Posted in Author Interviews

Author and Illustrator Interview: S.K. Ali and Hatem Aly

S. K. Ali is the author of YA novels, Love from A to Z, and the 2018 Morris award finalist, Saints and Misfits, which won critical acclaim for its portrayal of an unapologetic Muslim-American teen’s life, and was on many top ten YA novels of 2017 lists, including from Entertainment Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and the American Library Association. Her picture book THE PROUDEST BLUE, co-authored with Ibtihaj Muhammad, debuted on the NYT bestseller list, and she’s the co-editor of an upcoming Middle Grade anthology, ONCE UPON AN EID, releasing on May 5, 2020. She has a degree in Creative Writing and has written about Muslim life for various media. She lives in Toronto with her family, which includes a very vocal cat named Yeti.

Hatem Aly is an Egyptian-born illustrator whose work spans editorial cartooning, animation, book and magazine illustrations worldwide. He currently lives in New Brunswick, Canada, with his wife, son, and many pets. The Inquisitor’s Tale, written by Adam Gidwitz and illustrated by Aly, was a 2017 Newbery Honor and winner of the Sydney Taylor Book Award. You can find out more about Hatem and view many of his beautiful illustrations on his website or following him on Twitter or Instagram.

Interview Questions were compiled by Hadeal Salamah and Ariana Hussain.

Questions for S.K. Ali

1. This is your first picture book collaboration. How did it differ for you from writing for young adults? How was the process different in terms of you choosing prose for the book?

I found the process much like writing poetry, which, yes, I’m fortunate to have had experience with – but that experience was from over twenty years ago when I was doing my degree in Creative Writing! So while initially I was confident and excited (Picture Book! Short text! Yay!), as I worked on the process of telling a story with a limited word count, I realized that each word had to be carefully considered, that the flow had to be maintained in a manner that carried the story while delivering necessary emotional notes and, that while I could allow the art to carry some of the weight of the narrative, I had to be strategic on how to incorporate the illustrations for optimal effects. Fortunately, I was able to draw on my experience of being a primary grade teacher for over two decades, having read countless picture books, to apply the aspects I loved about these texts in my own writing. While it was challenging, I ended up enjoying the process and am eager to try writing another picture book text in the future, insha’Allah!

2. The pride and love around the idea of hijab is beautifully portrayed in The Proudest Blue, was your journey in wearing hijab similar? Different?

Ibtihaj and I had similar experiences in observing hijab in North America and this is what ultimately led us to a strong text. We both grew up wearing hijab from a young age in environments that weren’t always receptive to our choices.

There’s a duality that exists when you have an identity that’s not “accepted” by mainstream society; you juggle the comfort and pride you get from following your family’s teachings and traditions, from the warmth and happiness you feel from fitting in with your community (in this case, Muslim), from the safety you find in your faith to all the ignorance, negativity, and even outright hate you find outside these circles of security. I remember feeling so excited about favorite scarf styles and colors with friends at the mosque and then having to dampen that passion at school because I wasn’t “supposed” to be happy in my scarf. There’s a huge cognitive shift that happens internally and, when I was growing up, we didn’t have public discussions about what was happening to us. We had internal Muslim community discussions, yes, but we didn’t have the kind of public conversations about code-switching and slipping in and out of personas that we have now in wider contexts. We also didn’t have the mainstream images of confident visible Muslim women that we’re currently blessed with, Alhamdulillah.

THE PROUDEST BLUE is an exploration of the pride, warmth and happiness that many Muslim girls feel, twinned with the reality of a world that doesn’t accept that this could be the case. It’s reflective of the way I grew up – being constantly pushed to figure out whether I was allowed to feel happy in my skin as a Muslim girl. But while this was all true, this constant internal turmoil didn’t and doesn’t now erase the beauty we found in being Muslim, and the strength we developed in sustaining that belief in an increasingly hostile world.

That’s why THE PROUDEST BLUE ends on a note of the kind of gutsy resilience that’s carried Ibtihaj and I and all our sisters in the faith to who we are today as strong women, women who don’t let others dictate the terms of our happiness.

3. This is a story of familial love and pride as well as one about facing Islamophobia and bullying. Did Asiya’s experience resonate with you or connect to any real life experiences?

There’s a point in the book where Asiya is bullied about the “tablecloth” she’s wearing. This is drawn from Ibtihaj’s experience wearing hijab at school. For me, it was “curtain”. I was constantly called “curtain-head” and told to take off my curtain. While it was certainly hurtful to be bullied in this way, on hindsight it was also so strange and silly that harmless household items, table linen and drapery, were used to taunt us both. In my case, as a young girl, it made me go home and think about how being called “curtain-head” didn’t even make sense. The taunts also made my friends and some peers see the absurdity of being bullied in this way for my religious identity. They tried to join together in shutting it down as much as possible but as we know too well, bullies gonna bully. This is why we wrote the book the way we did – not centering the bully’s transformation or change to become a better person (as many books on bullying tend to do) but focusing on the internal process by which a young person can move on from being attacked for who they are.

4. Do you feel that books featuring Muslims are being created and marketed in a positive way? Are there trends you like or hope will change? What do you think the impact of Muslim-centered literature has on readers?

I get emails every week from young readers grateful for the books they’re seeing in the world now. Each and every one of these letters (from Muslims and non-Muslims) have moved me to tears because at the heart of their correspondence is gratitude for a profoundly simple act: that of being seen.  My tears come from a mixture of spaces – that of happiness for reader glee at connecting deeply with characters I’ve written, that of sadness for their excitement at what is an everyday occurrence for readers of non-marginalized backgrounds, that of personal grief for not ever having seen my Muslim self growing up in a fictional narrative (not even believing that this could actually be the case!), and then, the tears of hot anger.

It’s unconscionable that a) it took so very long for books representing our full humanity to be published (well, the marginal increase since the We Need Diverse Books movement of 2014), that b) it hasn’t made a transformative effect yet, that c) publishing continues to be so homogenous. These young readers are writing me with passion and emotion, so grateful for being accepted as characters on a page, for being human, for being a part of the world. This is unbelievably sad. And has real-world consequences as we see from the increase in publicly shared hate.

I’d like to see the publishing industry move forward and do the work of upending the status quo in their own organizational structures. I’d like to see books featuring marginalized characters, written by marginalized authors, to get more backing from publishers – whether it be with awesome covers, marketing, publicity, becoming lead titles, etc.

The We Need Diverse Books movement was grassroots. People doing the work on the ground. Making things happen.

This shouldn’t be the case once a publishing company is involved; marginalized authors shouldn’t be expected to do the heavy lifting – after being accepted for publication – for their titles to be “seen” by the mainstream. We need diverse books but we also need them pushed like the titles we grew up reading were.  Even if, nowadays, publishing has “evolved” to become equally driven by author publicity initiatives, righting the wrongs of years of erasure and misrepresentation requires this kind of an investment.

That’s what equity is. And that’s the only way we’re going to sustain this movement for books reflecting humanity and not white supremacy.

Questions for Hatem Aly:

 1. Hatem, we feel so fortunate to be able to interview you again for The Proudest Blue. All of your work is beautiful and powerful, and this book is no exception. Obviously blue is the central color of this story, what was your process for choosing the blues for your illustrations?

Thank you very much, it is a pleasure to speak with you again! Yeah, Blue is everywhere in the book and it a central color. I tried different shades of blue at first and settled on a strong and “happy blue” if you may call it. I was trying to show a blue that is present, strong and confident. A shade that is refreshing and empowering. I hope it shows, even to a degree.

2. What was your favorite scene to illustrate in The Proudest Blue? What scene(s) did you find most difficult to create? Why?

I enjoyed very much the dreamy scenes that show Faizah in the context of how she felt..the 2 scenes that come to mind are the one showing Faizah in a paper boat just like the cover thinking: “Asiya’s hijab is like the ocean waving to the sky. It’s always there strong and friendly”. The other scene is when Faizah was looking for her sister after school right before she found her..this scene will overlap with the most difficult scenes which are the ones with the shadowy figures saying hurtful words about Asiya and laughing at her. I wasn’t sure how I’m going to illustrate these and decided to keep them faceless with no significance at least to Faizah. They disturb her but it doesn’t matter who they are, how they look like, or their age or gender and she chose not to pay too much attention to them.

 3. In both Meet Yasmin and The Proudest Blue you are looking at many layers of identity; Identity being central but accepted in Meet Yasmin, and challenged in The Proudest Blue. Did Asiya’s experience resonate with you in your experiences or those of Muslim women that you know? Did Faizah’s?

It is an everyday story to struggle not to give power to hurtful perceptions, actions, and assumptions while maintaining a level of equanimity and pride. As a Muslim man, I can only imagine what women go through. Both Asiya’s and Faizah’s experience is relatable and reoccurring in many versions. I find this book is a great representation of what happens on the other side of acceptance or the lack of it or in spite of it all.

4. Where do you prefer to create art? What are your most useful tools (physical or virtual) or habits that help you in your work? What is your favorite part of the book making process? Most difficult?

I like to work where I can have my tools available and a reasonable degree of isolation with the help of a pair of headphones, so working from my home office is my preferable workspace at the moment. Sometimes I enjoy sketching or taking notes when I’m out in a quiet place especially at the public library. I mostly work digitally since it is convenient and easy to fix if the time is right (and it usually is) I use Adobe Photoshop most of the time with occasional use of Clip Studio paint. However, I love working with pen and ink with some watercolors and pencils as well and find myself longing to use them more often while also exploring and experimenting with other media. So maybe you’ll see some of this in future books.

My favorite part of bookmaking is the most difficult, which is the first stage of trying to translate thoughts into scribbles that make sense, and gradually mapping and giving visual existence to everything. It could be both frustrating and satisfying! The rest is not relaxing but you can always count on a map when you’re lost.

5. You have a background in fine arts. Did you always know that you wanted to be in the arts? Was there something that inspired you to be an artist?

I can’t say it was that clear in my mind, I have always been drawing since I can’t remember but I was pretty bad at being goal-oriented and approached the arts very intuitively making up stuff as I go. I made comics all the time and drew characters from books and cartoons as a child then created my own as I grew older, but until High school I wasn’t sure what should I study or what should my work be and it stressed me out and took me time to trust that I pull off being successful in the arts and it was challenging but the best decision I’ve done.

6. What was an early experience/book where you learned the power of art/illustrations?

This might be an irrelevant answer since I have a very bad memory but I can strongly recall some notebooks my father bought for me to use at school which I found the covers were too beautiful to use so I never used them! The covers were clearly inspired by fairy tales with a Grimm Brothers vibe to them.

7. Who are some of your favorite illustrators? Are there any illustrators that inspire/influence you? As a child, what was your favorite genre to read?

There are so many to add to this list! To mention some I’d say: Laura Carlin, Jon Klassen, Marc Boutavant, Oliver Jeffers, Carson Ellis, Shaun Tan, Tove Jansson, Jillian Tamaki, Beatrice Alamagna, Maurice Sendak, Bill Watterson, Naoki Urasawa, and much more. So many brilliant artists that inspire me.

As a child, I was into fantastical or mythical fiction, Science fiction, humorous writing and pretty much anything else..but I wasn’t very patient with historical or factual events and realistic drama for some reason..this came later. I adored an abridged version of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels as a child and was so intrigued by it.

8. Did you receive a lot of encouragement from your family in pursuing art? What is the first piece of art that you made that you were incredibly proud of (or that your family was proud of)?

YES! Probably even far more than I encouraged myself and I’m greatly thankful for that! I can’t remember specific ones that they were proud of but I do remember annoying my mother to draw me something instead of me doing all the drawing. While she thinks can’t draw at all she drew a green oval shape that I couldn’t recognize. When I asked her what is it she said: “why, it’s a mango!” I laughed and thought it was the sweetest thing ever.

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