Malaysian author Hanna Alkaf’s Queen of the Tiles combines two irresistible elements: wordplay and murder. It’s the story of Najwa, a Scrabble whiz whose best friend, Trina, collapsed mid-game during the Word Warrior Weekend tournament a year ago. As Najwa continues to deal with her grief, she competes in her first tournament since Trina’s death, where she discovers that her friend may have been murdered—and the killer could be sitting on the other side of the Scrabble board.
What initially sparked your interest in writing about Scrabble and the competitive Scrabble community?
I love Scrabble. Malaysia has a thriving, active Scrabble community, and as a teen, my older brother had been part of it. I remember many weekends spent ferrying him back and forth from our house to the Parkroyal Hotel in downtown Kuala Lumpur, where meets were usually held. Naturally, I ended up representing my school at a few competitions when I was in my teens as well. The strategies employed by top Scrabble players have always fascinated me, and when you combine that with my love of wordplay, Agatha Christie mysteries and teen angst, well, that’s how Queen of the Tiles was born.
The Scrabble competition in Queen of the Tiles is suspenseful and incredibly detailed. How did you research that aspect of the book? What did you learn that surprised you?
I watched many hours of Scrabble competitions, documentaries and interviews, read as much and as widely as I could on strategy and gameplay, and mapped out moves on a Scrabble board that I kept by my desk throughout the entire process.
I am now a repository of absolutely fascinating and utterly useless Scrabble trivia. For instance, the highest scoring Scrabble word ever was played by Karl Khoshnaw in 1982: caziques, for 392 points. But Dan Stock from Ohio worked out that, in theory, the highest scoring Scrabble word possible is oxyphenbutazone, which, if the stars somehow align and all conditions on the board are just as they need to be, can get you a ridiculous 1,778 points. Yes, I am very fun at parties.
At the beginning of each chapter, you feature a word with its definition and Scrabble point value. Did you already have words in mind for this when you began writing?
I kept a Google Doc called WORD LIST, and every time I came across a word and definition that I thought I could work into the plot—whether for the words at the beginning of each chapter, tournament scenes or Najwa’s own internal monologues—I’d note it down.
Sometimes I needed something specific, like, “Oh, for this chapter, I need an obscure word that means ‘enemy.’” I’d open Thesaurus.com, plug the word in and find the most obscure but still relevant synonym. Then I’d cross-check it with an online Scrabble word checker to make sure it was valid and read what the official definition and point value would be.
Najwa’s internal dialogue was harder to work through. She floats from word to word depending on the definition or how that word is tied to her memories or her analysis of other people. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, and every time I did it felt like a tiny miracle.
One of my favorite such moments happens early on in the book. Najwa’s thought process takes her from the word arenite (a sedimentary clastic rock) to clastic (composed of fragments) to fragment (to break into pieces), and that’s how she feels right in that moment: like she’s falling apart.
The tournament aspect of the novel is thrilling on its own, but Queen of the Tiles also contains a murder mystery! Do you enjoy reading mysteries? What was challenging about plotting one yourself?
I grew up raiding my older sister’s collection of Agatha Christie novels and still go back to them as comfort reads—particularly the Poirot books. Yes, you read that right: I read murder mysteries for comfort.
The most challenging part of it all was laying down the breadcrumbs. It’s easy to say this big reveal needs to happen in this chapter, or this plot twist goes here, but if you don’t show a logical path to get there, then you’re not really earning it. Mysteries work best when readers can play along; they’re most fun when you can go back and realize the clues were there waiting for you, and you just didn’t realize at the time that they were clues at all.
Najwa has developed an obsession with Trina’s Instagram account, and social media plays a vital role in the story. Why was it important to you to include this in the book?
Trina was a social media star; she had a large following and we catch glimpses of how obsessed she was with maintaining a certain image for her public. But the more we get to know Trina, the more we see how much more depth and darkness lie behind the facade.
And it isn’t just Trina. In all instances where we see social media use in Queen of the Tiles—and we see it a lot—there’s always the underlying question of what we present to the world versus who we really are. How much is being shown, and how much is being hidden? How do you evaluate what is real when you don’t know how much is being shared and how much has been withheld?
In her grief after Trina’s death, Najwa experiences memory issues, intrusive thoughts and more. Your portrait of Najwa is so real and raw. What was it like for you to craft this moving depiction of loss and healing?
I did some research on therapy and coping mechanisms for loss, grief and PTSD, but to be honest, writing Najwa was difficult not because I couldn’t understand what she was feeling, but because I understood it too well. I mined my own memories and emotions and buried shards of my own remembered grief in Najwa; if she feels real to readers, then I’m grateful, because the emotions were all too real to me.
I loved how often Najwa refers to her therapist when she talks about what she’s been going through. Why was it important to you to include therapy as part of Najwa’s experiences and to depict her openly relying on its lessons?
In Malaysia, we’re still working on destigmatizing mental illness and therapy. I really wanted to show a Malay Muslim teen struggling with her mental health and the ways in which she reaches out, gets help, develops coping mechanisms and puts those tools in practice—all things that I think we need to work on normalizing.
You recently tweeted, “I cannot tell you what it means to me to see a hijabi on the cover of a book that has absolutely nothing to do with Muslim pain or oppression. A book where she just gets to play Scrabble and solve a mystery and be a teenage girl.” That’s such a powerful statement. What do you hope Najwa and her story might mean for teen readers?
All too often, Muslims and hijabis have to perform our pain in order for our stories to be taken seriously. And those stories are important and necessary. But they’re not all we are. The Muslim experience is varied and colorful; we contain multitudes. We should have stories that showcase all of that! Our pain and our joy and our fears and our loves and our friendships—the sum of our lives and not just one aspect of it.
What do you think draws us to word games like Scrabble, crossword puzzles or, recently, Wordle and makes us want to play them time and again?
I can only really speak for myself, but in my case, I am endlessly fascinated by language and the way that the smallest changes in letters, word choice, tone, inflection or emphasis can entirely change the message we’re trying to get across. My dedication in this book reads simply, “This one’s for the word nerds.” I might as well have said, “This one is for me.”
Author photo of Hanna Alkaf courtesy of Azalia Suhaimi.