Discussion—Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali


WARNING: The following discussion contains spoilers! In other words, this post reveals what happens in the book. If you have NOT read Saints and Misfits, here is my non-spoiler review.

As I mentioned in my review, I absolutely loved this book. I found the realistic representation of a Muslim community spot-on. Janna’s voice was great. Ali weaves together all of the different subplots and tucks in the ends in subtle ways that I really appreciated. When a book is that awesome, the few things that I didn’t like or that I didn’t get stand out more.

I’m starting with characters. For the most part, Ali’s characters were carefully drawn and fleshed out. The most important part of characterization for me (and especially in YA) is that characters are human—neither too good or too bad. And Ali does that fantastically. Our hero Janna is unique and generally awesome, but she makes mistakes. Sausun is a strong female character, but she can be really mean. Here are some of the things I loved as well as some glaring inconsistencies I found in character development.

  • Sausan. Sausan initially presents the Niqabi Ninjas vlog as not her own, but just something she’s watching on the internet. This seems out of character for her. What does she gain by that? Whatever Sausan is, shy she is not. (Also, the idea that Janna doesn’t recognize Sausun in the video is ridiculous to me. If Janna had spent any time at all with Sausun (which she had), she would be able to recognize her perfectly fine in a video where she’s talking and walking around and being herself.)
  • Muhammad. I thought Muhammad was one of the weaker characters. I liked the idea that his Indian dad is cutting him off because of his decision to study philosophy instead of law. That rings really true, but Muhammad studying philosophy? I can’t see that. He kind of came off as a flake to me. It would have helped if he sometimes had deep conversations with Janna or maybe an ongoing debate with Sarah about some complicated Islamic philosophy thing that Janna metaphorically rolls her eyes at. It really would have rounded out his character.
  • Amu. I loved his characterization. He was a good balance to Farooq.

“This weekend his white beard is cropped close to his face, and he is wearing a linen safari suit. He does that: go from a luxurious, long Moses beard and authentic thowb-wearing-imam look to a gentrified-summer-tourist-imam look, depending on the occasion. He gets criticism from the congregation for both getups. The conservative portion thinks he being “liberal” if he wears non-Eastern clothes, and the liberal members of the mosque think he’s not being of the people if he wears Eastern clothes. What they don’t know is what I’ve noticed: When Amu wears Western clothes, he gives sermons on topics conservatives like to hear about, and when he wears Eastern clothes, his topics appeal to liberals. Like I said before, my uncle is very smart.”

  • Farooq. I love that Farooq gets called out for not understanding the Quran, which he has memorized the entirety of. At the Open Mosque event, a Christian Arab asks Farooq what the Quran says about Jesus, and Farooq says “I’d have to read up on it.” Nuah is eager to say, but Farooq simply doesn’t know.  And I love that Sausan rocks the Quran category at the quiz bowl instead of him.
  • Saint Sarah. She really gets fleshed out by the end of the book. Yes, she begins so completely and unbearably annoying, but she is vastly improved after we learn more about her past, and she turns out to be really supportive to Janna.

Next are plot issues.

  • In the scene where Sausun and Janna confront Farooq in the bookstore, I felt uncomfortable with the niqab being used as a disguise—this is a sore point with some niqabis, and I was disappointed to see that idea perpetuated in the storyline. Also, her outburst at Farooq was really lame. Sorry, but it was. I would have preferred to see Janna and Sausun fail in another way, one that was less we-haven’t-planned-this-at-all-so-of-course-it-sucks and more this-backfired-and-now-we’ve-made-things-worse.
  • The scene where Janna tells Fizz that Farooq assaulted her came out of nowhere for me. Janna spent so long being silent that I was shocked when she was able to come out and say the truth so plainly. I think I needed more interiority from Janna to build up to that. Fizz’s reaction was perfect. It was painful for me as a reader, but unfortunately, I think it was realistic.
  • When Janna tells Amu about her assault, I think it’s really important that he, her mom, and Muhammad believed her right away. I was worried about that, especially after what happened when she told Fizz. I think one of the important things this book does is that it draws a picture of why girls and women should come forward with these issues and how they can do that.   
  • I found the alternative love interest unnecessary, but I guess it was a compromise to the YA genre. Granted, it was never explicitly stated that Janna is interested in Nuah, but it was implied pretty heavily that he really likes her. I would have preferred Nuah as a supportive male presence in her community rather than as a possible future romantic interest.

I loved, loved, loved this book. The fact that I can pick it apart like this and that I want to just shows how close it is to being absolutely perfect. I can’t wait to see S.K. Ali’s new novel.

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