By ANISAH ARIF
An award-winning essayist and fiction writer is launching her new novel based on Jane Austen’s characters from Pride and Prejudice and transporting them to Pakistan.
Soniah Kamal, whose second novel, Unmarriageable: Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan, comes out on January 2015, is a distinct Jane Austen retelling set in the Muslim setting of early 2000s Pakistan.
Soniah’s previous novel, An Isolated Incident, was a finalist for the Townsend Prize for Fiction and the KLF French Fiction Prize. Her work has appeared in many publications including the New York Times, The Guardian, Literary Hub, The Huffington Post and Buzzfeed. She was born in Pakistan, grew up in England and Saudi Arabia and currently resides in Georgia in the US.
Soniah Kamal told the Asian Sunday about why she chose Jane Austen’s book to transform the characters: “Growing up, there were no novels in English set in Pakistan and I used to imagine everything I read terms of my Pakistani culture and upbringing. I read Pride and Prejudice when I was sixteen years old. I immediately knew I wanted to do a parallel retelling one day.
“Jane Austen called Pride and Prejudice her ‘light, bright and sparkling’ novel and it is a delightful tale, but it is also the story of a mother desperate to see her five unmarried daughters married-well and that seemed very Pakistani to me”.
Unmarriageable describes a truth universally acknowledged by modern-day Pakistan, when a family’s fortune is destroyed by scandal and rumour, they must look to their daughters to marry well.
The story follows Alys Binat, who loves life as it is: teaching English literature and encouraging her female students to aspire to more than society expects of them. She is resolute: she will not marry. However, her mother thinks differently and when the family receive an invite to a big wedding, Mrs Binat immediately coaches her daughters to snag rich, eligible bachelors. There, Alys’s eldest sister, Jena, catches the eye of Fahad ‘Bungles’ Bingla, a successful entrepreneur.
Soniah was born in Pakistan, but grew up in England. The concept of marrying into a wealthy family has been associated with Pakistani culture for a long time. However, if this is still regarded in modern-day Pakistan, Soniah says: “In Unmarriageable, my Elizabeth Bennet character, Alys Binat, talks about Pakistani dramas where girls from the lower middle class, in fact all classes, are fed fantasies of marrying into rich families if the girls are good and pure.
“As long as rich and wealthy families are presented as the supreme prize, that concept may well remain. Arranged marriage depends on marrying into the same people, class and income level, or better. As such, some people may seek marrying into very rich and wealthy families while others want to avoid financial hardships by preferring men who are ‘established’ and ‘settled’ career wise.
“Thankfully women in Pakistan today can earn their own livelihood and no longer need to marry, or stay in abusive relationships, simply for financial stability. Unmarriageable takes place in 2000-2001, my Charlotte Lucas is a school teacher, and it was quite a challenge finding a reason for her to yet marry a Mr. Collins”.
Since the growth of literature, film, drama and pop culture, and especially TV Dramas, programmes like Humsafar or Zindagi Gulzar Hai, can go a long way in changing attitudes. Pakistani born, Mrs Kamal says:
“Dramas are very popular in Pakistan across all classes and we should really see an end to fare like Humsafar or Zindagi Gulzar Hai or Digest Writer where smart, economically empowered women are never-the-less rewarded only if they endure abuse and agree to live life as pretty dolls who also happen to earn well.
“Secondly, Pakistan is a family oriented culture where a happy marriage is not only dependent on the compatibility between the bride and groom but also their families. Thus we see such a prevalence of cousin marriages since, presumably, the families already get along. Love matches threaten this status quo since you can ‘fall’ in love with someone from a different religion, or race, or from a lower class and we need more stories where taking such risks are celebrated”.
On the era of women empowerment and equality, Soniah tells us there have been many improvements in women having the choice in selecting their spouse. She says: “Economic independence has given women a lot more autonomy in how they want to live their life. Financial autonomy has also allowed many women to leave marriages and file for divorce which has, in turn, helped erode the stigma divorce once was.
“However, as in all things in Pakistan, so much depends on what class you belong to and, within that class, what sort of family. A rich family does not necessarily mean progressive anymore than a poor or religious one automatically means conservative. In Pakistan there is certainly no ‘single story’”.
Soniah is the recipient of the Susan B.Irene Award from St. Johns College where she graduated with a BA Honours in Liberal Arts. She was awarded a Paul Bowles Fiction Fellowship from Georgia State University where she earned a MFA in Creative Writing. Soniah is a member of the National Books Critics Circle, PEN America and the Jane Austen Society of North America and serves as a Jane Austen Literacy Ambassador.
The novel is being released on the 15th January for £14.99 by PenguinRandomHouse Books.