Sajidah Ali can definitely write characters. The world of her debut novel, Saints and Misfits, is inhabited by a bevy of fully realized individuals, each of whom could power a novel about their lives on their own. The kindly Mr. Ram, who the teen protagonist Janna Yusuf spends time with once a week, gifts her with verses from both his favorite poets (Rumi and Rabindranath Tagore) and hers (Shel Silverstein). Sausun, a fierce, no-nonsense teen on Janna’s Islamic quiz competition team runs her own YouTube channel and chooses to wear a niqab (a piece of face-covering cloth some Muslim women choose to wear along with their hijab). Janna’s uncle, the imam of their local mosque, regularly answers his congregation’s faith-based questions with insightful wit and charm on their mosque’s website. But the star of the novel is without a doubt Janna herself.
Ali’s confident, but no less thoughtful writing easily relays all of the Arab-Indian-American teen’s many concerns and renders them universal in their specificity; her annoyance at her brother Muhammed’s decision to come live at home (and their mother’s decision to give him Janna’s room in the process), her slowly-forming crush on school sports star (and non-Muslim) Jeremy, and even her love of Flannery O’ Connor and graphic novels. She may not have everything figured out just yet — Ali lets her make plenty of mistakes as the book goes on — but as readers can see, she’s getting there. One of the major aspects of the book is Janna’s dealing with the fact that her friend’s cousin Farooq attempted to sexually assault her. And try as she might she cannot avoid him. Not only is he a much-admired member of her mosque community (he’s accomplished the major achievement of having memorized the entire Quran), but Janna herself can’t really bring herself to tell anyone quite yet. It’s heartbreaking in its realness, but also inspiring as the teenage girl finds the strength to tap into her anger and redirect her self-blame onto the young man responsible for her pain.
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Saints and Misfits deals with a range of tough topics, especially in regard to how women and young girls are treated, both in the Muslim community and outside of it, like at Janna’s high school. But thanks to Ali’s inclusion of many different kinds of women (from Janna’s mother and Sausan, to mean girl classmate Lauren and Muhammed’s fiancé
Saint Sarah), Janna never has to bear the burden of having to represent every experience. Rather, she’s free to be her own person and figure out how to deal with her current circumstances. In this way, the novel is filled with human drama both big and little, instead of simply following Janna’s story. Mr. Ram is slowly courting a neighbor who also begins attending his senior center; Janna’s best friend Tatyana has her own crush on a boy who may (or may not) like her back; even Janna’s mother is dipping her toes into the dating pool again. Through it all, Ali’s breezy and cinematic writing style ensures that readers are always in touch with Janna’s feelings and that the novel is never at the risk of getting too dark. The result is a fictional world that reads like the real one, and one that readers should definitely visit.