As a very avid reader growing up, I was always on the lookout for a book with a Muslim protagonist. It would be my day’s mission to scour my school or local library in search of a book with a Muslim character or written by a Muslim author. And it was seldom that I ever found one hiding between the shelves.
It is essential for young Muslims to see female Muslims in the literature they read as they develop and discover their identities. For most of our lives, the content and entertainment we consume are Eurocentric, and the little Muslim representation that we do see is ultimately based on harmful stereotypes and misconceptions.
These misconceptions and stereotypes aren’t only harmful to us as Muslims, but also to the public as their perceptions and images of Muslims and Islam become cemented with the thoughts and ideas being pushed on them through the content they consume. This is why, S.K. Ali, award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of Misfit in Love and Love from A to Z, is one of the most important Muslim female authors in the world right now.
It is an extremely rare occurrence that a book successfully and accurately portrays the average Muslim teenager. When I stumbled across Love from A to Z by S.K. Ali, I was more than over the moon. Sajidah Ali, better known as S.K. Ali, has written and published several books targeted at a young Muslim audience, bringing some much-needed accurate representation into the market.
Love from A to Z follows Zayneb, a Pakistani-American teen who travels to Doha after trying to help her Islamophobic high school teacher understand that his bigotry and racist comments aren’t okay. In Doha, she meets Adam, another Muslim teenager who has just been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and is trying his best to keep things together for his younger sister and father. Adam and Zayneb then embark on the most wholesome and beautiful romance.
I had the absolute honor of getting to ask S.K. Ali a few questions in celebration of Love from Mecca to Medina, the sequel to her bestseller Love from A to Z which will be released on October 18, 2022! Love from Mecca to Medina continues with Zaynab and Adam’s love story as they navigate adulthood and their connection with each other and their religion.
Muslim Girl: Congratulations on completing yet another novel! You’re one of only a tiny handful of Muslim women authors in the publishing industry. How does that feel?
S.K. ALI: Thank you! While I feel grateful to be an author, I’m also hopeful for the day when we Muslims will be prevalent in all creative industries, making a mark based on those ethics – hard work, sustained efforts, justice, compassion, etc – we glean from our deen. Our impact comes from doing work that uplifts and stays long after we’re gone and I hope more of us get to do that, insha’Allah.
Your debut book was released in 2016, several years after you finished your creative writing degree and decided to dedicate your time to writing a novel. What was the most difficult part of writing your book and getting your book published?
S.K. ALI: The most difficult part was continuing the years-long project of writing a book that I didn’t know would get published or not. There is no guarantee of course with this kind of creative work. You really have to learn self-motivation skills and find and feed yourself inspiration when you feel your inner fire waning. I couldn’t have kept going without the community of writers I found online — ten years after my degree, I should add — all ready to encourage each other along. That support sustained me for ten more years until I got published, after which your publishing team takes over being your primary support, alhamdulillah. So yes, my journey was twenty years long.
Why did you decide to write a book with characters that are not only Muslim but whose lives revolve around Islam? Were you ever afraid of any backlash? Were you ever concerned about a publisher rejecting your books because they were so heavily focused on Islam and Muslim teens?
S.K. ALI: I didn’t make a conscious decision to write books that focus on being Muslim and Islam. Muslims who weave their faith into their lives are the characters that first come easily for me to write because that is the reality I most know. Writers are often told (whether erroneously or not is a matter of writerly debate) to write what they know. In my case, I found writing what I know opened access to the most visceral experiences and memories to draw from. Like when Jo in Little Women begins to write what she knows; her family (of faith, I’ll point out) provided the best emotional terrain for her to grow her stories from. It’s the same for me. I find the most compelling characters and storylines and themes when I think about my experiences being Muslim and our Muslim communities. So, it’s more of a question of art – and because of that, I wasn’t worried about whether publishers would pick my books up. I think I still had the trust that the art would come through.
Most of Love from Mecca to Medina is set in Mecca and Medina. The main characters Zayneb and Adam are there to perform Umrah. Where did you get the inspiration to have the sequel to one of your most popular books set in Mecca and Medina, with characters performing Umrah?
S.K. ALI: I wanted them to go on a trip. And what better trip for two young committed Muslims than to go to Mecca and Medina? It was also a way to trace what can happen after the “happily-ever-afters” with a spiritual lens that doesn’t center the material world or people – including loved ones – who may interfere in our life purposes. So it was for a fun reason (a trip!) and a serious one (the state of our souls!) that I chose to set this book in Mecca and Medina. (And, London, Chicago, and Doha.)
Love From A to Z and now Love From Mecca to Medina are my favorite books of yours. Adam and Zayneb are both complex young adults that go through so much during the two novels. What do you love the most about Adam and Zayneb?
S.K. ALI: I love that they’re willing and open to change; to listen to those with experiences different from theirs and to reflect on these experiences. I particularly love that they’re both – in different ways – unapologetically Muslim. Adam is unapologetic in a theoretical, big-picture way; his link to the faith is based on the whole grandeur and majesty of our connection to Allah, to each other, whether Muslim or not, and to history and heritage. He knows, with certitude, that there is more to Islam and being Muslim than what is presently associated with it (the negative stuff) and doesn’t need to prove this to anyone to feel confident in his faith. Zayneb is unapologetic in a bold way because she’s all about the justice our faith focuses on, and so, she needs things right in the world; her impatience makes her loud and proud, and that’s okay too.
Getting your foot into the publishing industry isn’t easy, especially if you’re considering the traditional publishing route. What tips would you give to authors that are in the early stages of trying to query an agent or garner interest from a publisher?
S.K. ALI: My advice is something I did: turn everything that puts other voices in your head off – literally, I mean – and focus on your story, on the art. I shut myself off from all social media and online communities for months when I found I was starting to get depressed with the lack of traction in my writing journey. I decided to focus only on my writing and do EVERYTHING I could to get it into the best shape possible. This took months. And then, only then, did I turn to querying – with a twist in my outlook: “Get yourself a hundred rejections before you pause”. I knew if I told myself the goal was to collect rejections, I wouldn’t give up so easily. Alhamdulillah, it took a week and a half after I set out with this mindset, after having done the months-long shut-everything-out-to-perfect-my-book plan, to get my first offer of representation.
What’s your advice for young Muslims who look at you in awe and want to achieve what you have?
S.K. ALI: First, I say “assalamu alaikum!” Then I say, take a look at your interests that have been with you from a very young age, the things you’ve been inclined to develop independently and nurture those interests every single day if you can. Just a little bit even. Talent is beautiful, but skills develop and shine from practice. Practice what you love and the world will know it, insha’Allah.
Love from Mecca to Medina is the perfect sequel to Love from A to Z. It has everything fans could ask for and it will be everything new readers will love. S.K. Ali has given the world a wonderful gift through her powerful writing.
You can pre-order Love from Mecca to Medina on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and various indie bookstores now here!