Jane Austen in Pakistan: A Conversation with Soniah Kamal
Soniah Kamal’s second novel, Unmarriageable, forthcoming from Ballantine Books on January 22, is a delightful rendition of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, transported to Pakistan. Set in the fictitious town of Dilipabad, the novel is a faithful retelling of the emotions, arguments, and resolutions that Austen is known for. The book revolves around the Binat family’s quest to find husbands for headstrong, opinionated Alys and her unmarried sisters. Kamal details a Pakistani society where class and wealth, food and fashion, highlight the very same questions Austen examined in her work.
Throughout the story of Alys and her sisters, Kamal expertly weaves in discussions of politics, marriage, and culture. The novel manages to be both lighthearted and complex; it’s distinctly Pakistani. Kamal highlights a world in which tradition is still highly regarded even as the new generation gravitates toward modern technology and designer clothing. As Austen once delivered incisive cultural commentary on British customs, so does Kamal on Pakistini society.
Being part of the South Asian writing community in America, Soniah Kamal and I have known each other for many years, although this was our first in-depth conversation. We discussed our shared love of the English language and Bollywood movies, colonialism, the role of classics like Pride and Prejudice and new interpretations of them today, and Kamal’s creative process for her thought-provoking novel.
The Rumpus: Tell me more about the origin story of Unmarriageable, and how the novel came to be.
Soniah Kamal: An aunt gave me Pride and Prejudice when I was around eighteen, in the late 80s. I still have the gorgeous red and gold leather copy. I was smitten by the story of this mother desperate to see her daughters “well settled” and all the societal constraints and expectations that the daughters have to endure. Reading it, I’d think, “just like in Pakistan!” I promised myself that if I ever became a writer, I’d write a Pakistani version of Pride and Prejudice.
Pakistan was part of the British Empire and even after gaining Independence in 1947, English remained the language of advantage and opportunity. As an English literature student, I grew up reading British classics—Austen, Shakespeare, Hardy, Keats, Donne, and for fun, Enid Blyton. Having studied in Saudi Arabia, I also read American authors like Judy Blume and S. E. Hinton. But there was nothing that reflected my everyday Pakistani life and so part of me wanted to retell Pride and Prejudice, and recast this story I loved into my daily reality.
I wanted to read the same story but with samosas instead of scones. Of course when it came to actually writing it, Pakistan women are no longer living anywhere near the constraints that Austen’s characters did. I mean, the twenty-first century middle and elite Pakistani women are educated, have many career options, and can earn their own living, so to do a retelling was much harder than I’d thought it would be, especially when it came to mirroring scenarios and such. But my heart was set on a pure retelling rather than a variation or inspiration. I didn’t want to compromise on that just because it may have been easier.
Rumpus: Why is the novel set in 2001?
Kamal: Austen’s work is often critiqued for not including the politics of her time. She was certainly aware of the larger world around her—two of her brothers were in the Navy and her cousin’s husband was guillotined in the French revolution. In order to mirror the way Austen didn’t incorporate world events in her novels, I set Unmarriageable in 2000 to 2001 because, for some readers, 2001 will immediately bring up 9/11, and yet, it’s not in the novel. I very much also wanted to mirror the subtler aspects of Pride and Prejudice.
Rumpus: What changed about the book while you were in the process of writing it? And what was the writing process like for you? I know you’ve said you completed it in two months!
Kamal: Unmarriageable was actually my MFA thesis. I should have had over a year to write a complete novel but because of a glitch in my syllabus, discovered too late, I only had two months to deliver. I really didn’t think I’d be able to turn in a decent draft, let alone one which would go on to sell to a publisher without any revision. Over the last decade, I’d attempted to write the novel on several occasions but I’d barely begin and then get cold feet. I was quite intimidated by the prospect of retelling such a beloved classic. The sort of retelling I wanted to do included a close mirroring of the plot. I also wanted to depict how the morals and mores of Austen’s England two hundred years ago remained applicable in Pakistan during the time of my novel.
My book’s twist is in differences in the characters and their backstories, as well as their motives. For instance, we get to see exactly how and why my Charlotte Lucas (Sherry) marries Mr. Collins (Kaleen). I knew writing Unmarriageable was going to be a juggling act because there were four audiences to satisfy: Austen fans who know the novel inside out; readers who’d never heard of Pride and Prejudice and consider Unmarriageable as a stand-alone novel; Pakistanis and South Asians familiar with the culture; and readers completely unfamiliar with Pakistan, or perhaps only knowing it from depressing soundbites on the news.
Rumpus: In your novel, the characters discuss Austen and make a number of other references to literature. What was the thought behind including those?
Kamal: I wanted to weave in a conversation about books, the postcolonial state of mind, feminism, class, status, hypocrisy, what it is to be a “good” parent, a “bad” one, the meaning of marriage, love, friendship—so much! In retrospect, to say I was intimidated sounds like an understatement. I also did want to go a bit meta and bring in Austen and her novels within the world of Unmarriageable. I wanted it to be funny without mocking individual traits. As Austen shows us, proper social satire does not mean mocking someone because they sweat too much or can’t pronounce words correctly but rather critiquing the institutions which give rise to such mockery.
Rumpus: Alys is such a powerful character. Of course she is similar to Elizabeth Bennet, but Alys is much more than just a copy of Elizabeth. I love her snarky T-shirts. “Not your Average Behen Jee” feels like such a lovely nod to Maria Qamar‘s Trust No Aunty. How did the Alys we get to know in the book emerge, and was anything about her a surprise?
Kamal: Alys is me in many respects—she’s a third culture kid, growing up partly in Saudi Arabia and going to an International School, which was like a mini United Nations. She disapproves of the way people are obsessed with marriage at any cost. She loves literature and seeing connections between books from the Eastern and Western canons. Right before I got married, I taught literature and language in the very high school I graduated from; I gave Alys a lot of my own memories of students, the staff room, the whole atmosphere, and so on. Where Alys and I certainly differ is her not wanting to have children and my very much wanting to.
Of course, Alys Binat is a fictional character and not my twin, and at times, her interactions with her sisters surprised even me. For instance, she and Lady (Lydia) have an interesting dynamic. Their mother calls Alys a “mad feminist” who will remain unmarried because she isn’t demure and has short hair. But Lady calls Alys “Aunty,” meaning a stodgy prude who adheres to societal rules. So is Alys a feminist or a prude of an Aunty? Do the two always have to be mutually exclusive?
As for Alys’s t-shirts, almost twenty years ago I decided to set up a caption t-shirt company and came up with slogans. The company never happened, but I still have my long list of colorful phrases. The “Not Your Average Baji” triptych came directly from there. I did make three of them just for myself though!
Rumpus: Dilipabad is a beautiful town as a character. It reminds of works like James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential or Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, in which place becomes like a central character in the story. How did you create Dilipabad?
Kamal: Dilipabad is a fictional town I created because I wanted the liberty and challenge of creating a world, a setting, that would be uniquely mine. The history of Dilipabad ultimately was edited out in favor of pacing. The VIP who ends up naming the town is excessively fond of Indian films; Dilip Kumar is her favorite actor. Kumar is a Muslim, whose real name is Muhammad Yusuf Khan. He was born in pre-partition Pakistan, so naming a town Dilipabad for a Muslim actor makes it okay, rather than the risk of naming it for say, Raj Kapoor, also pre-partition and Pakistan-born, but a Hindu. This was a way to play on British, Hindu, and Muslim co-existence, what identity means, and who gets to decide the parameters.
Rumpus: There is an enormous focus on food in the book. Food felt like yet another character in this story. Was that deliberate, inspired by Austen, or neither?
Kamal: Once I wrote the novel, I was actually quite surprised at how much food there is in it. Since I wrote it in two months, almost on autopilot, if you will, I was often fascinated by the writing choices my brain had to quickly make. I didn’t have time to ponder on what business my character Nona should have—I wrote it as it came to me and it turned out that she bakes specialty cakes. So the focus on food was far from deliberate.
However, I do think it might have happened because Pakistanis are huge foodies. This is hardly surprising given how amazing Pakistani cuisine is, but also Pakistan is very much a family-oriented and socializing culture, and eating is a huge part of that. We are constantly drinking chai paired with samosas, pakoras, or cookies, savory and sweet. Even simple dinners at home are often elaborate five-dish meals with a meat, a vegetable, a lentil, yogurt, chutney, and pickles—and oh dear, I’m “fooding” again here, too.
Cooking is a great hobby of mine, one I discovered only when I moved to America. Even when my fridge is full, I’m cooking. Cutting, chopping, and grating are like meditation to me. But in Unmarriageable, I also used cooking as a vehicle to illustrate class and status. In Pakistan, who cooks and who can employ a cook is very much class-based. There’s a delicious conversation in the novel between my Mrs. Bennet and my Charlotte Lucas’s mother, where both women try to one-up each other in a conversation on housewives, cooks, cooking, and divorce.
Rumpus: In Unmarriageable you’ve brought up many songs, movies, and kahawatein/sayings that are very South Asian—which reminds the reader that this isn’t just a Pakistani set up but more a South Asian one, with a global flair. The movie, Bride and Prejudice, set in Amritsar, is across from Dilipabad—that’s very obvious in the placement. Did you create Dilipabad to be a Pakistani Amritsar and if so, why?
Kamal: Absolutely not. Dilipabad is its own unique town and not a reflection of any town in India, let alone Amritsar, or anywhere. If there is a South Asian flair reflected in all the books and films mentioned, both Eastern and Western, it’s because of my main character; her world view and exposure is reflected in the life and sensibility she brings to Dilipabad. Pakistanis of all socioeconomic classes have traveled overseas or have relatives who live overseas. For me the setting in Unmarriageable is one hundred percent Pakistani. That you should think it reflects a South Asia with a global flair is simply because that is very much what Pakistan, and life in Pakistan, is like.
My particular characters drink cappuccinos in cafes, go to see plays, travel in luxury buses, watch Terminator, read Betty and Veronica comics, buy art, and enjoy tennis matches and fashion shows and gossip rags. All the while, their mothers are breathing down their necks to get married as soon as possible. I think a lot of my affection for Pakistan and my home city, Lahore, comes across in this novel, as does my annoyance with some aspects, but then, that’s what belonging to a place is, right?
Rumpus: How have Urdu or non-English writers influenced your writing?
Kamal: I cannot read Urdu very fluently, and certainly could not as a teenager. During my “A” levels, my easy-Urdu class was assigned an anthology of thirteen stories by Urdu writers. I struggled through them, all too often depending on my mother to read them to me, but these stories are a big reason I became a writer. I loved what they were able to convey, in particular “Anandi” by Ghulam Abbas and “Maha Lakshmi Ka Pul” by Krishan Chander. Later, Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story “Khol Do,” recommended by my mother, had the same effect, as did the memoirs of Ismat Chugtai, A Life in Words, and Kishwar Naheed’s A Bad Woman’s Story. Reading Kishwar Naheed and Ismat Chugtai not only helped me understand why my father didn’t let me be an actress, but also put his life in context by giving him a cultural history. It helped me place myself as yet another Indo-Pak Muslim woman in a long line of Indo-Pak women stifled by patriarchy.
In Unmarriageable, there are dialogues in Urdu that sentences-long. I chose to introduce them as italics to ensure that readers know it’s another language, but not have to stop and google the meaning each time. It’s like if there’s Chinese, Tagalog, or Spanish words, they should be in italics but certain words that have now entered the English language, like chai, maybe shouldn’t.
I do wonder who I would have been if Urdu had been given equal weight in my life as English, but thank the universe for translators. This is the cost of colonialism and in the case of the British Empire and India, a policy set by Thomas Babington Macaulay back in 1835. Macaulay very deliberately wanted to fashion a person, Indian in skin color but English in tastes and language, Brown Sahibs and Sahibas, who would be misfits, with manufactured identity crises and loyal to Empire. I wonder what he’d think, knowing that this daughter of the Empire the sun was never supposed to set on made Pride and Prejudice Pakistani. I think Austen, at least, would be amused.