it exists in about 6 1/2 different drafts on my desktop, fully written drafts.
I think you did a great job, and it’s such an unconventional situation to begin with, to have a murder mystery at a Scrabble tournament basically occurring in real time. Such a wonderful idea.
Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, talk about this amazing cover by Leonardo Santamaria and how it feels to have Muslim representation on a cover. And talk about how important it is to be able to write a story with a diverse cast, including a Malaysian main character.
When I started shopping my first novel around to agents and editors, one of the first things I did, and still do if I were to speak to a new editor, is to be very upfront about the fact that I’m always going to be writing my people and my country into the narrative. I am not going to plunk a white character into my stories when there’s no need for one and I don’t ever intend to pander to a western gaze; I’m very upfront about that. And so, people can choose to work with me or not based on this.
I think it’s really important for me in particular to bang the drum here and be kind of obnoxious about it because there’s so few of us, and by us I don’t just mean Malaysians, I mean Southeast Asians, I mean non-western authors. I mean people based outside the US, people of color, all of it, there needs so much more of us.
And so, it feels amazing to see a hijabi on the cover of a book that has nothing to do with oppression and pain, where I don’t have to mine any trauma other than the personal trauma, because let’s face it, Najwa is pretty traumatized, but it’s got nothing to do with her religion. She’s not struggling with her religion, her religion brings her peace, but it’s not what defines her within this story. And I think it’s just really cool to be able to see a hijabi exist on the cover of a murder mystery and know that her religion has nothing to do with it.
I get so lucky, all my covers are gorgeous, and Leonardo and the art director Sarah Creech did an amazing job, they captured her on this so well, I love it.
In a sense, this book IS a Scrabble game, isn’t it? It has a wonderful symmetry to it. It ends how it begins, mirroring a good scrabble board, I’d imagine. And Najwa spends a lot of time trying to size up her opponents as well as the suspects.
So you decide you want to do Scrabble, and you’ve been in the Scrabble tournament trenches. Talk about how detailed and how specific you really wanted to get. Because there’s a risk there, if someone doesn’t like Scrabble at all, right?
In the first few drafts I didn’t get as deep into the strategy and gameplay as I do in this final draft. But in a post-Queen’s Gambit world, I realized that people could really get into the nerdery of it, people could really dig into the depth of this kind of world. Because even though I had zero interest in chess when I started watching Queen’s Gambit, I just think there’s something really fascinating about watching somebody who’s very, very good at what they do. There’s something innately fascinating about that, at least to me, watching somebody who’s very good and very passionate about what they do. It carries you away with them when you watch them do it, and I wanted to get that same sense into this book as well.
And so I started going a lot more in depth into gameplay and that was very difficult for me, because remember, I played competitive Scrabble in my teens and I wasn’t necessarily super serious about it. I wasn’t one of these kids in the book, I just happened to be good with words and have a decent vocabulary and that was why I was on the Scrabble team. So I started thinking about how people get to be good at what they do, and I started to really dig into it. I watched hours of documentaries and tournament footage, and not just footage but the match commentary as well. I wanted to know how experts view the board and how they strategize on the board. I read so much about Scrabble strategy, like everything I could possibly find, and through it all I kept a long list of words that I thought would make sense within the story. I have a Google doc that’s literally just called “Word List,” and every time I found an obscure word that I thought would make a cool clue or I could work into the narrative somehow, I just filed it. I had no idea if it would actually work or not, but I just put it in there.
I also played a lot when I was writing the book; I played a lot of Scrabble with myself, basically Scrabble solitaire. I was mapping out the moves because when I’m describing when Najwa plays a word, what the score is going to be, I need to know that it makes sense on the board because somebody, somewhere, some intrepid reader, is going to tell me that I’m wrong. So I had a Scrabble board by me while I was writing and I would literally just start mapping out moves. I would take any spare moment I had and just take out my Scrabble dictionary, which is immensely thick, it’s an Official Scrabble Players dictionary, and I would just flip through it and start looking at words, and if I spotted one that I liked, I would mark it down.
Writing this book took up a lot of brain space, but in a lot of different ways. Thinking about quadrants and how if you put this down you block this, and there’s so much forward thinking in Scrabble as well, it’s not just in the moment. It was so much fun writing this book, all the information that I had living in my head.
I don’t know if you’ve heard of Sapir–Whorf hypothesis—also known as linguistic relativity. It’s a hypothesis that the structure of a language determines a native speaker’s perception and categorization of experience. And this happens to Najwa in the book, she starts to think and see Scrabble everywhere, right? She thinks in words. And this also separates Najwa from the pack, she goes the extra mile of actually learning the definitions of the words, whereas most people don’t bother.
Because Scrabble isn’t a game that’s really about words, it’s a game about probabilities, and the highest score, where words are just point amassing units. I think somebody says this in the book that words are just point amassing units, like they’re just things that you need to score. But for Najwa, the fascination is words themselves, and so she retains the information.
That was actually the hardest part of the book to write, Najwa’s internal analysis because she has a habit of jumping from word to word based on the definition until it makes sense. There’s a particular sequence that I’m really fond of that I wrote early on, that survived from the first draft, where she goes from arenite, which is a type of sedimentary clastic rock, to the word clastic, which means to break into fragments, to break off into pieces, and then she ties that to her sitting there feeling like she’s falling apart. And it’s that kind of floating—from definition to definition, from word to word—that was the most difficult when writing this book because, how do you do that? How do you think like that?
But yeah, that’s how she processes the world, through these words and definitions that she knows. And she assigns words to situations and to people, and that’s just how she thinks. And getting into that headspace was really difficult because for one thing, Najwa has a way better vocabulary than I do, and trying to find those words for her, to speak her thoughts, that was probably the most difficult part, the most challenging part of writing this book. Part of the reason was because the rest is technical; you can learn the words, you can learn Scrabble, you can learn the strategies, you can learn the point counting and the systems and all that, but learning to think like Najwa does was the hardest part.
This book really takes a good close-up look at how different people deal with loss and grief in different ways, Najwa experiences panic attacks and is in therapy for example. What particular message were you trying to send?
In any book that I write, but YA in particular, I don’t set out with the intention to preach anything to anybody. I don’t set out with the intention to preach at young readers in particular because young people are condescended to and preached at all the time right? They don’t need it from the fiction that they’re reading, that they’re trying to enjoy it.
But I live in a country where mental health and therapy are very much things that are still stigmatized; they’re not comfortable things for people to talk about. And so, writing it this way is very intentional on my part in the sense that Najwa treats this like a completely normal part of her life. It’s just a facet of her life that she has to deal with. She goes to therapy because it’s a tool that helps her with her grief. And she goes through these panic attacks where you can see her use the coping mechanisms that she’s learned in therapy, to manage her anxiety and her grief.
And I think that that’s very important to see a Muslim, Malay, Malaysian teen, put those tools to use. To use the tools that are available to them and then put them to use in their everyday lives as a coping mechanism, and without it being made to feel like an after-school special, but because it’s part of life. And I think normalizing it that way, if you want to use the term, is important to the readers who are represented by Najwa. Muslim readers, Malay readers, Malaysians, it’s important to see her use those tools but not be beaten over the head with it.
You are one of the founders of www.kitajagakita.com, which is a wonderful non-profit that helps your community. Tell me about that.
Kita Jaga Kita started out as a response to a national lockdown or what they called a “movement control order” here in Malaysia, which was basically a lockdown and a curfew. There were restrictions on how many people could be in a car at a time, how many people per household could be in a car at a time. There was a travel restriction; you were restricted to within 10 kilometers of your home unless you had a medical or emergency reason to be out further than that. It was an intense and difficult time. It was enforced proximity.
Schools were closed; I was with my children all the time and a lot of schools here are not set up for online infrastructure, it’s not a thing that we have invested as much time or money in setting up. And so schools took a long time, and the Ministry of Education, took a long time to figure out what schooling looked like in this environment. So my kids were just home with nothing to do. And I am a stay-at-home parent as well as being a full-time author, and my husband has the 9 to 5, on calls and in meetings, and so the job of 24/7 childcare fell on me. They enforce these lock bounds without putting in place any safety nets for people who are much less privileged than people like me, who can afford to be home and homeschool my kids, and figure out what to do with them, and come up with fun activities, who have good Internet, who have access and privilege.
It became really clear that there weren’t any safety nets or contingencies in place for these groups, and so you were seeing people locked down with no sources of income, with no ability to get food, things like that. And so Kita Jaga Kita was really born out of my frustration with the situation, and it was a way to channel aid to people who really needed it.
It was the simplest thing, because all I did was collect all these places that were either offering aid or needed donations to funnel aid to marginalized groups, and I put it in one Twitter thread. To me it’s obvious that a lot of people want to help out, but they don’t know where to go because the volume of information is so overwhelming. If you simplify where they can go to get the information then chances are, people will donate.
I used the hashtag #KitaJagaKita because it means “We take care of each other,” because we couldn’t depend on other bodies. So I started collecting these under this hashtag and it sort of spiraled from there and then a group of volunteers came together, and we turned it into something that’s more easily shareable beyond Twitter. And our service that we provided was really, really simple, which was basically just vetting and making sure that all these places that were asking for donations were legit before listing them. So yeah, we created a national aid movement that I had somehow inadvertently created via my Twitter account.
For readers who enjoyed Queen of the Tiles, what other authors or books would you recommend? And for the Scrabble crowd, what books or resources would you recommend?
So for other authors, obviously you want to go with Karen M. McManus, the queen of current YA mysteries. I also love Courtney Summers, and I think she does emotional, heart-wrenching mystery really, really well. Tiffany D. Jackson, obviously; anything by her is amazing. Those would be the first three that I think of.
For the Scrabble crowd, I have the Collins Scrabble Dictionary, which is a thick, thick tome of a Scrabble dictionary. I watched the documentary Word Wars, which is an older one about a bunch of competitive Scrabble players preparing for a tournament.
I religiously read Word Freak by Stefan Fatsis, which is a non-fiction book about a journalist who basically goes on this journey of becoming a ranked Scrabble player. So from when he first starts out until his final ranking, it covers like a year or two in his life where he basically just devotes it to playing Scrabble and being among competitive Scrabble players. I actually read this even before I started writing fiction. I found it in a thrift store while I was working in Chicago, and brought it home and read it and was so obsessed with this idea of this dude who just decides he wants to become a ranked Scrabble player, it was amazing to me.
There are a few different Scrabble documentaries and stuff but I remember Word Wars in particular because it was so focused on top Scrabble players and their preparation, which was fun for me.
Hanna Alkaf is the author of the Freeman Award-winning The Weight of Our Sky (Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster) and the Kirkus Prize finalist The Girl and the Ghost (HarperCollins). She graduated with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University and spent over ten years writing everything from B2B marketing emails to investigative feature articles, from non-profit press releases to corporate brochures. She now spends her time making it up as she goes along, both as an author of fiction and as a mom. Hanna lives in Kuala Lumpur with her family. Her next books are the upcoming YA mystery Queen of the Tiles (Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster 2022), the YA magic school anthology The Grimoire of Grave Fates (Delacorte 2022), and the MG fantasy Little Red (HarperCollins 2023).
Steve Dunk was born on Vancouver Island, British Columbia and now lives near a lake just outside of Toronto, spending his days obsessing over most things in geek culture, but mostly just trying to drink coffee and read in peace. He’s been blogging for various sites for as long as he can remember, focusing on the big three, movies, books, and music. His reading tastes stick pretty close to Young Adult but occasionally ventures outside enjoying middle grade, new adult, and adult as well. Fantasy, sci-fi, speculative, romance, contemporary…he loves it all. He reviews books and interviews authors on his podcast, Everything is Canon, over at Cinelinx.com with a focus on BIPOC/LGBTQIA+ authors and allyship. He doesn’t like sports, has lots of Star Wars books, and has two dogs. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.