Morris Award Finalist: S. K. Ali

Hello darlings! It’s that time of year again, when we old Morris winners interview the new crop of up-and-comers. This year it is my distinct privilege to talk to S. K. Ali, my fellow Canadian and author of Saints and Misfits. Not only is her book up for the Morris, it also made the Canada Reads Longlist (click the link, non-Canadians, and learn).


The fabulous cover!

I enjoyed the book very much — and it’s sometimes hard for non-fantasy to hold my attention, as most of you know. Here’s the Goodreads blurb:

“Janna Yusuf knows a lot of people can’t figure out what to make of her…an Arab Indian-American hijabi teenager who is a Flannery O’Connor obsessed book nerd, aspiring photographer, and sometime graphic novelist is not exactly easy to put into a box.

And Janna suddenly finds herself caring what people think. Or at least what a certain boy named Jeremy thinks. Not that she would ever date him—Muslim girls don’t date. Or they shouldn’t date. Or won’t? Janna is still working all this out.

While her heart might be leading her in one direction, her mind is spinning in others. She is trying to decide what kind of person she wants to be, and what it means to be a saint, a misfit, or a monster. Except she knows a monster…one who happens to be parading around as a saint…Will she be the one to call him out on it? What will people in her tight-knit Muslim community think of her then?”

Full of memorable characters and thoughtful explorations of community and faith, I can see why this one caught the Morris committee’s attention. I particularly liked her depictions of the diversity of the Muslim community, which is no more monolithic than any other. Even among the hijabi girls in the story, who might on the surface appear interchangeable to a non-Muslim outsider, each one wears her hijab (or in one case, niqab) for her own reasons. It’s great (and unfortunately rare) to see that kind of depth and breadth of representation in YA.

Without further ado, then, let’s get to S. K. Ali herself, who very kindly answered my long, complicated, over-eager questions.

1) I have exactly one complaint about your book, so I had probably better get that out of the way first: I was disappointed that you didn’t set it in Canada. I had been all excited by the prospect of hijabi girls AND hockey in the same book. What was behind your decision to set it in the US? Was there editorial pressure to de-Canadize? Were they worried you might confuse readers with all the Canadian cultural references?

Growing up, the Muslim community for me was North American. My family spent a lot of time attending events and gatherings in the U.S. Midwest and then I continued it on my own through my teens and young adulthood so there’s a peculiar continental flavor to my understanding of the Muslim community. When it came time to set my story somewhere, I chose the Midwest without hesitation. I also think the story scope is beyond Canada as it deals with an unfortunately universal issue: sexual assault. The hashtag #MeToo is not limited to a geographic location, not limited to borders, cultures or communities and I wanted Saints and Misfits to reflect that. I wanted a broader audience for it.

2) Of course any main character who’s a reader is going to gain my sympathy straight away. Janna loves Flannery O’Connor — is she also a long-time favourite of yours, or did you find yourself discovering her work through Janna’s interest?  Who were you reading when you were Janna’s age? Were there authors you thought of as kindred spirits, whose themes and preoccupations you found echoed in your own life?

I was really into the British “classics” (Austen, Brontes, Dickens, Hardy, etc, etc) as a teen. When I came upon Flannery O’Connor’s works – being assigned one of her short stories in a high school Creative Writing class – I just knew she was going to be a fave. As a young reader, while I read a variety of genres, I was especially drawn to the macabre and here, in O’Connor’s stories, was the real deal; the horror of true life (whereas before I’d read fantastical horror). Some of her stories were truly chilling and I realized that that’s what a good writer does: observes the pathos, the fear, the anger, the bubbles of joy, the extreme feelings, inherent in all of life from the minutiae to the large-scale. Reading O’Connor at that time definitely made me a better writer; it made me see that writing about the everyday was extraordinary too (before this, all my stories had been otherworldly or out of my depth/experiences). Rediscovering O’Connor later on in life, reading about her life as I was writing Saints and Misfits, got me to understand the extent to which she was a person of faith. That really appealed to me as a person of faith myself. I loved the way she examined human frailties and the condition of believing yourself to be untouchably pious. I wanted to examine the same in my novel because these are things all religious communities grapple with.

3) I don’t want to be spoilery, but in this #metoo moment, your book is quite timely. I’ve just written a book about sexual assault myself, and found it quite gruelling to write. Getting inside your character’s experience and trauma can really take a toll. How did you approach this part of your book while still taking care of yourself as a writer? I’m imagining you calling upon the righteous anger of your inner Sausun, or the playful compassion of St. Sarah, but maybe you took walks or read poetry or hugged the people you love. How would you advise a young writer who wants to delve into such painful subjects?

I would say get angry, get sad, get moved. Because that’s where good writing comes from – that space of stirred-up emotions. When you channel those feelings into words, that’s when the magic of readers connecting with your story happens. That said, it’s important not to get trapped in the depth your feelings; a good antidote is to indulge in activities that take you away from the pain you’re writing about. For me, it varies from lengthy meal-chats with friends, to watching sci-fi films with my husband, to making art – which is my number one, fail-proof de-stressing activity. I also love looking at trees. That’s an activity that always aligns my soul.

4) At one point Janna says she didn’t want to tell anyone about her assault because she feared it would reflect badly on her community. Community, in fact, feels like a major theme of this book — even the title, Saints and Misfits, is about the people who seem to fit in effortlessly versus the people who don’t. Janna navigates several kinds of community in this book — school, mosque, neighborhood, family, internet — and they intersect in interesting and sometimes unexpected ways. What understandings about community do you hope readers come away with, especially as regards the importance of community to Muslims, and the depth and diversity of the Muslim community?

The Muslim community, the Muslim ummah of two billion people, is unbelievably diverse yet North American depictions of Muslims don’t represent that diversity. We see the violent terrorist, the oppressive, the oppressed and the completely non-practicing, palatable “fun” Muslims. I’ve been a Muslim for over four decades and I don’t recognize any of these TV/Media characters in the Muslim communities I’ve moved in. My intent in Saints and Misfits was to write raw, write real. It wasn’t to expressly to right or “correct” all the misrepresentations because I’m not a message-driven writer. But I guess in trying to write authentically, a lot of the nuances of Muslim lives came through. I’m happy with that and I hope readers take that to mean that there are SO many more stories by Muslim writers to read, in order to further explore this diversity.

5) OK, I lied, I had one more disappointment: the Niqabi Ninjas aren’t real. *weep!* I was seriously ready to go find them on YouTube. That said, I bet there’s lots of awesome and interesting Muslim-created art and media out there. Are there books, videos, comics, music, or other media you’d recommend for non-Muslim readers who want more?

I’m weeping with you because I want the Niqabi Ninjas to be real too! Okay, for recommendations: G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel comics are great – a Muslim-girl superhero! Also, her books, fiction: Alif the Unseen and memoir: The Butterfly Mosque are essential reading. (I hear she’s got a new work on the horizon. EXCITED!) For excellent mysteries featuring a Muslim detective, Ausma Zehanat Khan’s Inspector Esa Khattak and Rachel Getty series is fabulous. She also has a fantasy series with the first one out currently, The Bloodprint. Similarly, in the fantasy genre, S. A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass is a not-to-miss, read-now book. If romance is more your thing, Uzma Jalaluddin’s Ayesha At Last, to be published in June of this year, is a must. Salaam Reads, my publisher, has MG and PB titles that I would definitely highly recommend: The Gauntlet and Amina’s Voice for MG and Mommy’s KhimarYo Soy Muslim and Salam Alaikum for PB.  There are so many more Muslim authored books and may I suggest checking out the hashtag #MuslimShelfSpace on twitter and instagram to find more titles? Oh, before I move on from writers, I urge everyone to read Wajahat Ali’s columns in the New York Times to get slices of Muslim life! For music, I can give you a sample of Muslim artists I’ve listened to over the years: Yuna, Yusuf Islam (i.e. Cat Stevens) Maher Zain, Native Deen, Dawud Wharnsby and Harris J (sometimes called the Muslim Justin Bieber lol). There are tons of Muslim Youtubers and Podcasters and they range from practical jokers, to humorists, to artists, to new parents, to hijabi fashionistas, to thinkers, to all of these combined, and on and on. It’s just a matter of finding the one(s) who speak(s) to you!

6) You’re not just a Morris nominee, but your book is on CBC’s Canada Reads 2018 longlist as well! Wow! How has this experience been for you? Exciting? Overwhelming? Are you going to ALA Midwinter? In all this whirlwind, are you finding time to write? What’s next for you?

It’s been mouth-droppingly exciting! I’m very grateful for all the attention Saints and Misfits is getting and hope it will encourage more Muslim writers toward writing unapologetic content. I am indeed going to ALA Midwinter insha’Allah (God willing). And yes, I’m trying to keep up with the writing and have recently become more protective of my time to ensure I get my writing goals in (Twitter be banished!). Currently, I’m working on editing my second novel, while the plot points of my 3rd novel gently gather in the back of my head. Additionally, I’m participating in an anthology called Hungry Heart, which is made up of interconnected stories set in one culturally diverse, super foodie neighborhood. And, exciting news: I have an unannounced picture book coming out! 

7) Lightning round!

  1. Writing snack? Coffee, tea, sliced apples when I’m good and chocolate when I’m not
  2. Board games or video games? Board games though I was kinda addicted to video games as a teen
  3. Montreal or Vancouver? Vancouver, now that I’ve been there!!! [Rachel’s note: YAY VANCOUVER!]
  4. Morning or evening? Evening, though all my life, I’ve wanted to scream MORNING
  5. Music you sing along with when no one’s around? The carol Good King Wenceslas – my family doesn’t appreciate the utter passion I inject into it
  6. You’ve got a time machine! Where and when? Spain, well, Al-Andalus, early 10 century 

Speak, friend!

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