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.