I arrived a few minutes late to the bookshop and quietly took a seat towards the back as to not draw attention to myself. Nevertheless, our eyes locked immediately, and she flashed me a smile that indiscreetly greeted me ‘salaam’ as she spoke to the full room. Although we had corresponded virtually for a couple years now, this was the first time that we met face-to-face. I had to contain the fangirl in me as I sat and listened to New York Times best-selling author Sajidah Ali, aka S.K. Ali, speak about how she weaves the Muslim experience into her books. Right then, I knew we were more than just correspondents. We were two souls on the same writing mission, and I was grateful to have finally connected in person.
Thus far, Sajidah has written two young adult novels: Saints and Misfits (a William C. Morris award finalist) and Love from A to Z (a 2019 Kirkus Reviews Best YA Book). She has also written a picture book with Olympic medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad called The Proudest Blue (an instant NYT bestseller) and co-edited Once Upon an Eid, which is a collection of short stories for middle graders by 15 Muslim authors launching May 2020. Sajidah identifies herself as ‘a Muslim writer’ and finds inspiration from her faith.
“There’s an urgency for us to contribute our stories and narratives as Muslims,” says Sajidah, who resides in Toronto with her family. “It’s so cool to be able to go away from the typical tropes and documenting Muslim life that contrasts what’s depicted. I’m not going to let that be the portrayal of my positive experiences being a Muslim and of my community.”
Sajidah shares that these false depictions of her faith and her people used to anger her. However, instead of staying mad, she started writing professionally to show the Muslim narrative better and put it into her fiction writing. She holds a degree in Creative Writing and has been writing characters that people do not always see -- working to bring an authentic voice to the literary landscape as part of the #ownvoices campaign.
“Sometimes in Muslim narratives, there can be a message of ‘I don’t want to be a Muslim’ and that gets seen a lot in the publishing world,” notes Sajidah, who is a mom of three sincere lovers of her storytelling. “I do want to portray characters that are relatable and flawed, without showing Islam is the reason that they’re flawed. They're flawed, because they are humans.”
Seeing the world through the lens of Islam was an intricate part of Sajidah’s traditional upbringing, where the focus was more on faith than on culture. This is visible even in her books as her characters are full of cultural diversity but what truly shines is their strength in their faith. Sajidah’s father is an Islamic scholar and one of her biggest fans, who had advised her to use her craft wisely.
“Something he told me was that our words live on even after we leave this world, and we want them to bring blessings for us and not count against us,” Sajidah recalls. “He really emphasized to me that my voice is a trust, and so I pray that I put out the best work I can and seek help from Allah as I edit. It’s part of my production process.”
Every morning Sajidah likes to 'feed her soul' and start with her spiritual practice of reading Qur’an, then reading from the biography of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), and also from three other various Islamic texts after Fajr prayers. Spirituality and worship is infused deep within Sajidah’s work and daily routine.
“Writing is making connections through communication,” says Sajidah. “No matter what the story is, authors are trying to somehow connect to their readers. I think books can help to connect to somebody’s soul. People who are so different can read about someone else’s experience and relate to it and understand it. Whatever it is I’m writing, there’s usually a spiritual element at the core of the story. I want to connect to my readers on a soul level and always want a 'why' in my writing to create a sense of depth within it.”
Being grounded in faith helps keep Sajidah humble. She states that she never wants to forget what it felt like being on the other side: trying to learn how to write and get published.
“I pray that I always remember where I started,” Sajidah shares in regards to handling her success. “I’m grateful for even a day to write and the ability to keep writing as it’s all in Allah’s hands. As long as I can write and my mind works enough to put down another sentence, that’s success to me.”