Monday, September 18, 2017

Saints and MIsfits, a novel written by S. K. Ali

For Janna Yusuf, 15, life just got a little more complicated. Janna is a hijab wearing Muslim whose parents, a Egyptian Muslim mom and secular Indian dad, are divorced; her older brother Muhammad has just moved back home from college after changing his major yet again, and is in the process of arranging a marriage with a girl Janna sarcastically refers to as Saint Sarah. 

Janna has also just been sexually assaulted by Farooq, the pious golden boy of the mosque, who everyone is in awe of because he claimed to have memorized the Qur’an and is even allowed to lead prayers. Added to all this is Janna’s crush on a white Christian boy named Jeremy, a friend of her brother and Farooq, and a boy she knows she can never date.

Janna spends her time trying to avoid Farooq, not knowing what to do about the assault. She does manage to go about her regular daily life at home and school. She continues to “elder-sit” Mr. Ram, an elderly Hindu man she takes to the community center once a week, and to participate in events at school, where she is the only other girl in an enriched math class; and at the mosque, she edits a newsletter Q&A for her uncle, the Imam, and photographs the mosque’s annual Open House. She is also part of the mosque’s team that goes a state-wide Islamic Quiz Bowl tournament. 

Janna’s two best friends are Tats, who is not Muslim and continues to promote a relationship between Janna and Jeremy, not really understanding that Janna can’t date him,  and Fizz, who is Farooq’s cousin, and who is a little too judgmental. But it is radical Sausun who really impacts Janna’s life. Ironically, Sausun is the most empowered girl in the book, a character who looks at everything with distain, including Janna, but who is a candy guzzler, Doc Martens- wearing, Youtuber, running a show called “Niqabi Ninjas” (unlike hijab, niqab covers the entire face, except the eyes).

As you might have surmised, Saints and Misfits is definitely a character-driven novel and Janna is its most complex character - a person for whom religion plays an important part in her life, a photographer, a graphic artist (she began a pictorial seerah life of the Prophet Muhammad book at age 9) and a lover of Flannery O’Connor stories. But Janna is also a questioner, who is just starting to discover and explore who she really is. 

Beside Janna, Ali has created a cast of interesting, mainly Muslim characters. Through them, she explores Muslim culture and some of the difficulties faced by girls who are, on the one hand, not so very different from other girls their age, but who are also bound by the strictures of their religion, a situation Farooq cruelly takes advantage of when Janna refuses to forgive and forget what he did to her. In reality, those of us who are not Muslim see girls and women wearing hijab all the time, but never really think or know what is means to decide to wear it. Through Janna and Farooq, Ali makes it clear what the underlying meaning of this decision is - more than just a symbol of modesty, it is supposed to protect Muslim women from being harassed and/or molested by men. Understanding that, Farooq’s behavior goes against everything that he is supposed to stand for.  

Janna's  story is a compelling, engrossing tale of self-discovery, and her lively narration will keep readers interested all the way through, and curious to see how she ultimately deals with Farooq’s assault and it is totally worth reading to the end to find out. 

Saints and Misfits is author S. K. Ali's debut novel and I am looking forward to reading more of her excellent work, hopefully in the near future. 

This book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book was purchased for my personal library

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