“Ya Allah, save me from my geeky self,” mutters Janna Yusuf nervously as her crush walks towards her. She is a high-school student and daughter of a divorced Arab mother and Indian father, and the fictional protagonist of award-winning author SK Ali’s Saints and Misfits series, categorised as Muslim young adult fiction.
Like other teen stories, Muslim YA fiction is bursting with hormones, love interests, family drama, friendships and fallouts typical of high school life. The only difference is, the main characters are all Muslim, as are the authors of their stories. Once relegated to relatively unknown indie printing presses, their books are now being published by mainstream, western publishing houses.
Muslim YA fiction is flourishing – from writers such as Uzma Jalaluddin, whose bestselling novel Hana Khan Carries On will be hitting the big screen soon adapted by Amazon Studios and Mindy Kaling, to young writer Laila Sabreen, whose debut book You Truly Assumed releases on February 8 with HarperCollins.
The authors spearheading this literary niche are pioneering a new movement, not only telling tales that will be relatable to young Muslim readers, but also exploring wider issues in Muslim communities, such as racism, gender roles and balancing faith and modernity.
Many are centring the experiences of young, female, Muslim protagonists, whose quests for independence often involve a careful balancing act of religious obligations, parents’ rules and western cultural norms.
Writing for their younger selves
The main motivator for many of these Muslim authors is to write uplifting stories that they would have liked to read themselves while coming of age.
“Growing up, it was really difficult to find mainstream novels with characters like me, who had love and respect for Islam, and wanted to practice it in the most beautiful ways,” explains Sara Beg, whose debut novel, Salaam, with Love released in January.
Set in New York, it tells the story of Dua, who is visiting her conservative relatives during Ramadan. While fasting and connecting with family, she can’t help but notice a cute drummer in a Muslim band.
Romance is one of the key areas that Muslim YA fiction authors are exploring, where they trade in steamy kissing sessions for self-control and an overall lack of physical contact with the opposite gender. Ali, who will be appearing at this month’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, says it’s important for romance to have a focal role in her stories, mainly because young Muslim readers are human.
“It’s part of the human condition for people to be intrigued romantically with each other and to want to negotiate the act of approaching and choosing our romantic partners,” she explains.
“I love hearing from readers that my books help demystify this process for them or that it resonates with their experiences of love. I also get a lot of feedback that readers have fallen in love with the idea of 'Muslim-love', of how to facilitate their love lives while staying true to their chosen commitments to faith.”
Young Muslims growing up in the West often find themselves at a “between two cultures” crossroads, where they feel they need to choose between their faith or western societal norms. Authors such as Beg and Ali, however, are rejecting this binary narrative.
“I wanted to create a story that shows young Muslims that it is possible to have a loving and transcendent connection to Islam, that being Muslim isn’t about being perfect but about striving to improve ourselves, and we can connect Islam to all other things in our lives – including love, family relationships, and our future dreams and goals,” Beg tells The National.
These authors find it important to paint a realistic picture of the challenges and inner dilemmas that their characters experience, instead of creating picture-perfect Muslim characters.
“It’s important for young Muslims to see themselves, flawed and striving for better. It helps make the struggle less lonely – the struggle to fit in, to be a better Muslim, to be accepted by society at large and the community within,” says Huda Fahmy, the author and comic artist who recently released her latest book, Huda F Are You? – a coming-of-age story about an American hijabi girl who moves to Michigan and struggles to discover her identity.
Fahmy points out that female voices in the mainstream Muslim literature space have been rare. “As a Muslim woman growing up, I rarely got to read anything about the Muslim woman experience that also happened to be written by a Muslim woman,” she says.
Characters who are quintessentially Muslim
Through their hijabi main characters, Ali and Fahmy help dispel simplistic stereotypes about headscarves, while normalising and de-sensationalising covering up. “Wearing hijab is so normal to me; it’s very much like putting on a pair of pants or any other article of clothing. But people are so obsessed with making it a big deal. So, my writing is a response to that obsession,” explains Fahmy.
While characters in these stories navigate typical teenage problems common across all cultures and faiths, it’s the numerous “Muslim” themes and references that make these novels particularly appealing to young readers of the faith. Beg for instance, chose to set her debut novel during Ramadan – a time when spirituality is amplified.
“The holy month is the greatest example of the spiritual core and ritualistic practices within Islam coming together. It is a time to slow down, spend time with family, and reflect on our lives and our true purpose as humans. As such, it was ideal for Dua’s story – which is so focused on spiritual and personal growth,” she explains.
The multiculturalism and diversity of the Muslim community is another element that Muslim YA authors – particularly Ali – are highlighting. “Often, the limited portrayal of Muslims in books and film centre on either South Asian or Middle Eastern experiences, especially in isolation from each other, which doesn’t tell the full story,” explains Ali.
Her first series centres on a mixed Egyptian-Indian family, and her second series follows the romance of Zayneb, who is Pakistani-Guyanese-Trinidadian, and Adam, a Chinese-Finnish, Canadian-born convert to Islam living in Doha.
Taking on tougher themes
Other facets of Muslim life – waking up for the Fajr prayer, exchanging "Salaam" greetings, scouring the ingredients lists of marshmallows for gelatine and recounting stories of the Prophet Muhammad – are woven into Ali’s prose. But perhaps most significant, is her determination to lift the lid on pressing and controversial issues through her books.
Saints and Misfits tells of an assault by one of the seemingly pious members of the mosque, Misfit in Love explores culturally-ingrained colourism and racism within Muslim communities and Love from A to Z explores how Islamophobia impacts young Muslims.
“I’ve definitely seen the sort of racism and sexism described in my books in our Muslim communities locally and globally,” explains Ali. “As a person interested in issues of justice, I wanted to explore such topics in my faith community from that place of nuance, of a warmth and complexity that is sorely missing in narratives written about Muslims. I believe this openness encourages openness in society, a willingness to tackle challenging issues, which hopefully leads to change for the better.”
SK Ali will be discussing her work at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on February 4. More information is on the event website