Rewriting the world of young-adult fiction

TVO.org talks with YA author S.K. Ali about challenging stereotypes, changing the industry, and telling real stories
By Carla Lucchetta - Published on Aug 30, 2019
S.K. Ali’s first book, Saints and Misfits, was published in 2017. (Andrea Stenson)

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For S.K. Ali, being a writer also involves being an advocate — for diversity in publishing and for stories that accurately represent a range of experiences.

While working as a teacher in Markham, Ali dreamed of writing young-adult fiction, but she doubted her chances of publication because of the genre’s lack of diversity in terms of both authors and subject matter. But in 2014, Twitter gave rise to the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, which saw authors and readers share their criticisms of YA’s whiteness and its misrepresentations of other cultures. “After that, top agents were scrambling to represent my book,” she says, referring to her first novel, Saints and Misfits, which was published in 2017. Statistics from the United States indicate that the industry is becoming more diverse, although there are still far fewer people of colour writing their own stories.

TVO.org talks with the Toronto-based writer about her work as an advocate, how publishing can become more inclusive, and why fiction has the potential to challenge stereotypes while introducing younger readers to characters who live full, nuanced lives.

What was your journey to publication?

It took me a while because I had a career as a teacher and hadn’t put my full energy into it. But, in 2006, I felt I needed to get a book out, so I started writing and looking for an agent. I didn’t have an overt fear about publishing, but I did have a sense that the publishing world was only receptive to typical narratives — a mold from movies or TV of what a story of a Muslim character would look like. I knew small presses would take marginalized writers, but I wanted to be a career author, so I knew I had to be published by one of the Big 5 [Hachette, Harper Collins, MacMillan, Penguin Randomhouse, Simon and Schuster]. I started to take part in social media activism and compare notes with others on the feedback I was getting from agents. I still credit #WeNeedDiverseBooks because it raised awareness and led top agents to my work. 

Do you feel you spend as much time advocating for diversity as you do being an author?

I do have to advocate continuously. I’m going to have to advocate for my stories to be authentic and not go the way publishers might expect. And it’s not just the stories but also making sure book covers are not depicting stereotypes. Educating must continue to happen. But I don’t feel bitter about it. It’s just something I’ll always have to think about.

How can the publishing industry support more writers of colour telling their own stories?

I think the structure of publishing has to change to allow people of diverse backgrounds in positions throughout the companies. There’s too much sameness. In Canada, it’s more an old boys’ club pushing all the same authors to write marginalized narratives. We take pride in our multiculturalism; we think we’ve figured it out. But it’s all surface-level. I noticed this as a teacher. Even when the narratives come from a good place, there are errors. When a Muslim character is written by a white author, it’s usually pity literature — “poor Muslim girl trying to get away from her family.” It’s not lived experience. This can affect the attitude of the reader, and stereotyping can have real-world consequences.

What inspires you to keep writing?

I love writing, and I want to tell stories we love. I want a record of our stories, so people don’t see all the stereotypical things that have nothing to do with our lives. If we didn’t write these stories, there would be nothing to say we were here. It’s a historical thing. When you look back, there are only stories by white people; we didn’t helm our own narrative. I want to write ourselves into reality, show the fun in our lives — our joy and happiness. I won’t feel I’ve made it until a Muslim character can just be another character in a book. I recognize this is hard. While writing Love from A to Z, I knew I had to include the concept of Islamophobia because, in real-life, young people experience it.

Would you ever write adult fiction?

Yes, I would, because it’s another opportunity to tell a range of stories. But YA has more diversity — or, at least, a greater or different diversity. And young readers are more receptive: they’re more open, and I feel that I don’t have to argue for my right to be the one telling the story.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Watch The Agenda in the Summer tonight at 8 p.m. for a discussion about diversity in children’s and young-adult literature, or stream it on Facebook or Twitter.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

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