Soniah Kamal is an award-winning novelist, essayist, and public speaker. Her recent novel, Unmarriageable, is a Financial Times Readers’ Best Book of 2019, a 2019 Book All Georgians Should Read, and shortlisted for the 2020 Townsend Prize for Fiction. Her debut novel, An Isolated Incident, was a finalist for the KLF French Fiction Prize and the Townsend Prize for Fiction. She talks to Karvan in this exclusive interview discussing her books, writing style, and the publishing challenges new authors face in Pakistan.
1. Tell us about yourself
I’m not sure how to answer this so I’ll link to my Instagram account which represents, I suppose, some of who I am in pictures.
2. Without sharing any spoilers, what is the story of ‘Unmarriageable‘?
A mother wants to see her five daughters well settled which in Pakistani culture means marrying them off regardless of what they may want. In essence, it’s a novel about how to be an individual in community culture. It is also about friendships across many different socio-economic classes, status, sisterhood, language, and autonomy.
3. How did you conceive the story of Unmarriageable?
Unmarriageable is a parallel retelling of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice meaning Unmarriageable follows the exact same plot as Pride and Prejudice and all the characters in the original are also in my novel. As such more important is the reason I needed to write a parallel retelling. As a postcolonial English speaking Pakistani, I was supposed to study British literature and look up to it but never aspire to it to be it’s equal or more. I wanted to reorient this identity, rewire the legacy of Empire, and so I decided to take a British classic, in this case, one of my favorite novels, and literally set it in Pakistan. Thomas Babington Macaulay is the person who set the linguist policy for Empire and Professor Nalini Iyer has said that Unmarriageable is ‘Macaulay’s worst nightmare’, a most empowering compliment. Of course, I also wanted to stay true to Austen’s ‘light, bright and sparkling’ tone so the challenge was to balance the heavy reason for writing Unmarriageable without it becoming a preachy but rather remaining fun. Unmarriageable is also a standalone novel meaning you don’t need to know anything about Jane Austen or Pride and Prejudice to read it.
4. Your debut novel was ‘An Isolated Incident‘. Tell us a bit about it?
An Isolated Incident is coming out in England in July 2020 with a new cover. My UK editor and publishers of Unmarriageable read An Isolated Incident of their own volition and loved it and made an offer and there could have been no better surprise. An Isolated Incident is set against the Kashmir conflict. It’s about a nineteen-year-old Kashmiri girl from Srinagar who goes through a terrible tragedy and has to deal with her trauma. It’s about a Kashmiri-Pakistan-American boy, also nineteen, who believes in idealism and wanting to ‘fix’ the world. Their lives merge in unexpected ways as they both question the meaning of memory, family, legacy, and what hope means when the world seems hopeless. Although An Isolated Incident and Unmarriageable are worlds apart in tone, readers who have read both say that the thematic concerns are similar especially when it comes to issues of fairness in a very unfair world. I wrote An Isolated Incident because my Kashmiri grandfather made me promise I would write about Kashmir and of course I had to fulfill his request even though he did not live to see its publication.
5. Which authors (from Pakistan and abroad) have influenced your writing?
Often it’s not an entire oeuvre but rather a single story or essay so Attia Hosain. Amrita Pritam. Ismat Chugtai. Manto. Kishwar Naheed. Sajjad Zaheer. Barbara Kingsolver. Rohinton Mistry. Jessie Redmon Fauset. Ralph Ellison. Judy Blume. S. E. Hinton. Nella Larson. Chimamanda Adichie. Lesley Marmo Silko. Kate Chopin. Toni Morrison. James Baldwin. Chinua Achebe. Jane Austen. Virginia Woolf. Edith Wharton. Thomas Hardy. E.M. Forster. I can go on. Unmarriageable mentions of literature from all over the world and as such are chock full of authors and especially short stories that have meant the world to me and my website lists them all. The following quote from the novel sums up my feelings about reading in order to forge connections “Characters’ emotions and situations are universally applicable across cultures, whether you’re wearing an empire dress, shalwar kurta, or kimono.”
6. What is your writing process? How do you create characters and their setting?
I wrote An Isolated Incident over ten years and Unmarriageable in two months (I was under a severe deadline) so I’m not at all sure what my writing process for a long-form novel really is. However, for essays, I tend to write the first draft in one go whether that means a few hours or a couple of days. An image or voice usually comes to me first and then I take over from there. So for my essay, Girls from Good Families, about bookstores in Lahore in the late 1980s, the proprietor of Iqbal Books in Liberty came to my mind and how he used to frown at me when I wanted to buy books he thought inappropriate. For my essay, The Reluctant Writer, I heard the voice of Shabana Azmi’s prostitute character in the film, In Custody based on the eponymous novel. An essay concerning a miscarriage took me nine years to write because even though I had the image of red baby socks, I didn’t know which tone to write it in since the baby did not have a voice. Personal essays are exhausting in a different way from fiction because you have to be honest in a way fiction does not demand. Fiction explores truth while personal essays describe facts in a public face, at least that’s how I differentiate between the two.
7. Every author has a signature voice, a specific writing style. How did you find yours?
I’m not really sure if I can recognize a singular voice or style in my own work though I can see overlapping thematic concerns. Each novel, essay, short story, poem has its own voice and speaks to me before I write down a single word by which I mean I will hear a voice or see an image. I like reading realism so I suppose that’s how I tend to write. As much as I appreciate the poetic language in, let’s say Ondaatje’s The English Patient, I do love the crisp, clear style of Coetzee’s Disgrace.
8. Aspiring authors find it challenging to keep the story moving forward. Your advice to them?
I think seasoned authors do too. Momentum in the story is a craft always being perfected. There is always something new to learn about how not to bog down a story with unnecessary details. However, one can err in reverse too. In Unmarriageable, I took out the history of how Dilipabad, the fictitious town in the novel, got its name because I thought it was slowing down the narrative. In retrospect, it should have remained. It’s now included as bonus material in the US paperback edition.
9. Your views on Pakistan’s publishing industry and is it facilitating young authors and their fictional works?
A robust publishing industry anywhere should have many avenues to offer writers publishing opportunities and at the moment I don’t see that. Most Pakistani authors have been turning to India to get published and then their books are distributed in Pakistan. As recent political events have shown, India may no longer be a viable option and therefore Pakistani publishers are required all the more. The flip side of the coin, however, is that publishing is a business and needs to make money in order to survive and thus requires readers actively buying Pakistani fiction and non-fiction published in the country and, moreover, to buy the original copies instead of pirated versions in which case neither the author nor the publisher receives a penny.
By younger writers, I assume you mean new writers because the beauty of writing is that anyone can start to learn this craft at any age, young or old, with an eye to publication. Age is not a barrier in writing or publishing no matter what youth-obsessed industries might like us to believe and there is great merit in stories that emerge from age and experience.
On the facilitating end, I think it’s wonderful that we’re seeing Pakistani bookstagrammers, bloggers, book clubs, and schools interested in books written by Pakistani authors who write in English whether they reside in Pakistan or the diaspora. It’s lovely to see organic coverage in national newspapers and magazines. I had no idea Dawn was reviewing Unmarriageable and I was thrilled that the review gave space to discussing what I was trying to achieve in writing this particular novel from a postcolonial lens. Thoughtful reviewers and critics are priceless everywhere and so many more are needed in Pakistan where sometimes a review is mistaken for a summary of the novel or a detailed description of each chapter or what the ‘reviewer’ thinks should have been written rather than what has been written.
10. Your message for the youth of Pakistan?
Life is short. Be kind to yourself. Be kind to everyone you meet.
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