S.K. Ali has been breaking down barriers as a Muslim writer since the success of her debut novel, Saints and Misfits, in 2018. Her latest fiction for young adults, Love from Mecca to Medina, is set in two places sacred to Muslims. Ali spoke to Sabra Ismath from her home in Toronto.
How do you write a romance novel for younger western readers yet still stay true to the beauty of a halal romance, which forbids physical relations before marriage?
I didn’t grow up with the view that romance and being Muslim were opposites or that they didn’t go together. From a very young age, my
father knew that I would have crushes, and he would even ask me, “So who do you like now?” I always had this feeling of freedom with that. He used to tell us about the romance of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and the way he was romantic. I just thought it was normal. There’s a big element of romance in Muslim relationships. It’s a whole Jane Austen thing where there is courting.
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What challenges do you face as a Muslim writer?
In the western context, Muslims haven’t had the privilege of telling our stories. And that means we’re always being seen through the lens of
western society. The narrative around Islam in no way correlates to what being Muslim means to Muslims. This is a challenge, because as a writer, you’re either going to speak to that outside lens, and always be conscious of it, or you’re going to speak to what your purpose as a storyteller is.
Have you found a way to overcome this external lens?
For a long time, being aware of the stereotypes and writing with that yoke was very stifling. It’s not conducive to creativity, because you’re serving whatever agenda has been shoved on you. When I actually freed myself of that, I realized I could shake those things off and just
write what I as a person am interested in.
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How do you go about explaining Muslim topics through the characters in your story?
I don’t set out to do that. I’m a writer who focuses on character the most. I draw strength or direction from so many examples of fantasy novels that don’t explain anything to the reader. If you’re always cognizant of yourself as adjacent to the wider society and what they
think of you, you’ll never be empowered. To get out of that is to act like everybody knows who we are. I proceed from the understanding that readers should know who we are, as we are. That also comes from working with an editor who’s Muslim. There were no italicized words, no glossary. All of those things keep us different in that marginalized way. When I think about The Lord of the Rings — there’s a whole invented language, and readers are just supposed to make sense of it without any explanations — I get really fiery. I’m not going to overly explain. People can pick up things from the context or use Google. It’s more important for the story to be authentic, and not just for an outside reader’s gaze. I’ve read enough books in my life where there are biblical verses. To this day, Christianity is there in so many movies, TV shows and books. I want Islam treated the same way, with that sense of normalcy.
Marvels and oddities — things that amaze and confound us — are a major theme in your novel Love from A to Z and now its sequel, Love from Mecca to Medina. Why?
I was in the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, at a time when the world was focused on ugly Muslim stereotypes and how backward Muslims are. Being in this museum that is full of beautiful contributions from Muslim heritage, I was thinking about how we’re always focusing on these ugly things. I remember looking at the manuscript The Marvels of Creation and the Oddities of Existence, which was written in the 13th century by [Zakariya’al-Qazwini] — somebody who was focused on something he wanted to focus on. It inspired me. I wanted to bring the beauty of our heritage back into the world.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity. It first appeared in Broadview’s January/February 2023 issue with the title “Readers should know who we are.”
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