Most people know Soniah Kamal as an award-winning Pakistani American writer whose fiction and essays have been widely anthologized as well as appeared in notable publications such as The New York Times and The Guardian. Fourteen years ago, Soniah’s short story, Mango, came my way as the publisher of Monsoon Magazine, an online journal of South Asian Literature & Culture. In Mango, and Soniah’s other short stories, I recognized a bold, unique voice that subverted cultural stereotypes and norms, revealing deep psychological insights into how one negotiates identity and notions of home. When Soniah and I discovered we both lived in the Bay Area, within driving distance of one another, friendship and a bond of sisterhood blossomed, one that has endured endless discussions on books and the craft of writing, our personal lives, cross-continental moves, and critiques of one another’s work. When two years ago, Soniah told me she was finally going to pursue her dream project of writing a ‘desi’ version of Pride and Prejudice, I was surprised. All of Soniah’s previous work was so rooted in the present day and drew from themes and situations that were gritty and complex. Her first novel, An Isolated Incident (Fingerprint, 2014) highlighted the political turmoil in Kashmir, as seen through the eyes of a Kashmiri political refugee and a Kashmiri-Pakistani-American family. A Pakistani version of Pride and Prejudice seemed much lighter in comparison. How wrong I was. Unmarriageable: Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan (Penguin Random House U.S. 2019) is a complex novel that is smart, literary and celebrates the idea of love—familial, romantic, platonic—while critiquing it. A palimpsest of Austen’s most celebrated work, Unmarriageable takes the plot and structure of the original, using it as a framework for a narrative that examines the intricacies of class and society in South Asia, as well as the effects of colonialism on a culture that must constantly negotiate the ancient with the modern. History, religion, gender, and geography are themes woven deftly into a story all readers familiar with Pride and Prejudice will recognize and applaud for its uniqueness in transposing it within another place, culture and time period. For those who haven’t read Pride and Prejudice, Unmarriageable stands on its own as a complete, original story. While I had the pleasure of reading each chapter as Soniah wrote it, enjoying the novel much in the way how Victorian novels were serialized, Soniah and I sat down to discuss Unmarriageable in its effervescent entirety. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
Shikha Malaviya (SM): Not many people may know this, but you wrote Unmarriageable within two months, after years of dreaming about writing it. It’s an amazing feat which I actually witnessed, and I marvel at how you followed the original story yet created one that was uniquely your own. Creating and inhabiting another world as complex as Austen’s can be challenging. How did you come to write this retelling of Pride and Prejudice and why?
Soniah Kamal (SK): Thank you. My first novel, An Isolated Incident, took ten years to write and several complete rewrites, so I’m really not sure how I was able to pull off this two-month feat with Unmarriageable, except I was under a strict deadline and just had to. Your role as first reader (along with my sister-in-law and niece) cannot be discounted and I’d asked you all to just keep me on track and not go off on unnecessary tangents. I would literally send you all my output off the day and wait for the ‘ok, carry on.’ Those email attachments were long and I felt so guilty for imposing on your own busy lives but then around three attachments in, I received emails from all of you asking for the next chapter. That was so encouraging and continued– ‘send the next chapter!!’ and then I knew I had something there. Still, writing a first draft in two months is hard enough, but I was thrilled when that first draft went on to sell to Penguin Random House just as it was written. Why did I write Unmarriageable? I first read Pride and Prejudice at age sixteen and I knew that one day I wanted to write a parallel retelling setting the original in Pakistan. This wasn’t as odd an ambition as it may sound. In the 1980s, I grew reading Enid Blyton, Judy Blume, S.E. Hinton, Shirley Jackson. There was nothing written in English and set in Pakistani culture for my age group and, as a result, I’d started to automatically remap stories in my mind. For instance, P.E. Island in the Anne of Green Gables Series became Lahore and lime cordial became nimbu-pani. Also, Pride and Prejudice seems such a quintessentially Pakistani novel what with its mother desperate to see her five daughters married well, and Austen’s searing critique of societal conventions really spoke to me. I could see her characters everywhere as well as the hypocrisies that she was skewering. Also I’ve grown up in the English medium system in Pakistan, on English literature, and as a post colonial child, I wanted to conjure an identity of our own from the very fabric that state policy began in 1835 had us brought up on. Writing Unmarriageable fulfilled my desire of writing a novel in English but set in Pakistan, as well my need to forge a new identity between colonialism and post colonialism, a conversation between two states of being which is why my novel is a parallel retelling.
SM: Unmarriageable is referred to as a ‘parallel’ retelling of Pride and Prejudice. What exactly does this mean and how is it different from other retellings out there?
SK: Parallel retelling means that the plot is followed religiously and all the characters from the original are present here too. Toni Morrison has said that if there’s a book that you want to read which is not out there, then write it, and I wanted to literally read Pride and Prejudice set in Pakistan. I believe Unmarriageable is the only parallel retelling out there to date. Others are either inspirations, taking a character such as Lydia Bennet and making up a new story for them, or continuations, such as picking up the story from the end of Pride and Prejudice and telling us what Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage was like. There are also variations with zombies, sea monsters, murder mysteries, servant’s point of view, etc. Mine is different in that it’s set in contemporary Pakistan, told from a post colonial and feminist lens. My Elizabeth and Jane Bennet and Charlotte Lucas are all schoolteachers and my Bingley sisters own their own company, which manufactures sanitary pads. I have taken liberty with secondary and minor characters and spruced up their back stories so you’ll meet Anne de Bourgh’s doppelganger here but Annie de Bagh is very different. For one, she was a model in New York City before a mysterious illness overtakes her. In Pride and Prejudice, we don’t get to see much of Charlotte Lucas or how she gets Mr. Collins to propose to her or what he says to her (I mean did he give her the exact same speech he gave her best friend?) and I wanted to explore these characters. I had so much fun giving Mrs. Bennet reasons for so desperately wanting her daughters married and even Mr. Bennet here gets his own storyline. All of this makes Unmarriageable very much a standalone novel, too, so you don’t have to know any Pride and Prejudice or Austen to enjoy it.
SM: I have to say, I simply love the setting of this book—a backwater town called Dilipabad, named after actor Dilip Kumar—and all the nuances of history that make this book so culturally rich. Whether it is the Binats’ family history or how the city of Dilipad came to be named, the world you have built is so unique yet so relatable to those from South Asia. Also, the transposed names of the characters which not only sound like the original characters but manage to reflect their backgrounds—Mr. Kaleen whose last name means carpet because he comes from a family of carpet sellers, who is modeled after Austen’s Mr. Collins. Or Valentine Darsee—whose last name is derived from Darzee, which means tailor—in order to supposedly obfuscate his origins, named so after Mr. Darcy. Tell us how you managed to conjure these names and places, with their histories, and bring them all together.
SK: All my characters have rather weird names. One of the reasons for this is because Pakistan is a small place and I did not want to use last names which could be seen as targeting any one family or tribe, so Khan and Baloch and Chaudhry would not do. Instead, I decided to use names which mirrored Austen’s characters but also give then concrete origins. So, as you note, Kaleen means carpet and he comes from a family of Kashmiri carpet makers, but I also had to come up with a name that mirrored Mr. Collins’. Darsee’s first name is Valentine, and I tell the reader how he came to have such a unique name (as well as connection to Oprah Winfrey’s name). My Mr. Wickam is simply Wickaam although the double ‘a’ elongates the end into the word ‘aam’ which in Urdu means ordinary/nothing special. As for his first name, Jeorgeullah, well, a while a go there was a program in Pakistan called ‘George Ka Pakistan’ meaning George’s Pakistan (George was an English man married to Pakistan girl and they were living in Pakistan at the time). I remember a conversation in which I wondered if there would ever be a Soniah’s America on national TV in the U.S. and you and I started calling George our own Jeorgeullah, ullah being a rather ubiquitous suffix attached to many male Pakistani names. Luckily, Mr. Wickam’s first name is George and so ‘Jeorgeullah’ it was. Dilipabad’s history got left on the editing floor, a decision I regret because the town is so much a part of the novel and its history/naming is part of the town’s character and should have stayed in. Also, so many readers are curious as to how the town got its rather odd name, for one in Pakistan, and then I have to explain the whole thing. Maybe it can be added to the paperback. Let’s see.
SM: The main protagonist, Alysba Binat, is a headstrong, independent woman, unafraid to speak her mind and live on her own terms. Dare I say that in some ways she reminds me of you? In Alysba’s character and others in the book, how much are you drawing from real life/‘what you know?’
SK: I’m a bit of all of the Binat sisters. Definitely Alysba—when it comes to speaking up, if I see something unfair going on, even if it’s to my detriment. I’m certainly the Qitty character who is fat and stocky and every single nasty comment she hears about her body in Unmarriageable, I’ve heard in real life. I have Lady’s penchant for dancing and not caring what anyone thinks. I have Jane’s naivety when it comes to not being able to recognize manipulative people. And who can’t be a bit self-righteous like Mari? As for characters such as Jaans and Wickaam, Kaleen and Mrs. Binat, it’s just always so much fun to get into their heads and souls. Writing is like method acting for me, meaning I try to step into another person’s shoes and imagine their thought process. After all, what else is imagination, if not the gift to conjure up what and who you don’t know.
SM: I was struck by how your novel was sensitive to gender and class. In particular, I liked how the domestic help was not only acknowledged, but given attention, as well as the male characters, who were rendered with depth.
SK: I worked very hard on giving as much representation to the help, even as I kept the essence true to the original in which Austen really doesn’t tell us much about the servants. I was so gratified to read a review by a Pakistani reviewer in the national Pakistani newspaper, DAWN in which the review notes “There is, in Kamal’s novel, notable attention to detail when it comes to situating characters within a specific class context that Anglophone Pakistani fiction rarely manages to accomplish”. I really treasure this because I worked hard to show many different classes in Unmarriageable, rather than stick to one. As for male characters rendered with depth, my job as novelist is to write fully developed characters and not caricatures, unless I do that for a reason. Of course my Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley have their flaws, but they are also really decent and smart, and even the buffoons Mr. Collins and Mr. Hurst have their good moments. Some readers are surprised that my male characters are not monsters because that’s what they expect men in a feminist novel should be. The fact is that feminism does not mean you hate men, want to be superior to men, or want to become a man.
SM: You pay homage to Jane Austen from the very first line in your book and also refer to her as ‘Jane Khala,’ the cool spinster aunt in every family whose advice goes a long way. What have you learned from the life and writings of Jane Austen and what do you want the reader to take away from Austen gleaned through Unmarriageable?
SK: I refer to her as Jane Khala at home, too! What have I learned from her? As I say in my essay which is included at the end of Unmarriageable, Austen’s sharp pen drew a map for me in how to navigate being a women with a voice who wants to exercise agency in her life, be it in Elizabeth Bennet, Charlotte Lucas or even Fanny Price from Mansfield Park. In other words, South Asians have a plethora of Aunties and Aunty types in South Asian culture and Jane Austen’s novels made it so much easier for me to recognize them. In Unmarriageable, Lady keeps calling Alys an Aunty! On the publishing end, Austen has many setbacks and her perseverance and belief in her work will always inspire me to carry on despite the odds. That she refused the proposal of a rich man and chose to live life as a single woman and writer fills me with awe. I have to say that as Charlotte Lucas marries Elizabeth Bennet’s rejected suitor in Pride and Prejudice, so in Unmarriageable, my namesake character is the girlfriend of the man Austen refused in real life.
SM: Unmarriageable is set in Pakistan with predominantly Muslim characters. Did you feel any burden of representation, especially since it was published in the West?
SK: No, meaning I did not think ‘The West is going to be reading Unmarriageable and so it is now my duty to write only angelic Muslim characters or monsters.” My job as a good writer is to write a fully realized world and characters without any authorial agenda catering to any reader’s expectations—Western or Eastern. Jane Austen’s father was a Reverend. All of Austen’s novels have clergymen, and she merrily exposes their self-righteousness as she does other less obviously religious characters. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collins is a clergyman and a pompous, self-serving one at that. However there is no representative man or woman of the mosque in Unmarriageable. Instead, all my characters have different degrees of religiosity which is very much the case in Pakistan, where the same family can have members who pray the mandatory five times a day while others may just pray once or not at all. One of the tenets in Islam is that ‘there is no compulsion in religion’ and that ultimately everything is between you and God. This is the philosophy Unmarriageable is set in. As in Austen, everyone in Unmarriageable has their flaws, the religious, the not-so religious, and the non-religious. Unmarriageable also reflects Pakistan’s religious diversity and one of the married couples in the novel are Muslim and Christian. Of course, it’s important to remember that there is no one monolithic representation of Islam and that the practice of any religion is often influenced by the culture in which it resides. Pakistan’s Islam is very different from that of Saudi Arabia’s. And the Islam practiced in an immigrant community, in say, the U.S., is different from community to community. To bring up my favorite quote: ‘There is a no single story’.
SM: I’ve seen Unmarriageable on different must-read lists and categories—everything from Literary fiction, Women’s fiction, Sisters/family fiction, Gay/Lesbian fiction, Romance, Book Club fiction—but how do ‘you’ define it? Ultimately, do you see Unmarriageable as a love story?
SK: I’m so happy to see how many different categories and genres Unmarriageable fits into, which I translate as something for every reader. I’m hard pressed to think of any novel that doesn’t have some element of a love story in it, and not one necessarily between two lovers. There are love stories between humans and nature and humans and animals, etc. As such, Unmarriageable also has a love story, as does Pride and Prejudice. However, I don’t think Austen was really all that interested in love stories as the main focus of her novels. In fact, she glosses over the proposals and doesn’t elaborate over any weddings. Instead hers are satires which concentrate on exposing the follies and foibles of class and status, snootiness and self-righteousness, individual desire versus community mandates. I am interested in all the same.
SM: Since Unmarriageable was published this January, it has received much praise and attention. In fact, it has been hard to keep up with all of your events. How has the response been and when can we see you and Unmarriageable here in the Bay Area?
SK: The response has been so gratifying from readers everywhere from Pakistanis and non-Pakistanis, from Austen fans or those who don’t know Pride and Prejudice or any Austen at all. I’ve had Austen lovers refer to Unmarriageable as their dream retelling and how it transported them back to the first time they read the original. Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian readers have written to tell me that this was the book they’ve been waiting to read all their life. I mean as authors we’re certainly not in this business because we want to be rich or famous, but rather because even touching one reader’s heart is enough of a reward, and so to hear these reactions to Unmarriageable is very humbling. One of the most unexpected is readers who tell me that they’ve never read Pride and Prejudice but that are going to because of Unmarriageable. I never imagined that my novel would be a gateway into Austen’s. I also narrated the audio version of Unmarriageable and what an unexpected treat that was. I’m just so grateful that Unmarriageable is resonating with so many people. I’ll be doing three events in California—Kepler’s Bookstore in Menlo Park (27th March), at Book Passage, Ferry Bldg (April 5th), and in San Diego (Adventures by the Book, 7th April).
Shikha Malaviya (www.shikhamalaviya.com) is an Indo-American poet and writer. Her book, Geography of Tongues, was featured in several literary festivals. Shikha is a co-founder of The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective, a mentorship model literary press dedicated to new poetic voices from India and the Indian diaspora. Her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and featured in PLUME, Prairie Schooner, Water~Stone Review & other fine journals. Shikha was a featured TEDx speaker in GolfLinks, Bangalore, where she gave a talk on poetry. She has been a three-time mentor for AWP’s Writer to Writer Mentorship Program & was selected as Poet Laureate of San Ramon, CA, 2016. She currently lives in the San Francisco Bay area.
This article was edited by Culture and Media editor Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D.