Hello Soniah and welcome to My Jane Austen Book Club. Thanks for accepting my invitation! My first question for you is, when was your first encounter with Jane Austen and what was it like? How did the idea of writing Unmarriageable come to your mind?
Thank you so much for inviting me. When I was around fourteen years old, my Aunt Helen gifted me a gorgeous red and gold hardback copy of Pride and Prejudice. I remember skimming through it, mesmerized by the illustrations. I finally read it cover to cover when I was sixteen and promised myself then and there that I would do a retelling set in Pakistan. Growing up there were no novels in English set in Pakistan and so I’d just grown used to imaging everything I read terms of my miliue. I find it interesting that the desire to do a parellel retelling of Pride and Prejudice stayed with me versus any other book.
Was it difficult to blend a story originally set in Regency England with a modern-day Pakistani context?
No and Yes. No beause Austen’s was a patriachal culture as is Pakistan’s to this day. I think one of the reasons Unmarriageable resonates so strongly with women everywhere is because they intuitively understand the constraints of living under ‘a man is more important and knows best.” Also, the morals and manners of Regency England such as maintaining a good repuation and landing a great catch is still very much the expectation in Pakistan, although, thankfully, the world has opened up for Pakstani women on career options and divorce is no longer the great stigma is used to be.
Yes because mirroring some of the plot points was very challenging. For instance, Netherfield Park is a house the Bingelys rent and one which Jane Bennet stays at after she catches cold, and where a ball is thrown. In Unmarriagable I needed an equivalent setting, however a house did not make sense. Turning Netherfield Park into Unmarriageable’s multi event wedding, called NadirFiede, by joining together the names of the couple getting married (Nadir Sheh and Fiede Fecker), was a huge bingo moment.
How similar are your five Binat sisters to the Bennet sisters?
The reader will instantly recognize Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty and Lydia in my Jena, Alys, Mari, Qitty and Lady. However since I chose to write a faithful retelling plot-wise, I took full liberty with fleshing out characters, making them mine, giving them in depth interests, hobbies and long term goals. For instance, Qitty is battling fat phobia and is a promising artist, and not just Lady’s shadow. I quite loved writing the love-hate scenes between these two sisters.
Your Alys and your Darsee mirror Austen’s Elizabeth and Darcy. What were the obstacles you had to overcome while rewriting characters which have become icons? Did you feel any pressure?
Elizabeth and Darcy are one of the most famous literary pairings and to try to do justice to their sparring and gradual regard for each other was no mean feat. I actually find Pride and Prejudice’s Mr Darcy to be an arrogant snob and as such I could not see how any modern, independent, self respecting woman, especially one like Alys who takes nonsense from no one, could ignore any pomposity. So while I did require the same amount of disdain amongst the two, instead of basing it on social class, I took on a snobbery far more acceptable these days which is literary snobbery and all the distinctions between what is considered high brow, middle brow, low brow reads.
Your heroine, Alys, is a teacher. As a teacher myself, I must ask you, why did you choose this job for your protagonist? Is there any particular reason?
Education, what it means, who is responsible for imparting it, are all questions which run through the novel. As such, a classroom setting seemed ideal. It followed that Alys and also her sister Jena and best friend Sherry would all be teachers. Secondly, the women reside in Dilipabad, a very small (fictious) town, and teaching is one of the few jobs available to gentile women in the 2000-2001 time period Unmarriageable is set. I myself was a high school teacher for a while in Pakistan and taught English literature and language and so was very familiar with that world.
If you could live the adventures (or misadventures) of one of Jane Austen’s heroines, who would you like to be? Why?
This is a hard one! I want to say all of them but if I had to pick one it would be Lady Susan. It seems to me she has the most (mis) adventures and, at the end, gets her cake and eats it too.
What is it of Jane Austen and her world that still resonates with contemporary readers?
Austen’s star endures because she is an astute psychologist and perfectly deciphers human behavior. She is mistress of the comedy of manners, a genre which exposes social hypocrisies, ridicules elements of polite society and doesn’t shy away from class issues. We can so easily recognize people we actually know. Alas, I happen to know many Mrs. Norrises, Lucy Steele’s and John Thorpes. I also think Austen’s popularity stems from the fact that she knows satire does not rest on mocking people because they may sweat too much on the dance floor or chew too loudly. Her skewering is sophisticated.
Could you tell us about your work as an Ambassador for the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation?
Jane Austen received the major part of her schooling from libraries, in particular her father’s collection and brother Edward Knight’s estate library at Chawton House. Caroline Knight, Jane Austen’s fifth great neice, founded The Jane Austen Literacy Foundation (JALF) in order to honor her famous Aunt’s relationship with libraries and learning.
JALF’s volunteer team of Literacy Ambassadors raises funds, a 100% of which are spent on literacy library resoures around the world. As a JALF Literacy Ambassador, I’m also responsible for spreading the word about the Foundation. The Foundation also runs an online magazine, ‘Pride and Possiblities’ where you can read articles on topics such as how Persuasion got it’s title (Jane’s chosen title for her final full novel was The Elliots), learn about Jane’s best friend, Martha Lloyd, who lived with the Austens, and food in Austen’s novels and a Georgian kitchen. My own contribution to Pride and Possiblites is based on the special year long Jane Austen Book Club I hosted to commemorate her 200th death anniversary. I share how I chose the reading order of Austen’s six novels, how to ask questions in a book club based on an author’s ouvre, and how I connected each read for a completely immersive experience.
One of the biggest pleasures of JALF is meeting other JALF Ambassadors from so many different backgrounds and knowing that we’ve all all come together through love of Jane Austen and a desire to spread literacy. If you would like to join us in serving as a Jane Austen Literacy Ambassador, contact fellow ambassador and manager of the program, Cass Grafton, at firstname.lastname@example.org)
A scandal and vicious rumor in the Binat family have destroyed their fortune and prospects for desirable marriages, but Alys, the second and most practical of the five Binat daughters, has found happiness teaching English literature to schoolgirls. Knowing that many of her students won't make it to graduation before dropping out to marry and start having children, Alys teaches them about Jane Austen and her other literary heroes and hopes to inspire them to dream of more.
When an invitation arrives to the biggest wedding their small town has seen in years, Mrs. Binat excitedly sets to work preparing her daughters to fish for eligible–and rich–bachelors, certain that their luck is about to change. On the first night of the festivities, Alys's lovely older sister, Jena, catches the eye of one of the most eligible bachelors. But his friend Valentine Darsee is clearly unimpressed by the Binat family. Alys accidentally overhears his unflattering assessment of her, and quickly dismisses him and his snobbish ways.
But as the days of lavish wedding parties unfold, the Binats wait breathlessly to see if Jena will land a proposal--and Alys begins to realize that Darsee's brusque manner may be hiding a very different man from the one she saw at first glance.
Told with a wry wit and colorful prose, UNMARRIAGEABLE is a charming update on Jane Austen’s beloved novel, and an exhilarating exploration of love, marriage, class, and sisterhood. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did, and I look forward to discussing coverage with you.
About the Author
Soniah Kamal is an award winning essayist and fiction writer. Her debut novel, An Isolated Incident, was a finalist for the Townsend Prize for Fiction and the KLF French Fiction Prize. Her TEDx talk, "Redreaming Your Dream," is about regrets and second chances. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, Catapult,The Normal School, The Chicago Quarterly Review, The Missing Slate, BuzzFeed, The James Dickey Review, Scroll.in and Literary Hub. She is a literacy ambassador for the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation