My Imagined Saints and Misfits Cast, by S.K. Ali
- Note: I did this for another interview, and my daughter saw my original choices and made me do it ALL OVER AGAIN
Saints and Misfits is an unforgettable debut novel that feels like a modern day My So-Called Life…starring a Muslim teen.
There are three kinds of people in my world:
1. Saints, those special people moving the world forward. Sometimes you glaze over them. Or, at least, I do. They’re in your face so much, you can’t see them, like how you can’t see your nose.
2. Misfits, people who don’t belong. Like me—the way I don’t fit into Dad’s brand-new family or in the leftover one composed of Mom and my older brother, Mama’s-Boy-Muhammad.
Also, there’s Jeremy and me. Misfits. Because although, alliteratively speaking, Janna and Jeremy sound good together, we don’t go together. Same planet, different worlds.
But sometimes worlds collide and beautiful things happen, right?
3. Monsters. Well, monsters wearing saint masks, like in Flannery O’Connor’s stories.
Like the monster at my mosque.
People think he’s holy, untouchable, but nobody has seen under the mask.
There are stories we tell ourselves in the middle of the night to assuage our fears. That noise upstairs? It’s just the cat. That creak from the other room? It’s only the wind. We tell ourselves these things because we need to feel safe and we need to get on with our life. There are times, however, when we cannot pretend that the monster isn’t real and we need to find the courage within to face our fears.
Janna Yusuf knows this all too well, as her monster is a well-respected member of her faith community. What he did to her is reprehensible not only because it goes against the basic tenet of respect in the Muslim faith, but because it is unacceptable for anyone to use a position of power against another. Janna recognizes this, and she knows that what he did is wrong, that she did not want it to happen and that she does not want it to happen again. She is smart but she is also a little ashamed and vulnerable; she is everyone who has been in a similar situation, asking themselves, “What now?”. Janna’s encounter with Farooq leaves Janna literally mute at times, but a significant part of the joy of this book lies is in watching Janna rediscover her voice, and deciding how and when she will choose to use it.
Ali has talked a lot about how this book tells “A Muslim girl’s story”, not “the Muslim girl story”, and I think that’s an important distinction. Janna is every teen girl in how she attempts to deal with her crush, manage her schoolwork, handle bullies and deal with changing friendships, but at the same time her life – like our own – is unique. Living a life of significant faith of any kind may unfamiliar to many readers, and Ali has a gift for interweaving the everyday of the non-secular in with Janna’s Muslim faith, gently clarifying and explaining some of the basics as a natural extension of routine without becoming pedantic. It’s the little details, such as Janna’s dilemma over whether to wear her hijab in gym class when Jeremy might be present, and her candy obsession (for the record, halal marshmallows are a decent option for rice krispie squares) that bring the realities of life as a Muslim teen into focus for the reader.
I appreciated how Janna could recognize that her world was changing (especially through the lens of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories), and that she didn’t necessarily fit in the same way as before. Being a ‘misfit’ means trying to figure out where and when things shifted, and if you want to fit in after all. Issues brought up in her uncle’s advice column serve as a reminder that everyone feels like they don’t belong at times. Sometimes we all need guidance, and it can come from the everyday saints we may not expect to find in the most unlikely of places. Mr. Ram, her Amu’s advice column, her father’s daily affirmations, “Saint” Sarah, Soon-Lee and Sausun all provide opportunities for Janna to build new connections, to discover what’s important to her, and to and find her voice again, all in her own time.
Every once in a while I read a book that makes me think, “Ah, there you are. You are the book I didn’t know I needed.” Saints and Misfits is that book for so many reasons. Ali has created a multifaceted and nuanced main character in Janna, a young woman who is entirely relatable as she struggles to find her own path. Her world is one that is at once familiar and completely new, but in the end this is a story about identity, rich in detail of faith and everyday life. Janna’s journey to reclaim her voice and to carve her own place in her world is a narrative everyone needs to read, and I’m so happy this is out for all to enjoy.
A copy of Saints and Misfits was provided by Simon & Schuster Canada as part of this blog tour, but does not affected my views in any way. It is published by Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, and is available for purchase now from your favourite independent, online and chain booksellers. ISBN: 978-1-481499248, 336 pages.