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‘Unmarriageable’ author Soniah Kamal sets ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in modern Pakistan

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“Unmarriageable” author Soniah Kamal. (Photo: Indus Kamal Wasti)

At this year’s Jane Austen Summer Program, we’ll be exploring “Pride and Prejudice” and its legacy, including how writers today are putting their own spin on Austen’s novel. We’re looking forward to hearing from plenary speaker Soniah Kamal, whose novel “Unmarriageable” — out today! — sets “Pride and Prejudice” in modern Pakistan. In her book, Kamal (who teaches fiction in the Etowah Valley MFA program at Reinhardt University in Georgia) centers on teacher Alys Binat, who meets her match in Mr. Darsee.  We caught up with Kamal to talk about her book and her love of Austen.

Every Jane Austen fan has their own story of when and how they fell in love with her work. What’s yours? 

When I was 14, my Aunt Helen gave me a gorgeous red and gold hardback copy of “Pride and Prejudice” (1977 edition, Purcell) with “colour plate” illustrations. It sits in my bookshelf to this day, surrounded by Austen’s works and books on her. I finally read it when I was 16 and knew I wanted to do a parallel retelling someday.

What is it about Austen’s works — “Pride and Prejudice” especially — that makes it translatable into so many different settings, times and cultures?

Austen called “Pride and Prejudice” her “light, bright and sparkling novel” and it is a delightful tale of a worrywart of a mother and her five unmarried daughters. Is there any country, culture, family, sisters, mothers, daughters, even fathers and brothers, who can’t relate to this is some shape or form? It’s not even a question of arranged marriage or love marriage but rather tapping into the need for love that all humans have. “Unmarriageable” highlights this translatability.   

What are some similarities between Regency-era England and modern Pakistani culture?

The biggest similarity is the extreme class and status consciousness as well as the most “noble career” for a woman remaining wife-plus-motherhood. However, unlike Regency England where most women literary had no choice but to marry for financial security, women in contemporary Pakistan can choose to become highly educated and as such earn their own livelihood.

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What did you find most challenging about putting your own spin on “P&P”?

Staying faithful to writing a parallel retelling. Many of my characters kept wanting to veer off in different directions, for instance, Lady Binat should not have married Wickaam but Lydia Bennet marries Wickham and so that was that. It was also quite hard transposing scenes into contemporary times like why my Jane Bennet would have to stay anywhere overnight with Bingley in a world of taxis, etc., to bring her back home. Finding a representation for Netherfield Park as well as the ball was hard, too.  And while Austen’s Wickham is the son of a manager and thus from a lower class, I did not want to perpetuate class bias and so chose to make my Wickham and Darcy first cousins. In being relatives, they are equals and, as such, their choices are based on personality and not class and breeding.

If you had to take a “Which Austen character are you?” quiz, who would you get?

I have taken quizzes and always get Elizabeth Bennet perhaps because she’s no nonsense and doesn’t get impressed by money or a big house. That said, I recently took a quiz and got a combination of Caroline Bingley and Mary Bennet, a most interesting and perhaps alarming pairing. However I think the truth is that at any given moment or stage in our life we all have the potential to be like some Austen character or another, the Mr. Bingleys and Jane Bennets but also the not so nice ones like Mrs. Norris and the downright silly like Mr. Rushworth.

Soniah Kamal is scheduled to speak Thursday during the Jane Austen Summer Program. Unmarriageable (Ballentine Books) is out now. Register for JASP here.


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