Interview by Hilary Leung.
In her debut novel, Saints and Misfits, S.K Ali offers a poignant coming of age narrative that explores, with nuance and tenderness, the identity of Janna Yusuf as she navigates a world that is divided into saints, monster and misfits.
The chapters are uniquely divided into saints, monsters and misfits serving not only a way for readers to navigate through the book, but also as a way for Janna conceptualize how she views the people in her world and the kind of person she wants to be.
S.K. Ali will be appearing at the Writer’s Festival “Yes, You Can!” on October 19, 2017.
What inspired you to write this particular story? What drew you into writing about Janna’s story?
From a very young age, I’ve been drawn to issues of equity, particularly in regards to women and, more particularly, in regards to Muslim women. I’m a practicing Muslim, unapologetically so, and I knew writing would be a way for me to authentically explore what being a Muslim feminist looks like (in my view). This story of a girl finding her voice was a natural outcome of my interests and identity aligning.
I really liked how you opened the novel with Janna wearing the burkini because it establishes her as a very strong character since she affirms that this is her choice despite her father’s criticisms. I was wondering why you decided to open up with this particular scene?
Thank you. I did this because I felt like it was perfect tension moment — Janna feels at odds at the beach (society) and with her father (family); it logically led to bringing up the overall conflict to the reader: that of assault and Janna’s inability to disclose it (so her conflict within). It also demonstrated her not wanting to be “seen” (emerging from the water). Richard Peck had given the writing advice that your first chapter should mirror your last chapter and I was able to do so with this introduction. In the last chapter, Janna is strong enough to want to be seen by the monster, the one she’d initially feared the most.
Who was your favourite character to write and why?
I loved writing Muhammad because his personality is so oblivious, earnestly-goofy and yet caring. It was fun to do his scenes. I also really enjoyed writing Saint Sarah, Mr. Ram and Sausun. They had so many aspects to their personalities that there was a lot to draw from and I never got stumped.
What was one of the hardest scenes to write?
The assault scene was definitely the hardest one to write. Even before I began writing it, I was worried about what my approach would be. I felt like the tone of the rest of the novel wouldn’t work with such a gripping, emotion-filled moment. I was beginning to feel a bout of writing-block coming on when a friend suggested trying the trusted stream-of-consciousness exercise to figure out why I was dreading writing the scene. Instead, I stream-of-conscious-ed the assault itself. And, I think it worked.
The ending chapter title and the actual title of the book are flipped which carries an interesting mirror effect. What was the reason behind this choice?
I never noticed this! Maybe it was subconscious thing that happened because I was trying to mirror the first chapter.
What do you hope readers to get out of after reading this book?
That everyone you meet may be grappling with things you know nothing about, that are not clearly evident. That if you’re going through something, look for support because there’s always some of sort of support available. That there are hidden s/heroes around us and more importantly, a s/hero within.
What are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of readers connecting with this story on multiple levels. It’s a coming-of-age story of a Muslim teen and a cross-section of readers have responded to it. That makes me happy and quite hopeful that diverse narratives are wanted.
What is your writing process? Do you listen to music? Do you have a specific place where you go to to write?
I make tea (sage or jasmine are favourites), put a promodoro timer on (so no distractions allowed for 3 bursts of 25 minutes in succession, followed by a 15 minute break), then I read over a couple of chapters previous to the point I’m at (to get into the flow of the story) and then I write. I do two or three more of these sessions with 15 minute breaks in between. If I’m really into the happy writing zone, I’ll continue sometimes for hours more. Those are my favourite writing days!
I write mostly at home in a very clear space but I also move if I get blocked creatively; that could mean moving to another room, a cafe, library or my parent’s house. (They’re awesome because they actually respect me and leave me to it — as long as I eat lunch with them after. Win-win!) And yes, I’ll play music to get into the mood of a scene or if songs are referred to in the narrative. Like the book I’m writing right now has a lot of music mentioned so I like to hear the playlist while writing.
What are you reading these days?
I’m trying to read as much of my #MuslimShelfSpace as possible— these are titles featuring Muslim protagonists authored by Muslim writers. There’s a dearth of such stories and I’m committed to supporting the publishing industry as it seeks to change this state of affairs. I just finished reading a manuscript for a friend, in the midst of reading The Bloodprint by Ausma Zehenat Khan and about to start a middle-grade novel, Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan.
Who do you write for?
Would it be cliche to say I write for open minds? And for those who haven’t seen themselves humanized in books, television, movies and the news? Because those are the two types of readers I’m meeting — people happy to explore the life of a Muslim teen with openness and people grateful to see their identities as North American Muslims explored with a nuance that, sadly, they haven’t encountered much in literature. I write for the unseen and those wanting to see.
Hilary Leung is an English Literature major and Creative Writing minor. She spends half of her time writing stories, and the other half crying about how hard it is to write stories.