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Pride and Prejudice Set in Pakistan: an Interview with Unmarriageable author Soniah Kamal

I know very few readers, especially women, who don’t have a special place in their heart for Jane Austen’s work. Perhaps few authors can develop the kind of cult following that Austen has enjoyed over the years.

Love for Austen’s classic encouraged Pakistani born author Soniah Kamal to reinterpret Pride and Prejudice in modern day Pakistan, giving readers insight into the culture, as well as showing another side of Austen. The result is Unmarriageable, which made me think deeply, as well as laugh.

I caught up with Kamal to chat about her new book and why Jane Austen is still such a staple, especially for single women.

Tell me about your book?

I describe it as a story about five sisters, their friends, frenemies and enemies and too many marriage obsessed mothers, set in contemporary Pakistan where drinking chai seems the national pastime and eating good food a full-fledged sport.

What gave you the idea of setting Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan? What were you particularly interested in exploring there?

As soon as I finished reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time at age sixteen, I knew I wanted to set it in Pakistan. In Pakistan I studied in an English medium school system meaning I studied British literature and for fun read Enid Blyton, a hugely prolific British author, as known to post colonial kids of a certain era as J.K. Rowling is to kids these days. I also attended an International School in Saudi Arabia for a while which had a library with a wide selection of books. I read Judy Blume, S.E. Hinton, L.M. Montgomery, etc. As such, I was eager to read stories which reflected my own culture, however there were no stories set in Pakistan in English for kids that I was aware of. It became second nature for me to convert what I was reading into ‘Pakistan’, so scones would turn into chicken patties and ginger beer into R. C. Cola. In retrospect, wanting to reset Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan was quite normal for me. The concerns in Austen’s classic comedy of manners such the importance of social status, keeping up appearances, marrying well for both men and women though the criteria is different, are still very much reflected in contemporary Pakistan and I wanted to explore these more fully.

What do you think makes Jane Austen and her work still so beloved and relevant for today?

Jane Austen is a very modern writer. She doesn’t get bogged down by preaching or authorial asides. Her novels are fast paced and the way she captures social absurdities is so funny and that keeps her beyond relevant today. Look around you anywhere and you will recognize one of her creations. Austen is still one of the most astute observers of human nature ever and I’m sure she would have made a fantastic psychologist. Each of her novels is about women, the choices they make and the way they navigate relationships with each other.

Pride and Prejudice, and Jane Austen’s work in general, have long been favorites of single women. Why do you think that is, and what are you hoping your book brings to those readers and that discussion?

Jane Austen’s novels are favorites of many and not just single women. I really admire the fact that Austen chose to stay single. One evening she was proposed to by a rich man, Harris Bigg-Wither, but the next morning she said no. In Austen’s time, women of her particular class had few options to earn their own living other than being a governess really, a prospect Austen tells us is not that lovely as per Jane Fairfax in Emma, and so for her to have refused the financial security Mr. Bigg would have offered is a big deal. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet refuses two proposals and I think women everywhere love her for saying no to just marrying anyone for the sake of marriage. In Regency England, as in contemporary Pakistan, marriages were arranged on criteria other than love, so to have her heroines hold out for love was bold and brave. Unmarriageable has a heroine who is not only adamant that she does not want to marry simply for the title of ‘Mrs.’ but also that she doesn’t want to have children. I think while our world has begun to accept single women, we are still taken aback by women who do not want to be mothers.

As you send your book into the world, what are you hoping for your readers?

To bring a smile to their faces as well as forge connections across cultures, countries, readers worldwide. After all, as much as we read books by ourselves, the whole purpose is to step into someone else’s shoes and live a different life through the pages. This particular quote from Unmarriageable sums it up and is resonating with readers everywhere “O’Connor, Austen, Alcott, Wharton. Characters’ emotions and situations are universally applicable across cultures, whether you’re wearing an empire dress, shalwar kurta, or kimono.”

Cara Strickland writes about food and drink, mental health, faith and being single from her home in the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys hot tea, good wine, and deep conversations. She will always want to play with your dog. Connect with her on Twitter @anxiouscook.