S. K. Ali on Halal Romance and Creating a Muslim Literary Canon

"There was a key point when I understood the power of my writing connecting with an audience, and then that became more important to me as I realized the impact of misrepresentation, stereotypes and the erroneous narratives that were circulating in my society about people who are Muslim [like me]."

S. K. Ali on Halal Romance and Creating a Muslim Literary Canon
S. K. Ali is the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of several books, including the Morris Award finalists "Saints and Misfits" and "Love from A to Z," both of which were named top 10 YA titles of the year by various media outlets.

Fann’s “Fall Into Reading” series spotlights Muslim authors changing the game in children’s literature. Each week, we’ll sit down with a different author to discuss storytelling, representation and what it means to be Muslim in the world of publishing.

S. K. Ali is an Indian Canadian Muslim author of young adult, children’s literature and middle grade books. Her most recent title is a picture book titled "The Kindest Red," co-written with Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, about a young Muslim girl who wants to match with her hijabi sister on picture day. Ali also co-wrote "Grounded" with Aisha Saeed, Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow, and Huda Al-Marashi, a story of four kids’ grand adventure while stranded in an airport. Ali made her debut with "Saints and Misfits" to critical acclaim in 2017, and has been writing and publishing ever since. Fann spoke to Ali about her career as a writer, the importance of writing from your own experience, and the growing community of Muslim women authors in children’s and middle grade literature.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Fann Staff: What inspired you to become a writer?

S. K. Ali: My love of stories. I fell in love at a pretty early age with stories of any kind; whether I read them or someone told me a story, I knew I wanted to consume all those stories and then go on to participate in telling them. It was a natural progression that when the time came for me to choose what I wanted to do at the end of high school, I was sure that I wanted to study creative writing. From there, it took a long time, but I stayed on that goal of participating in storytelling.

I always use the words, ‘Don’t be limited by the canon before you’ because you we're not part of that canon. You get to help reshape it ... and particularly [bring it in] new directions. 

Fann Staff: Was there a first story or something that you wrote that made you think ‘this is it?’ 

S. K. Ali: I always share this little anecdote of when I understood the power of connection with an audience. When you're young and you're just writing stories, you're recording your imagination through writing or pictures, [and] it's just between you and whatever you're recording on. But then [one time] when I had an assignment to write a scary story, and I think it was eighth grade, I ended up writing this really horrific story about a little boy who goes on a murderous rampage at his sister's sleepover slumber party. While I was writing it, some friends were reading bits of it and they [were] like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ and I [realized that] there can be a response like this [to my writing]. After I finished it, the teacher put all our stories up on the wall, [and] people kept just being really horrified by mine. It was passed around the class and stuff. And so then I was like, ‘Oh, this can actually connect with others and elicit a response.’ 

That's when I realized I wanted to write for readers. That is a key point when I understood the power of whatever you write connecting with an audience, and then that became more important to me as I realized the impact of misrepresentation, stereotypes and the erroneous narratives that were circulating in my society about people who are Muslim [like me]. It added [more] urgency to why I wanted to put these stories out in the world. Other than connecting to audiences, it was also to record the truths of our lives and [affirm] that our narratives have a right to take place amongst the landscape of all the stories, especially the false ones.

Fann Staff: I wanted to ask about your debut, “Saints and Misfits,” which was a powerful story about a girl finding her voice after being assaulted by someone who is a part of her Muslim community, which is unfortunately common. That book and a couple of your others were written in this time of rising Islamophobia and the Trump era. How did you feel about writing within that context and the reception to the book?

S. K. Ali: Well, I wrote that book based on the very true writerly impetus to write from places of heightened emotions within us and of topics that are really important to you, that compel you to write. I tried to write other novel-length manuscripts before and wasn't really getting ahead with it. I would start stories and they would just fall apart after a couple of chapters. I wasn't feeling that passion to continue. Then I really had to think to myself, what drives my need to write? For me, it is caring about something — that passion that I have for certain topics, especially of justice. I wanted to write the story of this girl who is awakening to her voice after an assault. I was not thinking about how this will look to Islamophobes or to people who are like, ‘Oh, yes, there's more bad stuff about the Muslim community.’ I wasn't thinking of that because I don't want to center that gaze. I don't want it to be like, ‘What are they going to think about us?’ 

It was more [that] I wanted to put out work in the world that someone could [connect with] because, whether it happened in the exact same way or [they experienced] some other kind of injustice, they [could] connect with [the book] and see their way towards healing. So I had other focuses for that book. I'm really grateful it came out at a time when the whole world was kind of reckoning with what it meant to be silent about sexual harassment and sexual assault in so many communities. That was the year that the #MeToo movement took off, and people really started to speak up and started to turn away from this injustice everywhere. My narrative then had a place.

I do have to share that in hindsight, I see that there was a more championing of [this book] in communities external to Muslim ones before the #MeToo movement gained traction. There was that feeling of, ‘Oh, look at this brave Muslim woman who's talking about her community.’ I noticed something very disturbing: when the #MeToo movement was widespread, and there were lists of books that looked at the issue of [sexual assault], the lists were [often full of] white-authored books and  my book wasn't on those lists. There was not that big of a will to see that my book was exactly about this issue. Instead, it was cast as, ‘She's calling out her community,’ and that was not the case. These are little nuances that [Muslim authors and readers] noticed, but at the same time, we can't expend all our energy on centering those takes. All we can do is put effort into books that we feel passionate about that we need to put out in the world.

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Fann Staff: I also wanted to ask about "Love from A to Z" and "Love From Mecca to Medina" and how you approached writing that particular relationship as a halal romance. How did you construct the story around that specific kind of relationship?

S. K. Ali: I write from what I know and my experiences. I knew from my experience — and from those of my friends and family — that there are a lot of us who want to make sure that when we embark on a relationship, it follows the halal parameters. I just wrote based on that, and it wasn't like I had to think carefully of how [the story was] going to happen. It was just organic. [The main characters, Adam and Zayneb,] are both going to be careful about things. Adam converted to Islam, so that made it easier for me to write [about] somebody who is more aware of the rules — because he’s learning how things are, [the rules will] be more front of mind for [him]. It was very easy for me to write about that aspect. And for Zayneb, I showed her grappling with how to stay within the rules … Her older sister was in a relationship, so she was able to remind [Zayneb] of things, and Zayneb had to grapple with [expectations like] ‘I'm supposed to be like this.’ We all have to grapple with things that are supposed to be a certain way. Maybe there are some angelic people who would just accept it. Sometimes you have to arrive at that acceptance, right? 

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Fann Staff: I also wanted to ask about this growing community of Muslim writers and a growing institutional support of Muslim authors like with The Highlights Foundation and Salaam Reads and certain other organizations. What is it like being a part of this Muslim community? It seems like everyone is very supportive of each other and willing to uplift each other as well.

S. K. Ali: It's really nice to find the community and to know there's so many of us who are on the same path. There was a hashtag that got started — #MuslimShelfSpace — because there was a publisher who was putting out some books that were really harmful to Muslims. I tweeted a picture of my shelf at the time. The shelf had like five books. I [noted how] these books stand against these negative narratives because they capture the real lives [of Muslims] because they're all books written by Muslims. The tweet went viral. And then people decided to share pictures of their own shelves. Some people in the publishing community, like editors and other authors, admitted they didn't have that many Muslim-authored books, [or that] they didn't have any [at all]. Then I said, ‘What about if you tweet a picture of the empty space that you made on your bookshelf for Muslim-authored books?’ We created the hashtag #MuslimShelfSpace and people participated to show the needs for Muslim narratives. 

I bring that up because at that time — late 2016 and early 2017 — I think I could count a handful of Muslim authors that I knew, but now that has grown so much. My Muslim shelf space was the picture that I shared [of about] five books. Now my Muslim shelf space has grown to more than a shelf; [it’s] more like a bookshelf, a full IKEA bookshelf of Muslim books. It's amazing to be amongst people who are all contributing and writing, and not just waiting but taking part. I think it's okay if the community is really big and everyone's doing different initiatives, whether it's Highlights [or] other things that people do like Ramadan [reading lists]. [That’s] all to say [that] we deserve to be here, and our stories deserve to be read and celebrated. 

Fann Staff: Do you have any advice for aspiring Muslim and Desi writers?

S. K. Ali: I think the less that we center the external or dominant gaze, the better that our work will be. I think it's fresher if we write about things that we want to and not about certain things that are connected to us all the time, like arranged marriage. The fascinations the dominant lens has about us are oftentimes wedded to the orientalist gaze; Edward Said’s "Orientalism" is such a hallmark work for understanding why we're perpetually the other. When we think, ‘Everyone will understand if I do this arranged marriage story’ or something [else] that they often wed to our communities, I think those are going to continuously be circulated in our society and won't really enlarge the possibilities for the writers who come after us. I always use the words, ‘Don’t be limited by the canon before you’ because you we're not part of that canon. You get to help reshape it and bring fresh new things that you're interested in, and particularly [bring it in] new directions. 

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A post shared by S. K. Ali / sajidah (@skalibooks)

[Your work] doesn't always have to piggyback off of everything people already know. Not everything has to be based on the Western canon is what I'm trying to say. It doesn't have to be another retelling of this or based on this movie or story. I understand why people do it to give a frame of reference. [We shouldn’t] refrain from bringing in new frames of references that the people after us will be grateful to have. That's how the Western canon got shaped — it was by people bringing in cultures that are [more diverse within] the west. Different flavors got added, so we have to add in our own and be confident in our own frames of references based on whatever we've been shaped by in our lives, and [we have to] share it. I think it'll be dynamic and fresh; I think people will be drawn to it.

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