Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Blog Tour: Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali - Review and Author Q&A

Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali 

Publishing Date: June 13, 2017
Publisher: Salaam Reads / Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Pages: 336
Young Adult Contemporary

The Premise from the Publisher: "Janna Yusuf knows a lot of people can’t figure out what to make of her…an Arab Indian-American hijabi teenager who is a Flannery O’Connor obsessed book nerd, aspiring photographer, and sometime graphic novelist is not exactly easy to put into a box. And Janna suddenly finds herself caring what people think. Or at least what a certain boy named Jeremy thinks. Not that she would ever date him—Muslim girls don’t date. Or they shouldn’t date. Or won’t? Janna is still working all this out. While her heart might be leading her in one direction, her mind is spinning in others. She is trying to decide what kind of person she wants to be, and what it means to be a saint, a misfit, or a monster. Except she knows a monster…one who happens to be parading around as a saint…Will she be the one to call him out on it? What will people in her tightknit Muslim community think of her then?" (SS).

My overall thoughts and review: I've had a lovely pleasure of meeting S.K. Ali a few times now (with bookish events at Simon), and one thing she has said about her book really stuck with me: "It is a Muslim girl power book, but it isn't "the" Muslim girl power book." I just loved that so much. For those of you that don't know, Saints and Misfits is the first YA contemporary read with a female protagonist in Simon and Schuster's newest imprint 'Salaam Reads' - what this imprint is attempting to do is incredibly moving and we really need more voices like that in literature today. When the team was pitching it to me at a blogger preview, I was instantly intrigued and knew I wanted to read it immediately. I love books that incorporate more diversity and offer the reader an authentic depiction of different cultures. I took a South Asian Womanhood grad course that introduced me to various religions, but in terms of Muslim culture, I still have a lot to learn. Ali's text was a nice introduction into that and Ali answered so many questions about certain cultural practices that I always wondered about.

The text follows Janna Yusuf who is a hijabi teenager (Ali touches on the meanings of the hijabi which I really appreciated learning more about) and some of the struggles she is dealing with. She was sexually assaulted by someone that the community sees as a saint (Farooq) and everywhere she turns, she is finding herself faced with him when all she wants to do is forget and move on. Ali mentioned that she handles this in a bit more of a lighthearted way, in comparison to how other texts may tackle this topic. Even though she doesn't offer incredibly raw and vivid details, I found it incredibly authentic in terms of how she wrote about Janna's inner struggle. You can see that this event really broke her in some moments and Ali touches on the important aspect of shame that victims can sometimes feel after an event like this. I liked how Ali handled getting Janna justice and having her face him. This part of the text introduced a character that I absolutely loved: Sausun, who helps Janna plan a way to confront Farooq. Sausun's character wears a niqab and she is incredibly colorful character who is not afraid to tell you how it is. I learned about the abaya and niqab and overall, I just loved how clothing was such an important component to the text. The text also mentions the birkini at the beginning when Janna is visiting her father.

The text has a really fun component and that is the advice column which Janna helps with filtering questions. Readers write in with their questions to Iman/Amu and he writes back (Janna's uncle), I loved how this part really answered some misconceptions some may have about Muslim culture but also gave Janna an opportunity to find answers in a manner that felt safe to her. Janna develops a crush on a non-Muslim boy at school named Jeremy (sidenote: my boyfriend's name is Jeremy so this was a nice little connection I had with the book, because we are from different cultures and as a biracial couple, there were some things I really empathized with) and she writes to Iman asking what to do when you fall for someone from a different culture. I just loved the way Amu handled each question and this component was placed in a bunch of chapters. Overall, I can't say enough good things about the text. It is a wonderful coming of age story that gives you a look into Muslim culture and it tackles issues of consent, family, friendship, and community. I'm so excited to see what Ali writes next!

My rating of the book: ✮✮✮✮✮ (5/5 stars)

Available for purchase at:
Chapters/Indigo, Kobo Books, Amazon and Book Depository (Free Worldwide Shipping)

Author Question & Answers
1. What was the inspiration for Saints & Misfits? 
One of the inspirations was the diversity inherent in our everyday lives (not just cultural diversity but diversities in personalities, tastes etc.) and the diversity in the Muslim community, in particular. I wanted to tell a story with nuance because that’s what was missing in many of the news stories featuring Muslims. I also knew my story had to be a girl-power story because I love reading those myself and because we need more intersectional girl-power books. 
 2. Which character would you say, you are most like? 
In some ways, I’m like Janna in that I’m observant of what’s going on around me but I don’t really show it completely. I also understand Janna’s mom too too much as I was a single mom raising kids on my own as well – someone who forgot to make time for herself. I wish I could say I was like Sausun! (But I’m content to know a lot of Sausuns!)
3. Can you talk a bit about writing about assault and the difficulties you may have found navigating that area? 
True, the assault scene was difficult to navigate but I found myself writing it in a stream-of-consciousness style. It made sense for such an emotional scene but I was worried it wouldn’t make sense (especially since it was a change in style) so I had a few friends read it before I moved on with the story. The input I got was that it really got across the chilling nature of what had occurred, so I decided to keep it that way.
Also, originally the scene was later on (closer to the middle) and I had Janna alluding to it…but then I didn’t want the actual assault to be the focus (with readers being compelled to read only to see what had happened to her) so I moved it earlier, to the second chapter. I wanted the focus to be on Janna’s journey to finding her voice.
4. If you could ask Iman/Amu a question right now, what would it be?
I would ask him if he could answer all my questions at the best cupcake cafe in town, Soliloquy’s, over masala chai. Then I’d barrage him with my Can Muslims…? queries while he answered in proper diction wearing a huge cupcake mustache.
5. What are you currently working on post-Saints & Misfits? 
LOVE. A YA contemporary featuring Muslim love set during a grad trip abroad is what I’m working on right now. It’s so much fun because the characters are one of a kind and I’m already in love with each one. 
Thank you so much for answering these questions, S.K. Ali! Be sure to check out the other stops on the blog tour for more content about for Saints & Misfits

Disclaimer: An advanced reader's copy of the book was provided by Simon and Schuster Canada in exchange for an honest review. All opinions of the book are my own.

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