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Soniah Kamal

Q&A: Author Soniah Kamal on her new novel, Jane Austen and colonial legacy

“Reading parented me,” says Georgia-based writer Soniah Kamal. Indeed, it was “everything” to the author and essayist, who’s scheduled to speak at the Broadleaf Writers Conference on September 21–22. Kamal was born in Pakistan and received her education at an international school in Saudi Arabia, where she sought refuge in the library, its shelves stocked with global fiction and folktales, titles from all around the world. 

Kamal was introduced to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice when she was 16 and was immediately “smitten by feisty Elizabeth,” enamored with the love story between Bennet and Mr. Darcy. Years later, in 2019, she would alchemize this love of Austen’s classic tale with her childhood in Pakistan and the reality of modern Muslim women at the turn of the 21st century. 

The result was Kamal’s Unmarriageable: Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan, a modern-day retelling of the English tale that “Islamizes” the characters, situations and cultural context of Austen’s story while staying as true as possible to the original narrative. Since its January publication, Unmarriageable has been named a Financial Times Readers Best Book of 2019, a New York Public Library Summer 2019 Pick and an Amazon Best Books Pick, and garnered praise from the likes of NPR, People Magazine and Publisher’s Weekly. 

In advance of fall events, which include giving the keynote address at the Red Clay Writers Conference in November, Kamal spoke with ArtsATL about Judy Blume, the universality of women’s lives and the “linguistic legacy of colonialism.” 

ArtsATL: What role did reading play in your life growing up? What was the first book you remember really moving you?

Soniah Kamal: The first book that moved me in an unexpected way was the novel Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery. It contained my first literary death. The sweet, gentle character Matthew Cuthbert dies of a heart attack because the banks fail. I cried for him as if my own grandfather had passed away. Talk about the universality of literature to cut across differences and build empathy.

Then there was Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. Blume and this novel gave me the courage to fight for the right to wear a bra. In college, my seminal novel was Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. I did my undergraduate thesis on A Suitable Boy and wrote letters from the voices of the three main characters, an act that informed my own opinions about suitability. Then there was the Langston Hughes poem “A Dream Deferred” and Anne Sexton’s poetry. Books continue to parent me.

ArtsATL: What was the impetus for writing “Unmarriageable: Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan?”

Kamal: There were a few reasons I wanted to do a parallel retelling — meaning Unmarriageable includes every plot point, and all the characters are present — of Austen’s classic novel. I first read Pride and Prejudice when I was 16, and though I was smitten by feisty Elizabeth and the butting-heads love story between she and Darcy, it was Austen’s ability to capture her characters’ hypocrisies and double standards that I fell in love with. Austen may as well have been writing about the Pakistani drawing rooms I found myself in. Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Wickham, Charlotte Lucas, Catherine de Bourgh — I lived amongst exactly such people, and in my essay at the end of the novel, I talk about how Austen’s wit and ability to skewer pretentions were a balm to me. I wanted to pay homage to the healing that came to me from her satire and comedy.

The other big reason for a parallel retelling was colonialism and Thomas Babington Macaulay’s 1835 address to British Parliament proposing his creation of confused people/identities, a policy that was implemented across the British Empire. At the Unmarriageable launch at Elliott Bay Book Co. in Seattle, Professor Nalini Iyer said that “Unmarriageable is Macaulay’s nightmare,” and that was gratifying to hear. Unmarriageable is to reorient, remap colonial legacy in a postcolonial world and reclaim identity. 

I say above how literature is universal and can cut across differences and build empathy. However, while here I was a brown adolescent crying for the white Canadian Matthew Cuthbert, there was no equivalent because there were no novels in English set in Pakistan, at least back then. So there were no white Canadian girls (or any readers) crying over elderly brown men who might as well be their grandfathers too. That dearth of cross-universalism certainly struck me, and Unmarriageable is, I suppose, a result of that too.    

ArtsATL: You took on one of the most classic and retold tales in all of literature with “Unmarriageable.” Why was it important to you for a book like that to exist? What was that unique thing you were wanting to interrogate in the retelling, and how did setting it in Pakistan better lend itself to that retelling? 

Kamal will deliver the keynote at November’s Red Clay Writers Conference.

Kamal: For the very reason that Unmarriageable is a parallel retelling and not an “inspired by” or a continuation. A novel like Unmarriageable was vital for me simply in order to remap and reorient the linguistic legacy of colonialism and the British curriculum many of us grew up with. 

As I elaborate in the essay included with the novel, I really needed to give myself an identity inclusive of both my Pakistani culture as well as the English language I grew up in. As such, Unmarriageable also delves into the thematic connections between books from the Eastern and Western canons, what I call analogous literature — so, for example, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s “Sultana’s Dream” with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland.

I also wanted to give voice [to] and explore secondary characters such as Anne de Bourgh, who is silent throughout Pride and Prejudice, and Charlotte Lucas. The first time I read Charlotte, I wondered how she felt marrying her best friend’s reject and whether Mr. Collin’s proposal was a repeat of his to Elizabeth. Austen does not tell us, and I wanted to fill in gaps such as these for myself. Pakistan is of course not Regency Britain. In the Regency and Victorian eras, most women could not work and therefore had to literally wed for stability and financial security. In contemporary Pakistan, women are highly educated and enjoy careers from medicines to engineering, to law, to business, to army, to sports, to modeling, to teaching, to politics, etc. Yet the emphasis on marriage and motherhood remains.

Recasting Austen’s classic in a Pakistani setting was to also showcase the universalities of women’s lives across time, as well as take a look at contemporary women in a culture where they often straddle the divide between self-autonomy and traditional duties.

ArtsATL: Did your perception of Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice change at all in the writing of the book?

Kamal: It made me realize all the more what a master of human nature Austen was, as well as a wonderful storyteller with her plots being so well-wound and her characters so well-wrought. 

Elizabeth Bennet, as usual, continues to fascinate, from her agreeing with her mother that sending Jane to Netherfield on horseback is a good idea, and her sly reply — “I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley” — to Jane’s question about when she began liking Mr. Darcy. I noticed all the more how little Austen describes clothes and setting in her work, or preaches. 

Her novels appeal to the modern sensibility because of their brisk pacing and because she allows readers their own moral conclusions rather than preaching. I call Austen Jane Khala, Aunt Jane in Urdu, that wise aunt who looks out for you, and Alys does in Unmarriageable too.

ArtsATL: How does Unmarriageable fit into your larger body of work? If there was a thread that ran through all of your books, short fiction and essays, what would it be?

Kamal: I think one distinct thread would be to counter the cultural perception that parents know best. While many things such as divorce have become acceptable to talk about in Pakistan, the role of parents pushing their daughters and even sons towards sad decisions for the good of society remains unspoken because criticizing parents/relatives is still taboo, since one has to show a unified family front. It’s in the same vein as not speaking ill of the dead. Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park is my favorite because she really peels back the veils of perfect families and well-wishing relatives.

ArtsATL: What events do you have coming up? Where can fans and readers in Georgia go to connect with you, hear you do a reading or participate in a Q&A?

Kamal: I can be heard loud and clear talking to Georgia’s own Virginia Prescott on GPB’s On Second Thought. For September events, I’ll be discussing Unmarriageable at the Women Alone Together program as well as the Broadleaf Writers Conference. In November, I’ll be delivering the keynote address at the Red Clay Writers Conference. I’m on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and always happy to hear from readers through my website, where readers can also connect with me for book clubs. My motto is ask me anything!