Novelist S.K. Ali on the Marvels and Oddities of Life

From the very beginning, S.K. Ali exploded onto the literary scene with the flair and determination of a woman with much to teach us. After earning a degree in Creative Writing at York University in Canada, Ali released her first novel, “Saints and Misfits.” It was instantly featured as a “Best Teen Novel in 2017” on various lists including Kirkus Review and Entertainment Weekly.

What sets S.K. Ali aside is how beautifully and authentically she writes about the Muslim experience, and this nuance has rightfully led to her being featured on many different media outlets, from NBC News to The Morning Show. Much to the delight of her fanbase, she’s currently working on the sequel to “Saints and Misfits.” In the meantime, however, her fans — of which I consider myself an enthusiastic member —have been blessed with her latest literary masterpiece, “Love from A to Z,” which is a love story featuring Muslim protagonists.

More so now than ever before, Muslim representation in young adult (YA) literature is so significant, simply because there are so many young Muslims, and yet we don’t have enough YA books with Muslims as protagonists living their everyday lives in an authentic way, through the lens of the Muslim experience. Sure, we tend to see the obvious struggles of “will she, or won’t she wear the hijab,” or those dealing with Islamophobic experiences.

Having said that, what’s been missing so far in the literary world is seeing more Muslim characters in a genre such as romance. That’s where S.K. Ali comes in. Her debut novel, “Saints and Misfits,” talked about first love, and the very heavy topic of sexual assault within the Muslim community. I don’t think anyone will disagree with me when I state that sexual assault is not a topic that’s discussed enough, and so, more often than not we have sexual predators getting away with their dark deeds, leaving their victims with no real outlet. Her second book, “Love from A to Z,” is more lighthearted in comparison, but it still deals with disability, grief, and fitting in. On top of everything, one of my other favorite things about “Love from A to Z” is the setting, which is Doha, Qatar. 

Personally, S.K. Ali’s books are the kind of books I wish I had access to when I was in high school. I’m ecstatic that more Muslim writers are writing about the Muslim community and the authentic Muslim experiences that few talk about. That type of representation feels good, because we need to have more Muslim protagonists that deal with heavy issues in a modern society. And as if her fiction wasn’t enough support, the incomparable S.K. Ali recently started a writing account called “Sajidah Writes” for those of us who would like a more intimate place to get to know her as a writer, and to write with her.

So naturally, I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to interview this literary genius, to pick her brain about what motivates her, what challenges her, any advice she has for budding writers and what marvels and oddities rule her world.

Muslim Girl: Thank you for agreeing to speak to me! How did you come up with idea to write a Muslim love story? What compelled you to tell this story?

S.K. Ali: I wanted a book on my shelf that had the kind of love story that I and most of my friends and family had experienced. A story where two Muslims meet randomly and choose each other. This happens all around the world, over and over, but due to the tendency of marginalized communities being saddled with the yoke of the “single story,” Muslim love stories are almost always focused on the arranged marriage experience. These, of course, happen too, and are beautiful love stories as well! But it’s essential that we get a chance to share other experiences, too.

What was the most challenging thing you faced while drafting your novel, and how did you overcome that?

The most challenging thing was that I initially set out to write a fluffy rom-com, but then hard issues kept creeping in — like Islamophobia, and dealing with the death of a loved one and so on — issues I kept fighting as I wanted the story to be light. I overcame this problem by realizing that it’s okay to write a multi-layered romance, okay to acknowledge our pain as Muslims living under the siege of widespread mal-representation, a term I use instead of misrepresentation.

Photo credits: S.K. Ali.

I had to acknowledge how true to life it is to include both joy and pain, as they exist simultaneously in our lives and, thus, had to be incorporated into the story simultaneously. Not fighting it helped me discover that one of the themes of the book was exactly what the two main characters were focused on from the get-go: recording the marvels and oddities, the wonders and pains of life.

What do you mean by “mal-representation”, and why do you use that term instead of misrepresentation?

I use “mal-representation” instead of “misrepresentation” to describe the deliberate use and reuse of negative Muslim imagery and stereotypes that has been going on for years in Hollywood and the news media. I don’t think “misrepresentation” quite covers the extent to which the Muslim identity has been maligned in popular culture and the news. Jack Shareen covered this in his book “Reel Bad Arabs,” as did Edward Said before him in his books “Orientalism” and “Covering Islam”. 

I use “mal-representation” instead of “misrepresentation” to describe the deliberate use and reuse of negative Muslim imagery and stereotypes that has been going on for years in Hollywood and the news media. I don’t think “misrepresentation” quite covers the extent to which the Muslim identity has been maligned in popular culture and the news.

I think it’s time we recognize and state there’s a difference between being ignorant/naive about Muslims (which would be when I would use the term misrepresentation,  and the conscious choice to perpetuate the idea that Muslims are backward, less cultured, violent, oppressive — all these stereotypes that then make it easy for people to believe that Muslim cultures and countries deserve invasion and colonization. I grew up seeing a lot of mal-representation.

I’m so curious, have you received any hate from either Muslims who don’t like how you presented the characters in “Love from A to Z,” or from non-Muslims who don’t like that you’re bringing Muslim characters into the mainstream?

Not at all. I’ve been fortunate not to have encountered that with this book. Muslim readers have embraced this narrative, and I’m so happy to see that!

However, with my first novel, “Saints and Misfits”, I did receive some emails asking why I decided to deal with a topic like sexual assault in the Muslim community, and how it was bringing more of a negative gaze on our community.

When the #MeToo movement gained traction, and people saw how widespread this problem [of sexual assault] was, how it affects every community, readers further understood the necessity of shining a light on the issue. 

I was able to communicate with those who had this concern, and get them to see how we ourselves should be the ones to examine our own issues, and how this is what I was doing. And, regarding “Saints and Misfits”, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that more Muslims got in touch with me to say how vital it was that I was writing on this topic; more Muslims were championing it than not. When the #MeToo movement gained traction, and people saw how widespread this problem [of sexual assault] was, how it affects every community, readers further understood the necessity of shining a light on the issue. 

That’s beautiful, and so pertinent. Moving onto Zayneb from “Love from A to Z,” she deals with Islamophobia and as a Muslim reader, I resonated with her. Do you think Muslim kids should respond the way Zayneb did, or learn from how she dealt with it? [Warning: mild spoilers]

Zayneb and her friends’ handling of the Islamophobia she faces in the classroom is based on a real case at a school board just outside the city of Toronto. [Spoilers ahead] I’d read about how a group of young people dealt with the discovery of what their (popular) teacher was sharing online: Islamophobic sentiments, including comments on students in his class who chose to observe hijab.

These young people took their concerns to the school board, and the teacher was subsequently fired. This bold and confident action by the students inspired me, because while I’d had an Islamophobic teacher myself while in high school, and vividly remember the feeling of powerlessness, I couldn’t imagine being as brave.

Seeing these young people today take a stand made me feel hopeful that, though hate seems to be increasing — especially with hateful feelings being proudly shared and acted upon — there’s also more people being brave and saying that’s not the kind of world we want to live in. There are more people actively making good change happen.

As I got inspired by these young in-real-life activists, my hope is that readers get inspired by Zayneb, too.

What’s one marvel and oddity for you? Do you keep a marvel and oddity journal like your characters do? (If you haven’t read “Love from A to Z” yet, a marvel is defined as something that you think is incredible. An oddity is something that makes you stop and think.)

As noted in my acknowledgements, sunshine and rain exist in the same world, and thus belong in the same story, so I see many marvels and oddities around me.

But if I had to cite one of my biggest marvels, it would be the evidence of God’s mercy in each and every day, in each and every moment. An oddity would be when people sum up a person’s entirety through one observation of them.

As for a marvel and oddity journal, I don’t keep one with that foci, but I do journal often. Oh, wait, I just remembered something: I used to run a gratitude recording website with my sister, for ourselves and our friends. This was a place for us to record the blessings, or marvels, in our lives. We began this because we were both going through painful experiences in our lives, separately, maybe the most pain we had ever experienced, and at the time we’d read studies that said focusing on the beauty in the midst of hardship was a way to bring joy back in. And it worked for us. And it worked for Adam and Zayneb too.

That’s so beautiful. Will there be a sequel for “Love from A to Z”? I also heard you’re working on a sequel for “Saints & Misfits”. Other than a big fat Muslim wedding by the lake, what else can you tell us about that?

“Love from A to Z” is complete, so I don’t foresee a sequel. However, Adam and Zayneb exist in the same universe as Janna from “Saints and Misfits” so I decided to allow them to visit Janna’s story in the “Saints” sequel — and it’s turning out to be fun.

Photo credits: S.K. Ali.

Hmm, what can I tell you that won’t be spoilery? Here’s one thing: there’s too much love at the wedding!

Do you have any advice for aspiring Muslim authors ? 

I’ll give you my second advice first: love writing. First advice is to love reading, of course,  and to read a lot, of course. But everyone always gives that advice, so let’s move on to “write a lot and love it!” Love it so much, that it’s something you have to do. Once that’s established, learn the craft of writing and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable, humble, and courageous enough to learn how to make your storytelling better.

There are no perfect writers, but there are people who’ve learned how to tell a tidy story, how to write a series of sentences that flow and bring scenes and characters alive in a reader’s head, how to get people to keep turning pages. Learn how that happens. Learn the art by which strong writers make the act of reading invisible, and know that in order to learn this secret, it means being dedicated and a person who patiently perseveres.

This is why I said learn to love writing first. Love it so you keep on writing. Because if you don’t, you’ll give up too fast, and we don’t want that happening. We need more Muslim authors!

Thank you so much for being so kind about sharing your time, and your wisdom. I have one final question for you: how did you end up working with Ibtihaj Muhammad, and what are you currently working on?

Working with Ibtihaj Muhammad was an opportunity that came through my literary agent. I’m grateful for it because, it’s Ibtihaj! And because we worked on the kind of book that helps kids feel seen and validated and resilient, with a fantastic illustrator, Hatem Aly.

I’m currently working on the sequel to “Saints and Misfits.”

After I hand that in, I’m going to insha’Allah revise another love story I’ve written, one that I’m very excited about as it takes place in Istanbul. I’d love duas from Muslim Girl readers to make this romance a reality on our shelves! Insha’Allah!

[/media-credit] Pictured: S.K. Ali

If you would like to keep up-to-date with the work of S.K. Ali, check out her website, or her Instagram page! Interview done by: Amani Salahudeen.