Author Interview: S. K. Ali

Visit Sajidah at her website to find out more about her.




Saints & Misfits deals with the very sensitive issue of sexual abuse in the Muslim community. Did you (or should it be do you) expect some pushback and resistance to your attempt (via this novel) to speak about these very important topics?

It’s not something I thought about while writing the novel. I come from a space where I feel very comfortable examining my faith community frankly, warts and all, while staying true to my religion. Because I think there’s no shame for a Muslim to admit their humanness, for the Muslim community to admit they struggle with the same ills that every community on earth grapples with.

Plus, our faith tells us to stand forth in justice even if it’s against our own. And sexual assault is an issue of justice.

However, as the publication date came closer and I began receiving some feedback on this topic, I saw that our community is very fragile and sensitive to the light being shone on us. I attribute this to bad rep fatigue – we’ve just seen enough bad guys from the Muslim community.

To these responses, I wanted to say BUT LOOK, IT’S NOT ALL LIKE THAT IN MY BOOK. THERE’S NUANCE. YES, THERE’S A MONSTER BUT THERE’S ALSO MUHAMMAD AND NUAH AND…but then, I had to say, enough, to myself.

I had to make peace with the fact that readers will be where they need to be. If it pains them to read something I wrote, I honor that.

One of the things I loved about Saints & Misfits is how you have shown diversity within the Muslim community. Apart from Janna, do you have a favourite character in the novel?

I love Sausun because she’s perpetually on a mission and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks because she’s righting wrongs. I also love Muhammad and Sarah individually, and due to their relationship. I’ve been asked to write a sequel just so they can get married while Janna rolls her eyes the whole time.

Was there any aspect of the novel that you had to fight your editors to keep?

No, I wasn’t asked to cut anything. I write tight, always trimming and keeping it focused, so I guess I’d already done the cutting. My experience working on this book with my editor, Zareen Jaffery, and the team at Simon & Schuster has been a dream one. Zareen just asked brilliant questions, which led me to deepening the story. I also extended the ending due to editorial input.

What was the most challenging thing about writing Saints & Misfits?

The most challenging thing was ending the story. I wanted to end on a burst of epic girl power. I wanted the monster shamed online, viral video style. But then I had to bring the story back to what it was really about: a girl figuring out that she needed to reach out to her points-of-support and disclose and deal with her trauma. A girl waking up to the people that have been there like a scaffold for her and now it was time to fall on them. My editor and agent were brilliant at reminding me that this was ultimately Janna’s story.

Was there any particular advice about writing that kept you going through your journey?

Are you sure you want to ask this question? I HAVE A BINDER FULL OF WRITING ADVICE.

Hmm, I can’t think of any ONE that stands out so I’ll have to say that it’s important to continue learning about crafting your story. This is what I kept doing when I’d feel a slump beginning to take hold of my yearning to write – I’d just pause and learn how other writers did it, how they finished their books. I felt less alone. I felt buoyed by the fact that finishing a book wasn’t a magical mystery, that there was a process/method and, so, I could do it too.

Are there any books you have recently read that you would like to recommend to your readers?

I’m re-reading (well, finishing, because I’d stopped due to busyness earlier) Zarqa Nawaz’s Laughing All the Way to the Mosque. It’s fall-off-your-bed-laughing hilarious – a  great summer read! Also, I can’t wait to start reading Among the Ruins by Ausma Zehanat Khan. She does mystery so well.

And, I finished this one a while ago but the movie is coming out (starring Emma Watson!) and I’m a firm believer in reading the book before the movie, so I recommend The Circle by Dave Eggers. I loved it.

Now, I really want to know about the ending—is there a particular reason you stopped where you did? (Ha, trying to speak about this without spoiling anything.)

Well, see my answer for question 3 for that. But, if you’re asking why we didn’t see the handcuffs coming out, I say see the end of my answer for question 3, what my agent and editor reminded me: This was ultimately Janna’s story. I wanted to show her come to an understanding and that’s where I left it.

What should we look forward to from you next?

There’s a Picture Book TBA. And I’m working on something fun: a Muslim love story set in Istanbul during a grad trip. It’s bursting with happiness. Something Muslim characters are beyond due for.

Thanks for having me on your blog, Nafiza!