It wasn’t until she was a sophomore in high school that S.K. Ali realized her hijab actually helped her feel more confident. “I realized that if I was going to let people frame me based on their assumptions, I would never be allowed to just be,” the Toronto-based writer told FLARE just days before the release of her debut book, Saints and Misfits (Simon & Schuster, $26)—on shelves today.
That moment marked a turning point—one that she explores in her new young adult novel, already being described as “a modern day My So-Called Life… starring a Muslim teen.”
Here, Ali chats with us about the extra pressure she felt in high school as a hijabi (a woman who wears a headscarf for religious reasons), how she’s using young adult novels to shift the narrative of shaming survivors of sexual assault and the importance of sharing Muslim stories.
Your book is set during the high school years of your main character, Jenna, as she grapples with the aftermath of an attempted rape, all-absorbing crush and recently divorced parents. What inspired you to write a young adult novel like this?
In general, I love reading young adult fiction—in a lot of cases, that’s the genre where people are figuring out their identities. For my story, I knew that I wanted to write about a girl who was figuring out who she is and the kind of person that she wants to be, so it makes sense for me to situate it in her teen years. I’ve always loved reading girl power stories where a girl wakes up to find her voice or her ability to take on something. I also wanted to explore the identity of a girl who is not often featured in fiction in general.
You start the book with Jenna’s dad and his criticism about her choice to wear a burkini. Have you personally experienced a moment like that?
No—I think in the first chapter I was trying to examine the dynamics of certain relationships. I had a lot of friends when I was in university, and even in high school, who wore the hijab or dressed a certain way that went against what their parents believed or taught them. So I had a few friends who would put on their hijab when they got to school. There’s always a perception that girls don’t want to cover and their families are forcing them. Things like that were happening, but I also wanted to show one aspect of an unseen fact in our community. I think I wanted to bring a lot of nuance to the characters.
But there’s that moment where Jenna decides to take off her hijab during gym class because her crush is nearby. Can you talk more about the significance of that action?
I wanted to show how everything is not black and white. That’s why I wanted to have that line in there that says “What’s wrong with being weak?” because people are human, and it feels good when the guy you like looks at you and thinks you’re beautiful. And as a girl who wore hijab from a young age, I did think: “What if the guy I crushed on actually saw my hair?” You actually feel those things—and what’s wrong with feeling like that? That’s why I wove all that into the story, because we don’t get to really see Muslim stories. And that was a big challenge of writing this book—there’s so much to fill in because there’s so much of Muslimness that’s missing, there’s a such a big gap and a gaping hole of Muslim narrative.
You talk about Jenna’s crush Jeremy, but mention the struggle Jenna experiences because she knows he’s not Muslim. Can you talk to me a bit more about why you chose to depict her crush in this way?
I think who your heart inclines towards is not really cut and dry. I wanted to show how when you crush on somebody it just takes over and it doesn’t always make total sense. Especially when you’re young, someone sparks your interest and it becomes your whole world. Jeremy offered me a chance to explore another dimension of Jenna’s identity.
I feel like everyone struggles to fit in during their high school years. What was your own experience like?
I started wearing hijab when I was in the sixth grade. Initially, it was hard because you get “othered” right away. It was hard for people who did not know me to know me outside my identity as a Muslim or a hijabi. I had to grapple with that because I was into art and fashion design—and with the hijab, it was like I was a Muslim girl and that was it.
It was hard fitting in until I was in tenth grade. I became an activist, and I think it’s because of the first Gulf War—I was like, wait, people who look like me are the bad guys? I decided nobody could tell me what I was or who I am without my permission, and that’s when I became more confident in my identity. I stepped up and became more vocal, because I realized that if I was going to let people frame me based on their assumptions, I would never be allowed to just be. It helped me be more free with who I was. I really didn’t care after that point; I didn’t want to fit into the box that people were putting me into. And so, I think I started appreciating being different and feeling proud about it.
At numerous points in the book, you discuss an attempted sexual assault that Jenna endured, often referring to Jenna’s assailant as “Monster.” Can you talk to me a bit more about that and your decision to name him in that way?
I think the Monster came from reading about Southern Gothic fiction, Flannery O’Connor—who is Jenna’s favourite author—and just in general, everything in Southern Gothic Fiction. The word monster just came to me, and so I wanted to take that on because Jenna was kind of hiding in the first chapter; she didn’t want to come out of the water in her burkini, she didn’t want to be seen even though she was sure she was a hijabi and everything. And then with the monster, she was hiding from him and trying to get away from him so that’s why the name made sense for me to use. She wanted to block him in any way accessing her again, even in her mind space.
In the book, it’s suggested that Jenna’s friends wouldn’t believe her if she reported what Monster attempted to do. How do you think we can change the narrative around shaming people who want to report?
I wanted to show that because I wanted to explore why she was the one who felt ashamed, why she felt like it was something to hide. Shaming is so prevalent in our society, but we see examples of people who go around bragging about assault to their friends—they have no shame about doing such heinous things. So often, it’s just the girls who are ashamed of it. I wanted to give this girl power to make him feel ashamed, to put the shame back on him. I wanted her to not be hesitant to speak the truth about what happened.
A lot of people fear reporting sexual assault. What would you tell people who are afraid to speak out?
I would say I understand where it comes from, because it’s all societies and not just one culture. Unfortunately, it’s all around the world. But how it’s been traditionally framed has always made it seem like there’s something that the woman had to do with it and we need to be vocal about shaping that off and saying that it’s violence because it is and and it’s only when we actually do, it becomes more prevalent to call it out, you kind of shift that narrative of shame for women but I also understand why women wouldn’t and I would never put it on the victim to do something unless she’s ready to do it because that’s also such a hard burden to be told.
It’s a chilling moment when Jenna finally does decide to confront the Monster. Can you tell us more about that?
I wanted her to confront him, but from the safety of being anonymous too—that’s why she was wearing a niqab because it gave her a little bit of safety and anonymity that he wasn’t going to have access to her again. Every woman I met who wears the niqab actually has chosen to wear the niqab—and I know several women who chose it against their family’s wishes. They describe it as a way that only they can actually decide who has access to see them, and so I wanted give that sense of power that it can give to the wearer to Jenna.
Throughout the book, you reflect on Jenna’s experiences as a teenager. How were you able to write in the voice of a 15-year-old?
I read a lot of YA and then I also shaped the story through blogging in her voice. I had a private blog, so I just got into her voice by blogging as if she was blogging.
What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
That there’s support. When you’re in the midst of something, you probably won’t see your support because you’re in your own pain and no one is going to tell you to look for that support but hopefully, you can see that there’s somebody that you can talk to or somebody that you can reach out to and there’s always some kind of support that you can access.