Hey there! James here, and I’ve been looking forward to this interview for months, ever since I first had the chance to read Saints And Misfits by the incredible S. K. Ali. It’s coming out this Tuesday, and it’s one of those rare books that manages to be both delightful and important. Imagine My So-Called Life but starring a Muslim teen, and maybe you can start to understand why I’m so excited to have Sajidah as today’s guest. Let’s get to the interview! And don't forget to enter the giveaway at the bottom of this page. You can win some amazing bookmarks signed by Sajidah herself!
James: Hey Sajidah! Thanks so much joining me on #BeyondTheBio today! We've only got two more days until your debut novel, Saints And Misfits, hits the shelves. Can you tell our readers a little about what they can expect?
Sajidah: First, thanks so much for having me on #BeyondTheBio! I love what you do here. Hmm, what can readers expect from Saints and Misfits? Well, I think they can expect an ensemble of diverse characters that may surprise them, a story in a setting not often explored in YA or fiction in general and a mixture of light and dark, humor and heaviness, surface and depth. And an empowering story that may bring a tear or two to their eyes -- after some laughs.
James: I have to say, Saints And Misfits might just be my all-time favorite example of intersectional feminism. I mean, this is present from the very first pages of the book, when Janna and her dad are discussing the burkini. Why is intersectional feminism important to you?
Sajidah: I think it’s important that we understand each other as we are and not as we’ve been told to see each other. When I was growing up, I felt very feminist but never aligned myself with the feminist voices of my time because they denied my entry as a Muslim woman. Unfortunately, due to a variety of factors (historical/geo-political factors, in my view), we’ve been conditioned to limiting what feminism looks like – and, sadly, it doesn’t look like a Muslim woman. According to the way things were spun, we Muslim women were supposed to play the part of the oppressed ones who needed saving. Yet, I knew strongly that I had agency as a Muslim woman to right gender inequities and challenge oppressive status quo.
And I did do this. Actively, all throughout my teens and afterwards.
I’m glad that as a young woman I refused to accept that I couldn’t be a Muslim and a feminist and that I ignored the voices that told me this. Nowadays, intersectionalism is gaining traction but there is still much work to be done to understand each other as we are in our full dimension, without hiding any part of ourselves.
James: Speaking of intersectional feminism, are there any real-life "Niqabi Ninjas" who have been instrumental in your life?
Sajidah: The niqabi women I’ve met and went to school with are some of the strongest women I know. Again, this idea that we don’t have agency as a Muslim woman has a sliding scale of application. Women who cover are seen as being more oppressed and if that covering includes a face covering, the thinking is: there is NO way that a woman would choose that. Well, hello, many women do choose it. There may be many who don’t choose it as well (especially in places in the world where there’s a societal/legal requirement for women to) but every woman I’ve met has chosen it. And sometimes, even against their family’s wishes. So I used my overall experience with women in niqab when I wrote the “Niqabi Ninja” YouTubers in Saints and Misfits.
And I'm glad to hear that a lot of people have expressed great love for the character who wears niqab in my book.
James: Speaking of influential people in your life, I absolutely adored Amu. He's wise and hilarious. Where did you get the idea for his character?
Sajidah: I know someone exactly like this. And I love him very much and I think I think I infused Amu’s character with the love I have for this person. Haha, I know this is a cryptic answer but I want to protect Amu’s, ahem, I mean this person’s privacy.
James: Another wise figure in this book is Janna's elderly neighbor, Mr. Ram. There are so many bits of wisdom he shares with Janna, but my favorite has to be when he says, "When we just do things without a why, we become husks. Easily crumpled, no fruit inside." So, in that spirit, I want to ask you: Why did you start writing?
Sajidah: I started writing because I love stories. It’s the reason I’ve wanted to be an author since I was a child. I can tell stories too is something I thought when I was very young and now that I’m older, I understand that sharing stories helps us to understand each other and our world. And with all the awfulness happening right now, with all the divisiveness, hate and violence, I’m glad I chose to be a part of the crew of writers who grow understanding and connections through their words.
James: Are there any authors who have been influential in your life? I know, Flannery O'Connor's one of Janna's favorites. Who are some of yours?
Sajidah: I love reading everything (but have not read everything from my faves) so I have an eclectic mix of favorites: Arundhati Roy, Patrick Ness, E. Lockhart, Adele Griffin, Barbara Kingsolver, Ron Roy, Maureen Johnson, Rebecca Stead, Laurie Halse Anderson, and Kiran Desai. There are more but these come to mind now.
In terms of influential writers, growing up it was Roald Dahl, L. M. Montgomery, Jane Austen, Anton Chekhov, Flannery O’Connor and, later on, when I discovered them, Kamala Markandaya, Chinua Achebe and a slew of Indian and African authors.
James: I have a feeling a lot of people are going to be heading to their bookstores on Tuesday to grab a copy of Saints And Misfits. What are some other books people should be adding to their book bags?
Sajidah: I’d like to suggest #MuslimShelfSpace titles (books by Muslim authors, with overt Muslim content/characters) because there’s a gaping hole in Muslim narratives: Alif the Unseen, The Butterfly Mosque and the Ms. Marvel series by G. Willow Wilson, Wanting Mor by Rukhsana Khan, The Inspector Khattak and Rachel Getty series by Ausma Zehanat Khan, Laughing All the Way to the Mosque by Zarqa Nawaz, Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed, Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan, The Gauntlet by Karuna Riazi, That Thing We Call a Heart by Sheba Karim, and Love, InshAllah edited by Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi.
There’s also a slew of titles slated to come out this year and in the next few years so keep an eye out! Check out the hashtag #MuslimShelfSpace to see more suggestions. There are lists on Goodreads as well.
James: So what comes next for you, Sajidah? Any projects you can tell us about?
Sajidah: There’s a picture book TBA. In terms of YA, I’m working on a Muslim love story set during a grad trip to Istanbul that’s been a lot of fun to write. It’s light, comedic and bursting with Art, food and fun. And love, of course. I can’t wait for the opportunity to share it with the world.
That’s it for today’s interview with Sajidah. If you want to win signed bookmarks from Sajidah, be sure to enter our giveaway below. And don’t forget to check out Saints And Misfits when it comes out this Tuesday. See you back here next week for another amazing interview!