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Inquiring readers,

Unmarriageable new paperback edition cover

Unmarriageable, new paperback edition out on February 5

Soniah Kamal has written a fascinating version of Pride and Prejudice set in Pakistan, Unmarriageable. The book has become very popular in a wide variety of circles, and, almost a year after its appearance, the author is still busy meeting with book clubs and speaking at book festivals and conferences.

Soniah calls Unmarriageable a parallel retelling of Pride and Prejudice since it includes all the characters and plot points of the original book, albeit in a different setting. Elizabeth became Alysba Binat, an English literature teacher in a British School in Pakistan, and Darcy became Valentine Darsee, wealthy head of the British School Group.

I’ve read the book twice, and enjoyed it very much each time! I asked Soniah to tell us more about her book.

Brenda S. Cox: How have Jane Austen fans responded to Unmarriageable? I know you spoke about it to the Georgia chapter of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA).

Author Soniah Kamal, photo by Indus Kamal Wasti

Author Soniah Kamal, photo by Indus Kamal Wasti

Soniah Kamal: You know I’m a huge Jane Austen fan myself and I actually ran a special book club for all six novels during the 200th commemoration year, so I know Janeites and how revered Jane Austen is. Austen connoisseurs aren’t hesitant about expressing their opinion when they don’t like something, and so I really wondered how Unmarriageable would be received, considering what I’d set out to do. My first taste was at the Georgia JASNA meeting for which they’d decided to read Unmarriageable and I was going to be interviewed. I was so nervous when I saw the full room and then, when I stepped in, everyone stood up and clapped, and I realized I’d been holding my breath–that validation was really, really gratifying and the best endorsement. Some of the members told me that they’d been hesitant to read Unmarriageable because they weren’t very fond of takes on Austen’s novels, but that they loved Unmarriageable.

I think Unmarriageable has resonated so amazingly with Janeites because they’re reading it for Jane Austen, they know Pride and Prejudice, and so when I mention real characters like Harris Bigg-Wither and Thomas Fowle, they get it. When I discuss Jane Austen in Unmarriageable, it’s fun and extra. They see the little inside jokes. When I bring up that Darcy’s wet T-shirt scene is not in the novel, they appreciate that stuff–it’s like diving into a really rich cake for them, I think.

One of the loveliest things I’ve heard so far from Janeites is that in reading Unmarriageable, because it is a parallel retelling, it’s as if they are reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time and it’s bringing back all their joy in reading Austen for the first time. So that was lovely unexpected feedback. And then another one was that readers who have never read Pride and Prejudice or Austen have picked up Unmarriageable, and then they are going to read Pride and Prejudice through that. Never did I think that my book would be a gateway for readers to get to Pride and Prejudice; I always thought obviously it would be the other way around.

Soniah at the Jane Austen Summer Program in North Carolina

Soniah at the Jane Austen Summer Program in North Carolina

Since the Georgia JASNA meeting, I’ve been invited by the Northern California JASNA Chapter to deliver Jane Austen’s Birthday Toast, and I spoke at the Jane Austen Summer Program in North Carolina. I will be the 2020 Keynote Speaker at the Jane Austen Festival in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as a featured Plenary Panelist at the 2020 JASNA AGM in Cleveland.

If you are a Janeite you will get a lot of the “Easter eggs” and inside jokes in Unmarriageable, and if you’re not, it’s a stand-alone novel in its own right.

Brenda: What kind of “Easter eggs” will Janeites discover in Unmarriageable?

Soniah: In Unmarriageable I put Easter eggs in for all the novels. So the quote which opens Unmarriageable is itself a variation of Austen’s opening sentence in Pride and Prejudice as well a nod to the beginning of Mansfield Park. Mansfield Park opens with three sisters and the directions their lives take based on who they marry, and so Unmarriageable opens with: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a girl can go from pauper to princess or princess to pauper in the mere seconds it takes for her to accept a proposal.” In Unmarriageable, the discussion about books from the Western and Eastern traditions is a nod to Northanger Abbey which I see as Austen’s book about books. Emma comes up because Valentine Darsee asks Alys who her favorite hero is and she says Mr. Knightley, and you’ll have to read Unmarriageable to find out why that’s so. Mr. Knightley is my favorite character, too. Persuasion comes through in my making Jena (Jane) and Alys (Elizabeth) older than Valentine Darsee (Darcy) and Bungles (Bingley). Sense and Sensibility is the most obvious, when Alys thinks that Bungles carrying Jena is like Willoughby carrying Marianne when Marianne slips. But she realizes that didn’t go well, because they did not enjoy a happy ending. I would have done Lady Susan and the rest also, but I thought, this could go on forever!

Brenda: Why a parallel retelling?

Unmarriageable, hardback cover

Unmarriageable, hardback cover

Soniah: As I say in the essay included with the novel, I needed to give myself an identity inclusive of both my Pakistani culture as well as the English language I grew up in, which is a linguistic legacy of Empire, of colonialism, and comes with all the complications of that. If I had written an “inspired-by” rather than a parallel, I would have had Jane divorced and with a kid, Lydia would have ended up not married and pregnant, I would have gone my own different way and allowed my characters to be different. But it wasn’t an inspired-by; my intent was to literally write Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan through a postcolonial lens. So the basic characters of each character are all the same, I didn’t deviate from anything. In fact, the challenge was how not to deviate from Pride and Prejudice and still make it my own. Let me tell you, on the face of it, it might seem simpler to write a parallel retelling, but really to stick within the boundaries of what your source material has given you was tough.

For those who don’t know Austen, a lot of them think any story where the main characters bicker is Pride and Prejudice, in which case everything on earth is Pride and Prejudice! What book or movie doesn’t have a romance, and where do the protagonists not bicker? I actually don’t think of Austen as a romance writer. None of her novels start out with boy meets girl, or end with proposals and elaborate marriage scenes per se. In fact, Austen glosses over both. She seems least bothered with love stories. For me, she’s a social satirist interested in exposing the hypocrisies and pretensions of her time and exploring the choices women, and even men, had and the lives women were able to fashion for themselves at a time when marriage was a financial necessity.

Brenda: Several of your characters are similar to, but somewhat different from, the original characters. Why did you choose to make Kaleen (Mr. Collins) a physician, rather than a clergyman like Mr. Collins? Perhaps he could have been a Muslim cleric?

Soniah: Islam has no clergy like in Christianity and each Muslim’s relationship is directly with God. However, there are mullahs who are schooled in Islam and the Quran. In Pakistan, traditionally the mullah class comes from the poorer, lower rungs of society and would not have been readily welcomed by the likes of Beena dey Bagh (Lady Catherine de Bourgh) into her drawing room. Therefore, it was a social class decision to make Kaleen a doctor who would be treating Annie (Anne de Bourgh) and therefore get an in with the family.

Brenda: Sherry Looclus (Charlotte Lucas), who marries Kaleen, seems to do much better in Unmarriageable than she does in Pride and Prejudice. Why is that?

Soniah: I think Charlotte deserves just as much respect as Elizabeth does, even though one marries Mr. Collins and one marries Darcy. Charlotte’s my favorite character because she’s really independent. I think Austen sometimes gives short shrift to Charlotte’s intelligence. Charlotte is very much a modern heroine for me, since she literally decides what is best for her life and then makes it happen. There’s one sentence in Pride and Prejudice where Charlotte sees Mr. Collins coming down the lane and she orchestrates accidentally running into him, but we don’t see the proposal, next thing we know they’re getting married. Charlotte’s made a huge decision by marrying Mr. Collins: she’s going to inherit Longbourn, she’s not languishing at her dad’s house, she’s dining with Lady De Bourgh; for her time period, given that she had could not work for an income, she’s made a wise choice for her life/financial security. At the end of Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte is pregnant, and I think that also shows a life that is moving on and not static like her life as an aging spinster at her father’s house had been. The first time I read Pride and Prejudice I was a teenager, and like most teenagers, friends and their opinions could matter so much. But even though Elizabeth is horrified at Charlotte’s marrying Mr. Collins, Charlotte is not swayed. She does not succumb to peer pressure. She knows her mind, she knows what is best for her, and she is not influenced by her friend. I admired that. Charlotte is one strong, practical, independent, progressive modern woman and I wanted to show the full extent of that in Unmarriageable.

As for Elizabeth and her choices within the time period, for us modern readers she comes across as wonderful. But for Austen’s time period she’s rather unpractical because she does not secure Longbourn for her family, or immediately marry the wealthy suitor who would have again secured a roof over her head for herself and her mother and sisters. As modern readers, we respect that Elizabeth says no to Darcy because he’s really pompous and full of himself and we respect that she doesn’t marry someone just because it’s practical and he’s wealthy; we appreciate that she has more important values than wealth. But in her time, that was being foolish, and her father was being very foolish, too. We like Mr. Bennet because he comes across as a strong dad who says my daughter will not marry Mr. Collins. But in the realities of their time, he’s just set his family up for destitution since, in the event of his death, he can’t afford to take care of them. As modern readers we’re really happy that Elizabeth marries for love and that Darcy’s money plays no part in it. However, as much as we like to think that money shouldn’t and doesn’t matter, imagine that there are two Mr. Darcys exactly alike; however, one has a lot of money and the other has none. Now, which Darcy would you advise Elizabeth to marry? In Mansfield Park, Austen offers a window into the prospects of marrying into different financial classes through choices Lady Bertram, Mrs. Norris and Mrs. Price make.

Brenda: Yes, if Darcy had been poor, Elizabeth might have ended up like Fanny Price’s parents in Mansfield Park, marrying for love and ending in poverty. You said earlier that the opening of Unmarriageable was like Mansfield Park. In Unmarriageable, Alys and Jena’s father, Bark Binat, has married beneath him and fallen on hard times, while his brother married well and is wealthy. How is that like Mansfield Park?

Soniah: It’s the princess and pauper quote above, a direct nod to Mansfield Park since in the opening of Mansfield Park we see three sisters who marry Sir Thomas Bertram, Mr. Norris the clergyman, and Lieutenant Price. One marries wealth, one stability, one squalor. But Austen in those first paragraphs of Mansfield Park captures the traditional state of women across time, and even today for many from traditional cultures where a man is expected to fulfill his traditional role of paying the bills, etc. Who you marry is often going to determine whether you end up vacationing at all, and whether it will be in France or the beach in Destin (laughing). It’s that simple. Of course, now we have the modern complication of women being able to afford their own vacations, and thankfully that makes a big difference in our choices.

Mansfield Park also gets into religion, Edmund who’s going to be a clergyman, and Mary doesn’t think that’s good, and Edmund gives Fanny a cross to wear. It’s Austen’s most religious novel. And it really goes deeply into her values and ethics. Mansfield Park is my favorite novel just because she dives deeply into the meaning of family in that novel. She really skewers family values in Mansfield Park. It’s her grimmest and most realistic novel. But even within Mansfield Park there’s so much humor.

Brenda: In an essay at the end of your book, you tell us, “I first immersed myself in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice when I was sixteen years old. As interesting as its marriage plot was, I was spellbound, rather, by Austen’s social criticism and how it was conveyed through her pithy wit. Here was a centuries-old English writer who may as well have been writing about contemporary Pakistani society. . . . I wanted to write a novel that paid homage to Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice, as well as combined my braided identification with English-language and Pakistani culture, so that the ‘literature of others’ became the literature of everyone. Therefore, Unmarriageable.”

Soniah: Thank you, Brenda. The paperback edition of Unmarriageable (out Feb 5th) includes an updated version of that essay, as well as essays on how the fictional setting of Dilipabad got its name, why I named the characters as I did, questions for book clubs and more.

Brenda: Thank you, Soniah, for sharing your world with us, in a way that any Jane Austen fan can enjoy!

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Image of Brenda Cox

Brenda S. Cox

Brenda S. Cox also loves Jane Austen. She is a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA). She has written articles for its magazine, Persuasions On-Line, and presented at its national conference as well as regional meetings. She has done extensive research for her current work-in-progress, a nonfiction book entitled Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England. Follow her on Facebook or on her blog, Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen.

Follow Soniah Kamal on: Instagram Twitter FB www.soniahkamal.com

Unmarriageable: Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice in Pakistan, a novel–available everywhere. order

2020 Townsend Prize Finalist

A 2019 Book All Georgians Should Read

Financial Times: A 2019 Best Book Pick

NPR Code Switch 2019 Summer Read Pick

A New York Public Library Summer 2019 Reads Pick

BoobBub A 2019 Best Book

Library Reads Pick, January 2019

STARRED Review Publishers Weekly “must-read for devout Austenites.

STARRED Review Shelf Awareness “If Jane Austen lived in modern-day Pakistan, this is the version of Pride and Prejudice she might have written

STARRED Review Library Journal “enlightening and entertaining

An Isolated Incident, a novel–coming in the UK, July, 2020.

Townsend Award Finalist

KLF French Fiction Prize Finalist

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