S.K. Ali on telling YA stories informed by love, xenophobia and remembering what it was like to be a teen
'If you write from a place of respect for young people, I think young people feel it, see it and receive it.'
Saints and Misfits told a coming-of-age story about a young Muslim protagonist. So does her latest novel, Love from A to Z. In both books, Ali takes on weighty themes such as Islamophobia, teen angst and religious conversion.
She spoke to CBC Books about why she writes.
"My creative approach has changed over time. I'd written another manuscript before Saints and Misfits, and another one after but before Love from A to Z. In total, I've completed four full manuscripts — and each of them I approached it differently!
"For Love from A to Z, I sold it on an outline. So I had to stick to it. I love to discover things while I'm writing. I know exactly what's going to come up next with an outline. l thought writing it was going to be boring. But it enabled the creative process of discovering new scenes and situations and made it faster for me to write."
Are you mindful of what's happening in Canada and around the world? How does that filter throughout in your literature?
"I'm very mindful of what's happening in the world right now. Regardless of whether you're a news junkie or not, it affects our day-to-day existence. And not just Muslims — it affects anybody who is seen as other and outside the norm.
"Some communities are given the yoke of bearing the sins of the whole community and other communities have the privilege of being seen as individuals.
"It trickles down into my everyday life. Even without even listening to the news, I can sense when something heinous has happened. I'll be in the grocery store and I can feel a shift in the ways that people look at me.
I can sense when something heinous has happened. I'll be in the grocery store and I can feel a shift in the ways that people look at me.
"I felt a strong need to write an author's note in Love from A to Z (expanding on the topic of religious conversion and Islamophobia). I felt sad that I felt the need to write an author's note, but I knew a lot of people reading it would question if these things are really happening."
Do you think being a teacher gives you insight into how kids perceive the world they live in?
"I'm a second grade teacher, but I used a lot of my insight into young people in writing Zayneb's character in Love from A to Z. Writing teen characters comes from a place of respecting them and remembering what it was like to be a teen myself. It also comes from my faith, reading about Islamic history and understanding that age is not a determinant of whether you're a wise person or whether you can be a leader. There are many cases where a chosen leader of a place was a very young person.
"When you're a young person, you respect your elders, yet still have the ability to do amazing things. We see that now in the world, with young people understanding and speaking out about political issues that are affecting today's society. That's why I never want to talk down to them or make them seem frivolous. We have to respect young people more. If you write from a place of respect for young people, I think young people feel it, see it and receive it."
What was your own childhood like?
"I came to Toronto when I was seven, from Montreal. I grew up in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood and went to a school that would be called an 'inner city' school. It was very multicultural. We were fortunate, in that it had a lot of arts programs. We used to have 'Young Writers Week' and every year you got to write and publish a book. That was critical for me — to see the importance of literature and arts as it was inculcated in my school.
If you write from a place of respect for young people, I think young people feel it, see it and receive it.
"My father was studying for his PhD. That's why initially we came to Canada from India. I had a highly literary home and we had a lot of bookshelves. It was important that we went to a library every week and got a lot of books. Being surrounded by that — a sense of how important the written word was, and how important literature is — impacted me.
"In terms of the popular culture, it was the 1980s, which was a great time. There was a lot of things happening in music and fashion. I read a lot of Judy Blume. Back then, there was no YA — you went from Judy Blume in Grade 4 to 6 and then jumped straight to Stephen King. There was no bridge. I loved reading Judy Blume because she wrote a lot about the outsider identity. I realized there could be different people and narratives in books."
What is your writing process like?
"I use J.K. Rowling's plotting chart. It's a way for me to know all the narrative threads that I've brought into the story. I have a chart where I write the plot threads on one side, and then across the top I have the chapters.
"I'll also draw a seven-act structure chart, where you've got the beginning — something that sends the character on a journey — and then the midpoint. I also continuously edit. I won't start a new section until I read the whole thing up to that point. From there, I weave the threads, always checking that I haven't dropped a thread or I've brought something up that disappears and isn't resolved later.
"I write very tight. Usually during the editing process, I'm not cutting. I'm always being asked to add stuff! That tightness comes from the fact that I do keep the threads close to me."
That said, what do you hope young readers take away from this book?
"What I hope my readers take away from my books is hope. And that our difficulties aren't what define us. I think when you're young, when you're in the midst of something fairly hard, that's the only thing you see. But it's about knowing that life holds the good and the terrible and the most joyful things."
S.K. Ali's comments have been edited for length and clarity. You can read more in the In Conversation series here.