Why Canada Reads longlisted author S.K. Ali would dine with her character's mother
S.K. Ali's debut YA novel, Saints and Misfits, follows a Muslim American teen named Janna Yusuf. Janna is a sophomore in high school who is struggling with balancing her family, friends, school and her crush on a boy who isn't Muslim. Saints and Misfits is currently on the longlist for Canada Reads 2018.
Below, Ali answers eight questions submitted by eight of her fellow writers in the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A.
1. Louise Berne Halfe asks, "Do you believe in the spiritual process of writing?"
Yes, I do. But maybe it's because I see a spiritual process to everything?
2. Ashley Little asks, "What kind of talismans do you keep by your writing desk? Describe them."
I have a Muslim prayer encircled in a circular frame made up of big crystals that look like tears — when the writing is hard, I pretend those are my tears, crystallized. I also have a snow globe with a photo of my loved ones inside it — when the writing is hard, I shake it and let it snow upon my loved ones (in a friendly, fluffy snow way of course). Oh, there's also a bowl of sea glass I've collected from different beaches and, when the writing is hard, I stare at it wondering why I'm writing and not travelling to beaches around the world. I hope, from all this, you see that writing is hard sometimes.
3. Cherie Dimaline asks, "What book made you want to become a writer?'"
Actually it was the lack of a certain book that made me realize I was maybe kind of good at writing. In Grade 6, we had to do a project on flowers and I loved flowers, but especially lilacs, and when the teacher wheeled a library cart with flower books into our classroom, I kept my eye on the lilac book in the stack. But, before we could choose our topics, I got sick and stayed home for a couple of days. When I came back, only one book remained: the one on goldenrods, highly debatable as belonging to the flower category, known to be on friendly terms with weeds. I took that goldenrod book and wrote so passionately about the weed, er, flower that I convinced myself and the class that it was a rose by another name. That's when I realized I knew how to write. My Grade 7 teacher, Leona Zultek, convinced me I was a writer with a capital W the year after.
4. Richard Harrison asks, "What did you learn from your book in the year after it was published?"
I learned that this book is not me. That I loved releasing it from me but, ultimately, it's not me. I love that it belongs out there to anyone who chooses to engage with it. The death of the author and all that.
5. Silvia Moreno-Garcia asks, "If you could have dinner with a fictional character, who would it be and why?"
I hope it's okay I chose someone from Saints and Misfits as there's a character I want to know more about but couldn't get too into because my book is teen fiction and I wasn't sure teens want to know about the love lives of parents. I'd like to have dinner with my main character's mother because I want to know two things from her: "How in the world did you and Janna's dad meet?" and, "Did you connect with someone at the Meet Your Match Muslim speed-dating dinner — you know, that event you hid from Janna?"
6. Danielle Younge-Ullman asks, "What do you do when you're feeling creatively exhausted, to regenerate?"
I paint, draw, collage, just make stuff with materials other than words. One time I got into felt slipper making and made very ugly felt slippers for loved ones. There's a family of forgotten, forlorn felt slippers lying in a basket in the foyer currently that marks my creative rejuvenation project of winter 2014.
7. George Murray asks, "Who was the person who convinced you you could?"
My father is the most motivational person I know. His inspirational encouragement comes from a spiritual place as well as a place of love and belief in his family, community and humanity. He championed my writing, my creativity, from the very beginning. And then there's my mother. She holds fast to anything that she begins. Her grit is infectious so I caught it early and thus knew I could see a book through until the end. (So, not one but two people taught me I could.)
8. Matti Friedman asks, "If you could go somewhere on earth right now, where would it be?"
Mecca and Medina, the places of pilgrimage in Islam. Besides both being cities that never sleep, there's also an otherworldly light there and I'd like to bask in a bit of that at the moment. Also, it's a beautiful 23 degrees there right now.