When it comes to writing, Canadian author Sajidah K Ali’s story is one of perseverance in achieving your dream.
Sajidah was born in South India and is Muslim, and is currently living in Toronto. For a while, her Creative Writing degree sat in the background as she pursued motherhood and a career in teaching, but she returned to her first love (don’t we all?) a few years ago. Now she’s getting ready to release her debut novel, “Saints and Misfits,” a young adult story. I talked to Sajidah about the book and her experience as a writer.
When did you decide that you wanted to pursue being a professional writer?
I majored in Creative Writing in the early 90’s. Yes, that long ago. While I had every intention of become an author, I instead embarked on other journeys – that of becoming a mother, a teacher, and so on. It was only about ten years ago that I decided to put my all into something I’d wanted to do from the beginning: write stories.
Tell me about “Saints and Misfits.” What is the book about? What was the inspiration behind it?
It’s a story about a Muslim fifteen year-old who finds her voice and, essentially, meets herself, in the midst of something painful. I like to call it a Muslim girl power story. But it’s not told in a dark way; the book is peopled with characters that provide the main character, Janna Yusuf, an opportunity to see the absurdities, hopefulness, and humor of life in the different communities she moves in.
I can’t say there was one inspiration behind it; it was more like I wanted to explore several threads (some that are not frequently explored, like that of how religious messages of “patience and forbearance” may be internalized wrongly, especially by Muslim women) and in weaving them, I found this story.
What was the process of getting published like for you? Did you struggle to find a publisher, or was it a fairly smooth process?
My experience of getting published will seem short ‘n sweet but I have to tell you that it took me five years to write “Saints and Misfits.” After I had finished writing the story, I spent ONE WHOLE YEAR on just rewriting the first chapter! Once I was satisfied with the manuscript (after five years, remember), I looked for a literary agent – which is the only way to approach one of the big publishing houses – and once I found the wonderful John M. Cusick of Folio Literary Management, I worked on the manuscript a bit more with his feedback and then went on to submission. The amazing Zareen Jaffery at Simon & Schuster’s imprint, Salaam Reads, showed immediate interest and we had a deal. This process of finding an agent and selling the book took about three months.
So, long story short: it was a blessedly smooth process after years of being that quintessential writer tapping away at a keyboard, ready to throw in the towel but not doing so only to prove to my 12 year-old self that you have to try your dreams.
What do you have in the works now?
I’ve finished a picture book, working on a second and in the drafting and outlining stages of another YA novel.
What inspires your stories generally? How does your background as a Muslim Canadian influence your work?
Ah-ha moments inspire my stories. Those moments that something becomes clear to you and could only become clear to you because the juxtaposition of all circumstances in your life allow it to be so. They occur throughout our lives and I like to capture that in writing. I think that’s what my short stories & narrative essays (that I write under another name) and “Saints and Misfits” are all about: that moment of clarity.
I’d like to think my background as a Canadian allows me a sense of ease when I’m writing about diversity within diverse communities. Multiculturalism is an important aspect of our Canadian identity and that plays out in our daily lives, which then spills over into my writing: the easy friendships between my diverse characters in Saints & Misfits is an example of this. And, as a Muslim, I’m naturally inclined to explore the diversities within the Muslim community – and not just the diversity of cultures, but diversities in religious understandings.
What’s your advice to young novelists trying to get published?
First, the one everyone says: read, read, read. Artists need a medium to make art and for writers, that medium is comprised of a palette of words and sentences and voice and forms and so on. The more you read, the more you have up there to work with to make your own art, your own stories.
Secondly, find your writing rhythm. Not that it will stay the same throughout your career, but read about how different writers do their job and try different things out. For years, because I was a very successful pantster in university (someone who writes by the seat of their pants, relying on inspiration, fueled by the fear of deadlines approaching), I thought I had failed because that style didn’t work for me later on in life. But then, every time I’d try methodical outlining and plotting, that didn’t work either (fall-asleep boring!). I found out my way was to balance the two: pants & plot, pants & plot, pants & plot…repeat until the book is done.
And lastly, don’t write to trends. Write the stories you want to tell, using the palette you’ve assembled (that will be unique to you because no one else in the entire world is the sum of all things you’ve read & experienced) and your audience will find you.
Actually, another lastly: don’t give up. That’s the common thing that all published writers have – they didn’t stop trying.