We are so excited to have S.K. Ali at Rich in Color today! Ali’s debut novel, SAINTS AND MISFITS, came out earlier this summer, and we’re thrilled to be able to interview her. If you haven’t read SAINTS AND MISFITS, you should definitely check out the summary before you read the interview. Also, check out my review here.
Saints and Misfits is an unforgettable debut novel that feels like a modern day My So-Called Life…starring a Muslim teen.
How much can you tell about a person just by looking at them?
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 tightknit Muslim community think of her then?
Janna is a great character that I feel many teens will connect with. Who or what was your inspiration for Janna?
Janna is a mixture of the teens in my life currently and the girls I grew up with and the girl I was – way back then. I wanted teens trying to figure themselves out to see themselves in her. I know I was mostly successful with this because some of the teens I know debate among themselves which one of them is MORE like Janna. Success!
I feel like Saints and Misfits is a wonderful feminist novel that explores what it is like to be a Muslim teen in society today. The diversity of beliefs and ideas of all the female characters was refreshing to read, including the different relationships Janna has with Sarah, Fizz, Tats, & Sausun. How important was it to you to truly show the complexity of female relationships?
Oh, this was SO important to me. I think it’s important for women – young and older – to cherish their friendships and connections with other women. We’re all in the fight for gender equity and justice together and it’s vital we see each other as supporters and allies of one another. This is something I emphasize as a teacher, even to my class of second-graders. It’s never too early for girls to see the importance of being there for each other.
I read that you are a teacher. How do you balance writing, teaching, and the other aspects of your life?
I try to remember what a very wise person said to me: balance doesn’t mean you’re perfect at everything. I’m always trying to remember this. Because, yes, when you have a lot going on, you can lose sight of the important things while trying your “best” to achieve your goals. One of the things I’m trying to learn to do is block chunks of time for different areas of my life – like week-long writing retreats. Also, I’m hoping it’ll be easier now because I’ve taken a year off of teaching to focus on my writing career.
How much of your writing life do you share with your students?
Not very much of my author-life but I do share my love of stories with them. I often tell stories (that I make up as I go along) to explain concepts or give examples. My students love this and often ask me to continue!
In January, you created the hashtag #MuslimShelfspace to bring awareness to Muslim authors. Why is diversity in young adult fiction important to you?
It’s important because I think good art is important. And good art involves integrity, authenticity and raw honesty. This only happens when we reflect our true realities. Sadly, literature in North America has a far way to go before reflecting the reality of our times. It’s sad that not much has changed from when I was a teen myself in terms of seeing narratives featuring teens from marginalized communities in bookstores and libraries. We’ve got to make sure the momentum started by the #WeNeedDiverseBooks and the #OwnVoices and, yes, the #MuslimShelfSpace, campaigns continue and stay vital in order for real change to take root.
Lastly, when I finished the book, I wasn’t quite ready to leave Janna, her family, friends and her community. Is there a hope that you might return to Janna’s world in the future?
Hmm, this is a good question and one that I’m being prompted to mull now that I keep getting questions like yours. So I’m going to say that I haven’t ruled it out. (I too maybe interested in seeing Sarah’s and Muhammad’s wedding plans come to fruition! And I’m curious about Sausun’s video stunt to save her sister! And, also, #TeamNuah and…) ☺
Thank you S.K. Ali for sharing your thoughts with us! You can find S.K. Ali at https://skalibooks.com, and @sajidahwrites (Twitter).