By Sonya Rehman
Since her debut novel, An Isolated Incident (published in 2014), US-based Pakistani author, Soniah Kamal, is currently gearing up for her forthcoming book – Unmarriageable – an endearing re-telling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. But here’s the twist: it’s set in contemporary Pakistan and no, it has nothing to do with bombs and bullets.
Slated for release in January, 2019, by Penguin Random House (USA), the award-winning writer reveals that she had dreamed of penning a Pakistani version of the beloved novel since she was sixteen-years-old. “Partly because I love this story of five sisters, their ineffectual father and desperate mother who just wants her daughters to ‘settle down’ (so Pakistani); but also because, growing up in a post-colonial country in an English school system, I really longed to read fiction that reflected my world and so without realizing it, I was following Toni Morrison’s advice to write what you want to read,” Kamal says.
Revolving around the Binat family, particularly the story’s protagonist, Alys, who takes a shine to a snooty gentleman called Valentine Darsee, Kamal’s story seems to have all the ingredients that make Pride and Prejudice’s re-telling an exciting, dramatic and fun South Asian adaptation complete with big, fat desi weddings, modern Pakistani women, affluent bachelors and the unrelenting quest for love.
“A faithful re-telling is actually much harder than I thought it would be because you have to stay within the boundaries set by the original,” Kamal responds when asked about her challenges while writing Unmarriageable, “Also finding equivalents for plot points was extremely challenging. For instance in Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet sends Jane to Netherfield Park in the rain hoping that she will be invited to spend the night (a ruse Elizabeth actually agrees with in Pride and Prejudice). Unmarriageable is set in 2000-2001, and there is absolutely no reason in a world of cars, drivers [and public transport] that my Jane would have to stay overnight anywhere. So I had to find a valid reason to get her to stay at a place where my Bingley’s presence would also make sense. With this eureka moment, I truly celebrated!”
Another hurdle for the author was her audience. Mentioning that while her “ideal” audience for Unmarriageable were readers familiar with the works of Jane Austen, in addition to those unacquainted with Pride and Prejudice, Kamal states; “The challenge of doing a retelling (versus an ‘inspired by’) in order to satisfy Jane Austen fans is that you have to hit all the beats in the plot as well as stay true to the essence of each of the characters. But then for readers who are not coming for Austen, you have to write a story that stands on its own legs. Setting it in Pakistan meant writing for those familiar with the culture and those new to it. Writing Unmarriageable was a real juggling act.”
While a considerable number of new Pakistani authors have landed book deals overseas, particularly in India, perhaps one criticism has been the perpetual ‘exoticization of the East’ by local readers. However, does the formula continue to work in contemporary South Asian fiction today?
“In my first novel, which has large swathes set in American suburbia, my Pakistani-Kashmiri-Muslim family eats a lot of pizza. After an American editor asked me if this could possibly be true, I wrote an essay about authenticity and ethnicity and how and why it took me four months to decide whether to mention a mango in the novel. I eventually concluded by taking back my right to fearlessly describe Pakistani culture in any way that made sense within the story. If it’s summer, my character will be eating a mango,” Kamal replies, “Why should I replace that mango just because someone will accuse me of ‘catering to the West?’ I don’t think it’s ever a formula per se that is employed by any writers worth their ink. Writers write, I believe, according to their individual style and voice. I live in the American South – should Southern writers not use slavery, magnolias, and sweet tea any more than I should forgo the 1947 partition, mangoes and chai?”