By Ashley Oldham
The Jane Austen Summer Program is happy to welcome Canadian author Uzma Jalaluddin to speak at this year’s symposium. Jalaluddin, who lives in a suburb north of Toronto with her husband and two sons, teaches high school and writes for the Toronto Star. Her debut novel, “Ayesha at Last,” is a modern-day Muslim adaptation of Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.” We got the chance to talk with her about her new novel and her love for Austen.
When did your love for Austen, and “Pride and Prejudice” in particular, first begin — are you a long-time fan or a more recent one?
I remember reading “Pride and Prejudice” for the first time. … I was around 15 or 16 years old, and I’ve always just been a voracious reader. I’ve always been hunting libraries and spent a lot of time in the stacks just finding new books to read. … Of course, Jane Austen is classic, so I picked up “Pride and Prejudice,” and I have to say, I remember the first time I read it. It’s a hard read for someone who is raised in North America — the language is a little bit old-fashioned, but the characters just gripped me. Once I got into the story, I loved it. Then I read all of Austen’s works. … But my favorite, of course, is “Pride and Prejudice” because it was my very first entry into Austen’s world.
What did you find either surprisingly simple or difficult about translating Austen’s work across both time and culture?
Like so many books out there, and especially the classics, there’s some universal themes that make them classics. They last for a reason. It’s not just because they’re historical examples — people read them and enjoy them for a reason. Partly, it’s the beautiful language. I’m a debut novelist, so I wasn’t really attempting to go for that level of expertise with the English language. What I wanted to capture was the interesting characters. Now the funny thing about my book is I didn’t set out to write a “Pride and Prejudice” remake. I just wanted to write a romantic comedy that featured Muslim characters because, so often times, people of color, and specifically marginalized communities, especially Muslim communities and others — we don’t really see our stories represented, and if we are represented, it’s always as victims or in unhappy stories. … I wanted to write something about people that I know, that is authentic and that really provides a nuanced view of how Muslims live their lives in North America. That was my goal. In the course of drafting it … a writer friend of mine read it and was like, “You know you’re writing ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ right?” Then I read my book again … and thought, “I can’t believe it.” Then I very consciously decided to lean into it, and I added the overt references to “Pride and Prejudice.”
Is “Ayesha at Last” based on a real location or community in Canada?
It is. It’s really inspired by the way that I grew up. It’s a suburb just east of Toronto called Scarborough. It’s this kind of very diverse suburb of people from literally all over the world. There’s neighborhood pockets. In this kind of melee, I grew up … and I was part of a mosque community. I just wanted to capture that, not so much from a religious point of view, but just that homey sense of belonging. That was part of the book that I really wanted to capture because I think people read Austen also for the homey, family undertones of it.
If you could have dinner with any Austen character, who would it be, and why?
I find Emma fascinating — what made her tick, and why did she think that she knew what was best for everyone else? I would just love to sit down and let her talk about the way that she sees the world. I also think Lydia is kind of a brat and would be a really great dinner companion because I could see her jumping around from topic to topic. I wouldn’t want her around all the time, but for dinner? Yeah, I could go with Lydia — but I think me and Lizzy would be buddies.
As a teacher, columnist and author, what advice would you give to other writers? What writing advice helps you the most in your own writing?
Don’t give up. Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. I take advice from other writers, so I love this advice from Stephen King. He has this line that said, “Life isn’t a support system for your art, it’s the other way around,” meaning that your art is supposed to enrich your life, but you don’t live for your art. … So that really helped. The other thing that really helped was finding my people — finding my fellow writers that really understand the process.
“Ayesha at Last” is available in Canada, and will be out in Britain, Australia and New Zealand in April. It will be published in the United States in June. Register today to hear Jalaluddin speak at JASP on Friday, June 21.