Jenna Brillhart, HelloGiggles

Jane Austen goes to Pakistan in Soniah Kamal’s Unmarriageable

September 23, 2019 11:00 am

There’s an abundance (some would say surplus) of adaptations and pastiches of Pride and Prejudice, including one with zombies, but Soniah Kamal’s Unmarriageable—which she terms a parallel retelling—is as fresh and tempting as a new-baked samosa. This double delight, equally to be savored for its faithfulness to Jane Austen’s plot as well as for the details of its unusual setting (modern Pakistan), provides a witty, insightful take on the lives and loves of young women in contemporary South Asia. At a friend’s wedding, English teacher Alys Binat meets America-educated Darsee, and the two immediately fall into mistrust. Though they gradually bond over their shared passion for books and more, the class differences between them seem insurmountable; Darsee’s aunt owns the chain of schools where Alys works. Moreover, Alys is tan, sports a mop of short curls rather the de rigueur South Asian silky mane, doesn’t hesitate to air her opinions, and is older than Darsee—all fatal flaws when it comes to prospective Pakistani brides. This book is no less fun and rewarding for knowing how it’ll all end.

Georgia-based author Soniah Kamal and I spoke about taking on the task of an Austen retelling, writing in a language introduced by the colonizer, the connections Pakistanis have with America and Europe, about where Alys and Darsee might find themselves today, 18 years after their marriage.

HelloGiggles: It’s remarkable how fluidly Unmarriageable parallels Austen’s 1813 novel—the fit in terms of plot, characters, and setting feels entirely organic. Tell us about writing a novel set in contemporary Pakistan while retaining Austen’s sensibility.

Soniah Kamal: Doing a parallel retelling, the only one to date, was very challenging. Contemporary Pakistan is of course not Jane Austen’s Regency England. In Austen’s time, women could not own property (something we see in Downtown Abbey too), and the only “respectable” job available to women of Austen’s class was that of governess. In today’s Pakistan, women from all classes can work. Hilima in Unmarriageable is the Binat’s Girl-Friday. The elder two Bennet sisters are school teachers, as is Charlotte Lucas. My Bingley sisters have a sanitary napkin company. My Catherine de Burgh owns a chain of schools. Mrs. Gardiner runs a home bakery. Many of the women in Unmarriageable are financially supporting the men in their lives. In Pakistan, women are CEOs, doctors, engineers, pilots, in the army and police force, and sports players. So it was not easy to write a parallel retelling; after all, why would any Charlotte Lucas earning her own income want to marry a Mr. Collins?

Unfortunately, the pressure to marry in Pakistan remains high. The ideal status for a woman remains that of wife and mother, except now, men look for highly educated wives even if they have no intention of “allowing” them to work after marriage. Women who choose to remain single or divorce are viewed with a skewed eye. I wanted to discuss this arcane pressure in a modern world and channeling it through Austen’s razor sharp comedy of manners seemed the perfect vehicle.

HG: You do tweak some of the minor characters’ arcs—Anne de Burgh in your version isn’t sour and sickly, while Mr. Bennett has an epiphany of sorts about his daughters and wife. How did you decide the degree of writerly latitude you could take with the original work?

SK: Unmarriageable is not a loosely based by Pride and Prejudice, or just inspired by it, or a continuation, or Austenesque simply because the romantic pair bicker. Unmarriageable is a parallel retelling meaning that it hits all the plot points of Pride and Prejudice. I set it in Pakistan because that is literally the novel I’d always wanted to read, and as per Toni Morrison, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it”. Since I’d decided to comply with the plot, I allowed myself to give all the secondary and minor characters full lives and agency. For instance, Austen doesn’t tell us how Mr. Collins proposes to Charlotte, and I’d always wonder if he’d used the exact same words he used to propose to Elizabeth. So in Unmarriageable, we see what may have been. Anne de Burgh is voiceless in Pride and Prejudice—she literally does not say a word—and in Unmarriageable, I gave her a voice and an identity.

Ballantine Books

HG: One of the central themes in Unmarriageable is the colonized country’s relationship with the colonizer’s literature. The British came to the Indian sub-continent loaded with contempt for the local inhabitants and their literature. You quote Lord Macaulay, who shaped much of British Empire’s policy towards the Indian sub-continent and infamously said, “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” Yet English is part of South Asian heritage, and is the currency of upward mobility and privilege.

SK: At the Unmarriageable launch at Elliot Bay Book Company in Seattle, Professor Nalini Iyer said that “Unmarriageable is Macaulay’s nightmare.” Absolutely true. In fact, one of Unmarriagable’s epigraphs is a quote from Macaulay’s 1835 address to Parliament proposing the creation of “confused brown people,” and I also end with him in the essay accompanying the novel. I love Jane Austen’s social satire. As far as Macaulay was concerned, for a brown person, that love should be enough. Instead, I took Pride and Prejudice and reoriented it, making the classic universally South Asian, and in particular Pakistani. I don’t think the British novel could get any more Pakistani.

At the California launch, a woman of Pakistani descent who’d studied in English medium schools stated that she was torn between the English language she’d grown up in and her Pakistani culture and was trying to find a local identity in the language of the colonizer. Unmarriageable is exactly that identity. How do you incorporate an identity which is thrust upon you, without resentment? For me, the colonizers came but so did their departure, and with it Pakistan became a sovereign nation. At the time, Pakistan made English one of its official languages and, as far as I’m concerned, English is as Pakistani a language as any other. After saying as much, I told the woman, “English is yours. Embrace it. It’s okay.” That said, I’m very aware of how English and a good accent have become the lingua franca of opportunity and status in Pakistan, and this class signifier is a huge theme in the novel too.

HG: As a South Asian living in America, I’m fascinated by the way the characters interact with America. Desirable Darcy has finished his MBA in Atlanta, while Bingley’s parents live in California. A connection with America is a matter of prestige—familiarity with American slang is a marker of class, while Alys’s nephew’s admission to Cornell raises the family’s social standing tremendously. And yet, America is seen as a place of dangerous ideas. Alys’s reading list for her students, which features the likes of Sandra Cisneros and Toni Morrison, is considered by the principal to be too radical. It seems like there’s a very specific degree of Americanization that is considered “acceptable” in young Asian (Muslim) women?

SK: “Desirable Darcy”—lol, not according to Elizabeth! I have lived in Pakistan, England, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S., and it was important for me to show how Pakistanis, across the class spectrum, have a connection with abroad. Some go for work opportunities, others for education, others to perform Hajj in Saudi Arabia, and still others for vacations, be it Thailand, Dubai, Malaysia, Singapore, America, Canada, Australia, Germany, Norway, England. It’s not just prestige alone (though how frequently you can fly to Europe for a weekend getaway may well be) but really just the way a vast number of Pakistanis live. If you yourself don’t live abroad, then you have family or friends who do and this is reflected in the lives of most of the characters, both main and walk-ons. In Unmarriageable, I gave my own background of being a third culture kid (i.e. growing up in a culture other than your parents, in my case Jeddah) to my Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth. I think instead of an “Americanization” that is considered acceptable or prestigious or risqué, it’s rather how boldly and bravely a girl is willing to live her life according to her own wishes, which is of course a subversion that transcends all countries and cultures in myriad ways.

HG: Talking about girls (not) living their lives as they want, Mrs. Binat’s instructions to her daughters on finding potential husbands include, “Keep your distance without keeping your distance. Let him caress you without coming anywhere near you. Coo sweet somethings into his ears without opening your mouth.” This isn’t a matter of striking the right balance, but an impossible task for young women!

SK: Isn’t it? And yet in certain cultures we’re supposed to be beguiling even as we are told to be demure and submissive. This gives rise to a lot of confusions and contradictions. For instance, a guy smiles at a girl and she’s plunged into thinking, “If I smile back, will I come across as too forward? Should I frown to show how pure I am?” In purity cultures, everything is open to being misconstrued and Pakistan is a culture where being paak, pure, is important. Of course, so many rules depend on the class and within that the family you come from. In Unmarriageable, we see my Charlotte Lucas being evaluated for marriage at a ‘look-see’ while my Lydia Bennet is constantly slut shamed for things another culture would deem perfectly respectable behavior for a fifteen-, sixteen-year-old.

HG: You’ve set the story in 2000-2001, but interestingly, the plot doesn’t mention 9/11. Can you tell us about that authorial choice?

SK: Austen is often critiqued for not bringing into her novels the politics of her time. She lived through the Napoleonic wars, had brothers in the navy, a cousin whose French aristocrat husband was guillotined, so she was very aware of the events du jour around her, only she chose not to use them in her plots. I wanted to give contemporary readers a sense of this as best as I could. In 2001, a major world event happens and, in fact, I end one of my sections in August 2001. Some readers might expect the world event to come up, if not play a major role, but it doesn’t and so it’s a way to experience this side of Austen too.

HG: There’s a scene where Darsee dismisses Alys as the sort of person who reads Reader’s Digest and Good Housekeeping, but then realizes she teaches English and that her knowledge of literature is far deeper than his. This episode reminds me of the sort of men who regard women’s fiction (and that includes Jane Austen!) with amused tolerance; as someone who reads across genres, it frustrates me no end that fiction that highlights women’s concerns tends to treated so dismissively.

SK: Unmarriageable is about class and status and privilege by birth, and acquired privilege, who gets to acquire how much and what exactly and is acquiring the equivalent of by birth. Darsee is certainly a reading snob while Alys is an equal-opportunity reader. This does not mean that she likes everything she reads or watches. Alys is pretty dismissive of Pretty Woman as well as Pakistani dramas, which have a tendency to be misogynistic, subconsciously teaching women that their correct roles are daughter, wife, mother and that, no matter how educated they are or what they earn or achieve, a good woman will always acquiesce with a man.

I’d be a millionaire for all the times I’ve heard men tell me they don’t want their wives to meet me because these “feminist” ideas of mine make me a bad influence. Fiction that highlights women’s issues is only less or dismissed when it’s written by women. I’m always bemused when male writers, let’s say Jonathan Franzen or John Updike, write about who will wash the dishes or change the diapers, or adultery, or grown children refusing to leave the nest, they are handed trophies and accolades versus when a woman writes about these issues. It’s like when a man cooks, it’s “ooh-aah,” but when a woman cooks the same dish, it’s, “Let me tell you how much salt you should have used.”

HG: I need to know: What are Darsee and Alys doing today, 18 years after the book ends upon their honeymoon?

SK: No idea, but here’s a guess! Darsee is probably hanging out with whomever his sister married, while Alys is taking her students to class trips abroad as well as enjoying running her chain of bookstores with Sherry [Charlotte Lucas]. Yes, they’re still friends, and Darsee and Alys are a cozy book club of two. Or they could be divorced. Who knows!