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S.K. Ali

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S.K. Ali

S.K. Ali on writing “joy amidst life’s hardships” and her latest YA novel Misfit in Love

Like hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world, Sajidah “S.K.” Ali spent this past Eid, the third since the start of the global COVID-19 pandemic, in lockdown. While Ali and her daughter dressed up for the occasion, her husband and two sons remained in their lounge clothes, taking the holiday as a midweek day off. Listening to the Eid sermon online, conducting the prayer at home, and dropping off goodies to their families in a physically distanced manner, this Eid was very different from the pre-pandemic celebrations where thousands would gather at the mosque. Yet, the festive feeling still warmed their home and community nestled within the Greater Toronto Area. As Ali says over Zoom, “All of these things just show the resilience of the human spirit, in whatever conditions, to still come together to keep up the joy.”

This is a very familiar feeling for Ali. In promoting her latest novel, Misfit in Love (Salaam Reads), she tweeted that it was about “Muslim characters experiencing joy, amidst life’s hardships … imagine the concept.”

When Saints and Misfits, Ali’s debut novel, was released to critical acclaim in 2017, most of the books published that year authored by or featuring people of colour centred pain. Saints and Misfits was no exception. The novel focuses on Janna Yusuf, a hijab-wearing teen, who is assaulted by the golden boy at her mosque. Ali addressed the good and the bad – or saints, misfits, and monsters – in the Muslim community; at the same time, she was hyperaware of the teen audience she was writing for. “While we need to process our pain through stories, what does this look like to BIPOC young readers if they only see their pain reflected back and not their joys?” says Ali. Saints and Misfits and other novels about harrowing BIPOC experiences are necessary, but the conversation has since moved beyond mining pain for literature to exploring the joys inherent in these identities too.

Of course, Ali – like other underrepresented creators and readers – knows that this first wave of diversity in books has not scratched the surface of the pain so many marginalized groups experience. Creators will continue to interrogate trauma within their stories, but that does not mean these books have to be joyless. “Our joy is in the context of our hardship,” Ali says. “We’re going to have both in our books.” You can see Ali’s epiphany unfold through her novels, publishing Love from A to Z – a love story in a time of Islamophobia and grief – in 2019 and now Misfit in Love.

Set two years after Saints and Misfits, Misfit in Love opens with Janna preparing for the weekend of her brother’s wedding. She is just as excited to see Muhammad marry the love of his life as she is to be reunited with her friend Nuah, now ready to reciprocate his feelings and start her own romance. But weddings have a way of going awry, and so do all of Janna’s carefully laid plans.

While it is a continuation of Janna’s story, Misfit in Love is marketed as a companion novel; a reader does not need to know about Janna’s past trauma to take part in her joy. Ali hadn’t originally intended to write a sequel to Saints and Misfits, but her readers wanted more emotional closure. And Ali believes authors writing for young people have a responsibility to ensure that readers finish the book feeling confident that the characters they have grown to adore will be stable, if not thriving, once the conflict is resolved. Misfit in Love starts with Janna joyously swimming, reflecting on the community and psychological support she received after her assault, and surrounded by her family and friends. A perfect start to her summer.

In her pursuit to write more joyful fiction, Ali reflects, she could have easily erased all traces of hardship. But Ali is dedicated to writing realistically. With the joining of two families in Misfit in Love, Ali explores intracommunity prejudice and racism, weaving these taboo topics in with the book’s romantic threads.

“There aren’t enough explorations of racism in diverse communities,” Ali says. It’s a familiar scenario in Asian communities: only someone who shares a family’s background “makes sense” to get into a relationship with – racism masquerading as practicality. As more anti-racism conversations began, sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement, these themes became more urgent for Ali to include. “It’s easy to get outraged online,” she says. “It’s easy to do the performative part of it. But what does it look like in your own lives?”

Writing about racism is not easy. Ali dreaded “getting it wrong.” A good friend of hers, an anti-racism activist, advised her to accept that her work would not be perfect. Ali knew she could not shy away from these challenging topics. Fear just makes creatives hesitant to enter the discussion, she concluded, and many imperfect depictions are better than none.

“Ali writes from her own experience a lot and wants to include a diverse cast of characters that reflect her own family and social circle,” Kendra Levin, Ali’s editor at Salaam Reads, says. “She is very diligent to do justice to characters who might have overlap with her own experience, but not total overlap.”

While Ali does not want to drag the reader down, she understands that all of human experience – even joy – is better understood in context. To mitigate these challenging discussions, she tries to approach hard topics with light humour. “If you don’t, then there’s no hope,” she says.

Lindsay Wong, author of the YA novel My Summer of Love and Misfortune, echoes this sentiment. “When you come from an immigrant family, there is usually a lot of intergenerational trauma and you have to be able to laugh to get through it,” she says. “If you don’t find the smaller joys in things that are serious, how do you survive that?”

When telling stories for a teen readership, Levin says the writer needs to show their audience a situation they can relate to. “A book for people at this stage of life needs to be upfront about the hard parts of life,” she says. “It needs to model how to keep finding joy in yourself, in the world, and how to live balancing the two.”

In our Zoom call, Ali quotes an Arabic proverb: “after hardship will come ease.” Ali believes this is a running theme across faiths and cultural traditions. “Things will get better and there will be something good to be found even through hardship,” she says.

That said, during the editing of Misfit in Love, Ali decided to provide her readers with a reprieve. Back in April 2020, when the book was in its second draft, Ali had a discussion with Levin about whether they should reference the pandemic given the wedding features a crowd of characters. They decided to set the story in an alternate, COVID-free universe and the invitation in the opening pages of the book reads “Saturday, the 17th of July” without a year listed.

Ali looks to the future with hope as the pandemic eases and as she busily works on her upcoming projects. “One of my biggest draws to becoming an author and a writer is the freedom to explore whatever I want,” she says. While we might see more of Zayneb and Adam, the main characters in Love from A to Z, and possibly more of Janna, it’s only a matter of time before Ali’s work begins crossing into other genres and age categories. She’s already co-written a picture book, The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family (2019), with American Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad.

As the vaccine rollout continues, Ali reflects that Misfit in Love is perhaps the perfect book to read during a pandemic. “People can live vicariously and attend a big wedding without barriers.” She hopes that teens will read Misfit in Love and other YA fiction filled with everything from Eid to wedding celebrations, and be reassured that not only will these gatherings return but that there is joy even in times of hardship.

Photography by Jazmina Alzaiat.