Sajidah Ali is a former teacher who began her writing career in 2017 with her debut novel, Saints and Misfits. She holds a degree in Creative Writing from York University and has written about life as a Muslim for various outlets, including the Toronto Star and NBC News. Her first novel received critical acclaim for its portrayal of an unapologetic Muslim-American teen’s life. S. K. Ali lives in Toronto with her family and a very vocal cat named Yeti.
Tell us about yourself outside of your work
I’m a mom of four, three humans, and one cat, a former teacher, and an artist. I live in Toronto, a city I love where I call home. In 2017, I began my career as a full-time author and it has been good since. I have always wanted to be an author since when I was young, and I finally made the decision of doing it after 20 years of teaching.
How do you use your stories to further connect with your cultural roots?
We’re made up of different roots and for me, writing is a way to connect with the different parts of my identity. Many famous writers write to know and understand themselves better. Since I started writing, I commit to telling real and accurate Muslims stories, which have been stereotyped and misportrayed in Western Media. When I was a girl growing up, I felt marginalized because of the community I lived in and it took a lot of bravery to be myself. The community sees you as others so you have to figure out who you really are, but it is also really empowering when you figure out who that person is. When you see things around you, you question your stance and ask yourself “Do I stand for that? Do I think this way?”’ which can quickly build up your own judgements and character. As I am writing, I see the shifts in me and my personality as a writer. I am proud of my identity so I try my best to capture it in books. I also try looking at the world with a sense of truth in my work by knowing what’s good and bad in society. In my first book, I explore how someone’s reputation can create double standards and how other characters can address them. In my book, Love from A to Z, I speak about double standards to Muslims and how we are accountable for many things which our community does. I was able to look at these things with a clear lens and see how they had only been applied to my culture and no other.
What comes first for you, the plot or the characters, and why?
For me, the characters always come first and I’m always trying to figure out why. When writing, I want to become an author that’s a good plotter. The reason why I start with characters first is that it is important for me to capture the characters well. When writing a character I really want to look at the motivation behind things instead of telling a story where it just moves from one event to another. I write with nuances where the actions are judged by intentions. These are based on the things which we were taught as a kid, a good action isn’t ‘good’ unless it is well-intended. I also give the characters a certain freedom where they do not have to dwell on guilt for so long, and we as readers should also learn to do that: to have more freedom in life and what we do. Linking back to my religion, this is a message that I hold dear, which originated from that and I still stick to. For my book Saints and Misfits, the main character takes off her headscarf in front of a boy and is faced with some criticisms from young Muslim girls as they believe that the character should not be going against her religion just to impress a boy. However, when creating this plot I try to examine her motivation and how she did this to be accepted by the society that she is in as she struggles with being different. I am now writing about a new character in my book and I find it hard to talk about the motivation for his actions rather and try not to make him naturally immoral.
What, to you, are the most important elements of good writing?
As a reader, I want to feel like I’m in the scene and being the character without stumbling over the word, being tripped with over-description, and a lack of focus on the plot. When I am writing, it is natural for me to not give descriptions in the story that are overly complicated. Every time I create a new scene or setting, I still want enough description to anchor the reader in but not too overboard that it is distracting.
If you were to write a spin-off about a side character in one of your books, which would you pick?
Salsan, a character who wears a face cover in Saints and Misfits. She showed up in the second and third novel but I still want to dive more into her character. However, I am not comfortable with writing that because I cannot accurately describe how someone with a face cover feels and I do not want to misrepresent it. I would also like to have a spin-off for Hannah in Love from A to Z. She is a younger sibling to one of the characters and she is a sparking ball of energy, sometimes too bold for the world. Because Hannah is a younger character, we can follow her on her journey growing up to become an adolescent.
What books helped you the most when you were writing your first novel, Saints and Misfits?
I read books which are about writing and staying in my career. Those books are inspirational and help motivate me but also help me approach writing differently each time. Some books which I like are Bird by Bird by Anne Lemott and The Getaway Car. When I was writing, I didn’t feel like continuing with the second manuscript so I listened to that book in an audio format as a “pick me up”. I learned about how other authors also struggle when they write and even when that happens, they keep going; I was inspired. I went on a revision retreat where writers meet up together to look at books that didn’t work. We looked into the shrunken manuscript and shrunk our own manuscripts down by highlighting parts of our books with the actions, reflective parts and surprising scenes each with different colours. We then lay these pages out with the highlighted parts of how balanced the layout of the book is. For me, there was a lot of telling parts in the first manuscript and not enough action. This activity really helped to get a sense of pacing. I get to change things up and learn how to write differently each time.
What advice would you give to the Muslim youths who are struggling to connect to their roots?
This was what I was told when I was younger and it was to learn about your historical legacy, get access to text written by Muslims about our historical achievements. We also have to understand romanticization towards European culture as for other cultures it is not allowed. Going back a year or two ago, I was on vacation with the history channel and Henry the 8th was featured on there. His story was made interesting and done with so much love. The sad realisation was that no other culture was permitted to be this way. Even the things that were great in non-European civilizations are quickly pointed out with flaws. This is where I cast a different light on our culture through my books. My novel Love from A to Z took part in the magical city of Doha, Qatar, and I described the joy which I felt when I was there. I question why other places aren’t cast with this lens like European cities, such as Paris, and try to create my own magical place in the novel.
What can readers expect from your new book, Misfits in Love, coming out this May?
Readers can expect lots of women who will make you laugh, cry, think and challenge yourself to look at your own circle with an eye for growth. Also, you will eat a lot of ice cream as the story takes place in the summer. It will make you feel like you’re participating in the wedding festivities, which will include a Henna party, and you’ll go through a lot of emotions.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue a career in writing?
Read a lot!! Learn as many different techniques and writing processes as possible since you don’t know what works best for you. Every time I write something new, I start learning again to try and apply new things. You can never stop learning and I like reinventing the wheel so I don’t stick with one way. Especially for a young or new writer, you don’t know when the lightbulb will go off in your head so you should try out new styles of writing. Something else you should know is that it is possible to have a writing career that can support you. Before writing, I thought It wasn’t sustainable and although it wouldn’t make a grand stream, writing income can sustain a comfortable life if you’re dedicated and focus on constantly getting new deals.
Edited by Amy Feng Zhang & Jack Hillis