Title: SAINTS AND MISFITS
Author: S.K. Ali
Release Date: June 2017
Publisher: Salaam Reads/Simon & Schuster
My Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5)
Review on Goodreads
I loved this book. I loved it, I loved it, I loved it.
I will try to write a coherent review, though mostly I just feel like squeezing this book and hugging it tight and typing something nonsensical in all-caps, so forgive me if this isn’t especially eloquent. As a Muslim woman (and Egyptian! like the protagonist of this novel! I’ve literally never read about an Egyptian girl before!), this book meant so much to me. I’ve been reading for as long as I can remember, but I do not recall ever reading a book where I saw myself and my community represented. Especially not in such a positive light. I am so happy this book exists now. Not only that, I am so happy that it is a good book. A positively excellent, hilarious, entertaining book that I will be recommending to every single Muslim girl I know.
Janna Yusuf is a high school sophomore with plenty of wit and snark to spare. The story is told entirely in her perspective, which is fantastic, because Janna is one of the most realistic, likeable protagonists I’ve ever come across. She’s hilarious, sarcastic, intelligent, and oddly self-aware for a teenager. She’s also half-Egyptian, half-Indian, Muslim, and a hijabi. She’s a part-time photographer, part-time graphic novelist, part-time Flannery O’Connor geek.
There are no stereotypes in this book. Out of habit, I tensed when the older brother Muhammad was introduced, because I am so used to Muslim men, especially older brothers, portrayed as misogynistic oafs. But Muhammad is delightful – your typical annoying older brother, sweet, charming, caring. He wants to study philosophy and marry his “girlfriend,” whom Janna refers to as “Saint Sarah” because she seems to be perfect (though there’s more to her than meets the eye)!
Janna’s uncle, an imam at the local mosque, answers religious questions with humor and wisdom. Janna’s father is ultra-liberal and secular, now married to a white woman. When we first meet him, he loudly proclaims to anyone who will listen that he would rather his daughter wear a bikini rather than a burkini – not the best thing to say, but still, a refreshing change of pace from what we’re used to seeing of Muslim fathers.
Another great character is Sausun, a niqabi girl who also wears Doc Martens and is the Muslim equivalent of goth/emo teen. She’s tough as nails, hosts a YouTube show about niqabis, and absolutely shatters any stereotypes about women who wear niqabs. The niqab itself, the act of wearing one, is given nuance: Sausun implies she wears it because she wants to decide who is worthy of seeing her face. Janna talks about the protection the niqab offers, to someone who perhaps might wish to see but not be seen.
And then there’s Nuah! A black Muslim boy who clearly has a crush on Janna (though she doesn’t see it until the end of the book), he’s sweet, optimistic, and silly. I loved him so, so much. Please, give me a sequel to this where Janna and Nuah are dating!
Not all is rosy, however: the main conflict in the book is that Janna has been sexually assaulted by Farooq, a boy who has memorized the Qu’ran and is seen as the most pious Muslim around. For those of you non-Muslims out there who don’t know, memorizing the Qu’ran is a big freaking deal. Doing it pretty much guarantees you’re untouchable, which is why Janna has such a difficult time telling anyone what happened. She worries people won’t believe her, especially as Farooq has started talking about how Janna is “straying” from Islam. Janna is also hesitant to say anything for fear of making her community look bad.
There are two important things I want to say about all this:
1. There’s a slang term in the Muslim community called “wallah bro.” It is used to describe a Muslim man who thinks waaaay too much of his own alleged piety and takes the time out of his day to admonish Muslim girls on how they should behave. Wallah bros, a side effect of patriarchy as it manifests in Muslim communities, are pervasive and annoying as hell. Now, Farooq, attempted rapist, takes this to a whole new level, but he still displays the utter hypocrisy of a wallah bro when he posts vague statuses on Facebook about how it’s “sad” that Muslim girls are straying from their religion (in response to Janna accidentally being seen without her hijab), when he’s literally going around assaulting women. Growing up Muslim, I’ve witnessed this hypocrisy so many times that it was so validating to see it utterly destroyed here on the page.
2. When Janna talks about not wanting to make her community look bad, my heart hurt. I completely understood. No community is perfect, but non-Muslims are always so ready to talk about backwards Muslims and men who beat their wives and savage religions that it’s difficult to say anything in criticism of your own culture, for fear of it being co-opted by others. It’s not that our cultures shouldn’t be criticized – but these outsiders looking in, blinded by prejudice and ignorance, simplify an enormously complex issue to suit their racist existing narratives.
I fully expect this book to see criticism from such people who will insist that the representation of the Muslim community in this book is “too positive” or “unrealistic” or whatever. To those people, I would say two things: first, screw you for thinking that Muslim communities can’t be good and kind and supportive. Second, yes, Muslims communities have their issues. You know what? So does literally every other community. We’re not special. What is special about us is that we’re nearly always portrayed negatively, so let us catch a fucking break for once. We don’t always have to talk about our intra-community problems just because that’s the narrative that people have come to expect.
This is one of very, very, very few #ownvoices books about Muslims by a Muslim, and it’s lost in a sea of books written by non-Muslims that portray us as violent sadists at best, ignorant savages at worst. It’s nice to have some positive representation for once. We deserve it. If that bothers you, work hard to make sure that thousands of other #ownvoices books about Muslims flood the publishing industry, so we can see more variety of stories.
Anyway: you guys, this book was so, so, so good. Every time I read something in this book that I related to, I got this…jolt. Like, hey, yeah, that’s me! That’s my family! That’s my community! It was an amazing feeling. Is this what everyone feels when they read books with people they can relate to on such a personal level?
Read this book. Even if you’re not Muslim – actually, especially if you’re not Muslim. Especially if you don’t know much about Muslims or have conflicting feelings about Muslims. You’ll learn a lot. And even if you rarely read YA contemporary, I highly recommend picking this book up. It’s worth your time, I promise. It’s not juvenile or overly preachy and though it discusses many heavy topics, it’s never heavy-handed with them. And I literally could not put it down. Janna’s hilarious and deadpan narration kept me hooked, in a book where not too much happens! This is one of the few books I can see myself reading again and again, and I can’t wait for it to come out so I can buy a copy for my bookshelf.
Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with an ARC of this book!