An Interview with Soniah Kamal

Fiona

Unmarriageable: Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan, by Soniah Kamal, is a one-of-a-kind retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in modern-day Pakistan. This warm and witty tug-of-love between mothers, daughters, duty, and personal freedom is a clever and fresh take on Jane Austen's beloved classic and is truly a delight.

I asked Soniah to tell us more about the inspiration behind Unmarriageable:

Where were you when you first read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and what did it mean to the young Soniah?

I was in my bedroom in Lahore, Pakistan, sixteen years old and finally going to read Pride and Prejudice cover to cover. A few years earlier, an Aunt had gifted me a gorgeous red leather with gold lettering copy which still sits on my bookshelf and it had illustrations, called ‘colour plates’, and I’d always look at the pictures and skim through chapters. Not sure exactly what happened that day to get me reading. I loved it! It seemed the quintessential Pakistani novel—Jane Austen had no idea she was Pakistani—in that here was a mother obsessed with her daughters marrying well, and five unmarried sisters not quite able to seal the deal, one of them not really wanting to, and about sisterhood and friendship and drawing room hypocrisy and social status. I immediately knew I wanted to write a parallel retelling one day. I did not know that day would be at least thirty years away.

What character are you most like in Pride and Prejudice?

I want to say Charlotte Lucas because she is my favorite character from all of Austen’s novels. I love that Charlotte chooses her own life and, in a time period where her only means to financial security was marriage, Mr. Collins is not such a bad deal per se! I love that she does what is best for her life and family and stands up to Elizabeth. I want to say Elizabeth Bennet because I’ve been known to arrive in my own versions of muddied petticoats in places where it’s better not to arrive so such as a fashion show. I’d like to say Lydia Bennet—who hasn’t made some made choices in life? I’d even like to say Kitty who just can’t quite understand why she hasn’t been invited to Brighton too! I’m most like every character and none

You open Unmarriageable with Alysba Binat, a teacher at the British School of Dilipabad and her new batch of Year 10s who are starting to study Pride & Prejudice and their first homework has been to rewrite the opening sentence of Jane Austen. This is my favourite: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young girl in possession of a pretty face, a fair complexion, a slim figure, and a good height is not going to happily settle for a very ugly husband if he doesn't have enough money, unless she has the most incredible bad luck (which my cousin does) Did you always plan to start your novel this way?

Yes. Unmarriageable is a parallel retelling meaning it is not an inspired by or a continuation or Austenesque simply because the main characters don’t get along too well, rather Unmarriageable is literally the novel I wanted to read i.e. Pride and Prejudice set in Pakistan. As such, I wanted it to be as complete an homage to Austen’s lovely classic as I could write it at the moment and so opening with a nod to the original’s own famous opening sentences seemed vital to me. In fact, my opening sentence It is a truth universally acknowledged that a girl can go from pauper to princess or princess to pauper in the mere seconds it takes for her to accept a proposal is actually a wink at the opening of Austen’s novel Mansfield Park in which three sisters go on to live very different lives depending on who they married (or, sadly, who married them). There are nods to all of Austen’s novels in Unmarriageable.

This quote also captures the many important themes you touch on: class, beauty, marriage, the role of women all told with a lightness of humour making it true to the original. Did you ever feel constrained by the plot of P & P?

The quote above does touch on the themes and, really, all the It is a truth universally acknowledged variations in the first chapter are related to the overall themes you mention including friendships and frenemies. I really appreciated how this device served as a guidance for me while writing the novel but yes writing a parallel retelling was quite restrictive. Unlike the freedom that a variation gives you, I had to have my Alys fall in love with my Darcy and my Lydia end up married to my Mr. Wickham. Had I not had restrictions, perhaps Alys Binat and Valentine Darcy would not have ended up together, and Wickham would definitely not have married Lady Binat, that I know for sure.

What do you want readers to get out of reading Unmarriageable?

I’ll quote from Unmarriageable for this one '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.' In other words we are all more alike that we may realize and stories are simply magical portals into showing us this truth.

BUY Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal HERE