How much can you tell about a person just by looking at them?
Janna Yusuf knows a lot of people can’t figure out what to make of her…an Arab Indian-American hijabi teenager who is a Flannery O’Connor obsessed book nerd, aspiring photographer, and sometime graphic novelist is not exactly easy to put into a box.
And Janna suddenly finds herself caring what people think. Or at least what a certain boy named Jeremy thinks. Not that she would ever date him—Muslim girls don’t date. Or they shouldn’t date. Or won’t? Janna is still working all this out.
While her heart might be leading her in one direction, her mind is spinning in others. She is trying to decide what kind of person she wants to be, and what it means to be a saint, a misfit, or a monster. Except she knows a monster…one who happens to be parading around as a saint…Will she be the one to call him out on it? What will people in her tightknit Muslim community think of her then?
Trigger warnings: sexual assault, islamaphobia, micro-agressions
Saints and Misfits is a realistic and important book following Janna, a young muslim teenager as she goes on a journey of self discovery and growth. While dealing with the usual ups and downs of high school, Janna is also grappling with the aftermath of being sexually assaulted by one of her best friends cousins, who is also seen as an upstanding member of the muslim community. Having read Love From A to Z first and absolutely loving it, Saints and Misfits wasn’t as enjoyable a read for me, but still worth a read.
I’ll start with the lighter stuff as the novel does get pretty intense and heavy at times. I really liked the portrayal of Janna and her brother Muhammad’s relationship and their constant back and forth banter, snark and teasing which you would expect but it’s also clear they have a great deal of love for each other. I also enjoyed the relationship Janna has with an elderly man in her building who she takes care of from time to time. Even though they both come from different generations and faiths, it was nice to see how he imparted some wisdom to her and was such an encouraging force in her life.
One of the most vital parts about this book was the exploration of Muslim identity and how different members of the community face different struggles and how they choose to navigate their lives. As a muslim woman myself, who also chooses to wear the hijab, I definitely feel like there’s more scrutiny on women and it used to be really overwhelming, especially when I was a younger teen. Since then, I’ve definitely become more secure in my identity and made peace with the fact that some people are just determined to misunderstand Islam and it’s teachings but the scrutiny and pressure did weigh heavier on my heart when I was Janna’s age. I could really relate to some of Janna’s thoughts and experiences in the novel and I believe there are some things in regards to Muslim rep that the author has done really well. I liked how Ali represented the muslim community as a whole, ranging from Janna’s friends from the masjid, to Janna’s uncle, the Imam who explained islamic teachings and was an open and welcoming presence to all. These secondary muslim characters added so much to the book and I appreciate that they’re included.
On the other hand, there were some moments I was left a bit confused and which I believe could have been handled a bit better, such as the gym class moment where Janna is seen without her hijab by Jeremy and then doesn’t cover herself?? something which I just didn’t find realistic at all based on her character and the fact that she made a commitment to wear the hijab so it just didn’t gel with me. In relation to this, I just didn’t find it believable that Tats, her best friend of so many years made so many ignorant and thoughtless comments about Janna’s choices? Like surely if you’ve been such close friends for so long, you would know why Janna makes the choices she does and how it’s not just a light thing for a muslim to date casually and show your hair to random guys? I don’t know if I’m wording this in the best way but it just really irked me, especially since it wasn’t ever really mentioned or dealt with later.
As well as the representation within the novel, I thought it was so key that Ali shed a light upon sexual assault, and the subsequent reactions by those in the Muslim community. I felt this was done in a realistic manner and the attitudes towards it were pretty accurate as well. Nobody wants to believe that someone who could be so outwardly respectful and a pillar of the community could be so predatory and vile but it happens, and it needs to be spoken about. It was really sad to see how Janna struggles with telling her family and friends about what she went through, at the risk of not being believed. However, she eventually finds a way to do so, at a point where she feels mentally and emotionally ready and has support which was again so vital.
Overall, Saints and Misfits explores so many deeper issues which exist within the muslim community and is also a coming of age story of sorts, while I had some issues with it and probably would not read it again, I’m still glad it exists and I think it is an important and validating book in many ways.
Until next time,