Soniah Kamal is an award-winning Pakistani-American novelist, essayist and public speaker based in the US. Her first novel An Isolated Incident was a finalist for the KLF French Fiction Prize and the Townsend Prize for Fiction. Unmarriageable, Kamal’s second work of fiction and a postcolonial parallel retelling of Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice, is a Financial Times Readers’ Best Book of 2019, a New York Public Library Pick, a 2019 Book All Georgians Should Read, a 2020 Georgia Author of the Year in Literary Fiction nominee and shortlisted for the 2020 Townsend Prize for Fiction. In this interview, she discusses why she wrote a fictional account about the Kashmir conflict and offers insights into the post-colonial project that fuelled her second novel.
Taha Kehar: What inspired you to write satirical columns for the Daily Times and how did they influence the two novels you went on to write?
Soniah Kamal: I was asked to write a weekly satire column in 2002. I did it for two years, as well as having my first child around the same time. Back then, there was no specific guidance on what to write and therefore I was able to write on whatever topics I wanted and in any style. I fell into a fictional style which made me realise that my voice seemed to come out better in fiction. The column was based on social issues and dealt with themes such as adultery, rape, and the double standards between men and women. The first column was titled “Harry Potter,” which was a lighter take on how women had to remove their facial and body hair while men could remain hairy. Subsequent columns explored second marriages, classicism, beauty standards, cat calling, social climbing, economic discrepancies, adultery, etc. The feedback to the column was lovely. However, I was often told to be careful and frequently reminded it was a good thing that I did not write in Urdu. This caution thrust me into investigating the deep divide in Pakistan between writing in Urdu and writing in English. The columns showed the two ‘Pakistans’ that exist within Pakistan, a throwback to British colonial linguistic divide.
English is very much an upper middle class, elite language of communication – at least that was so when I was writing the column – while Urdu (and regional languages) was seen as the language of the masses. I soon began to see that writing in English allowed me a cushion because fewer people read English and thus there were fewer chances, at the time, of invoking mass fury over my subject matter. Many like to think that an English-speaking Pakistan is less authentic. However English became an official Pakistani language in 1947 and is thus very much a Pakistani language in its own right.
The repeated feedback of “good you are not writing in Urdu” got me to explore what Urdu and English mean in Pakistan. However, I wanted to explore this further and therefore it is one of my themes in my novel Unmarriageable.
Unmarriageable is my postcolonial linguistic project, by which I mean that it is an attempt to remap and reorient British linguistic history in Pakistan via the Subcontinent. It is a parallel retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice wherein I have taken the classic British novel and transplanted it to Pakistan. As British colonial subjects, we were supposed to only look up to all things British and I wanted to turn around the narrative and make Pakistani what was British. Professor Nalini Iyer of Seattle University called Unmarriageable “Macaulay’s nightmare.” I was shaken when I first read how, in 1835, Thomas Babington Macaulay recommended to British Parliament that English should become the official language throughout the Empire in order to create “a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect” — in other words, confused people. The entire speech called “Minute on Education” is alarming to say the least, and I knew I wanted to address this foundation of the language I speak as well as the continued ‘divide and rule’ it manifests in present day Pakistan. Had the British Empire not replaced languages with English – by which English became the language of opportunity and privilege – would we still be speaking English? What did it mean to Pakistan’s identity politics when it made English an official language in 1947? English is not a foreign language, it is a Pakistani language and what exactly that means in terms of identity, nation and legacy is what I wanted to explore in Unmarriageable. As such the two best friends (Alys and Sherry) in the novel come from different linguistic backgrounds — one English and one Urdu.
TK: An Isolated Incident is perhaps the only novel by a Pakistani writer that examines the Kashmir situation.
SK: It is to date the only one. It takes place in both ‘Kashmirs’ across the border meaning Muzaffarabad as well as Srinagar. After I wrote An Isolated Incident, many Kashmiris who attended my events in Pakistan were very particular about the fact that instead of “Indian-administered Kashmir” and “Pakistan-administered Kashmir,” one should use the terms “Indian Occupied Kashmir” and “Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.” An Isolated Incident is also an immigrant novel and examines what it means to belong, i.e. what are the claims of those who have been born and brought up in a place and perhaps want to leave versus those who grow up away and yet are firmly rooted in memory – as we see in so many diaspora communities and perhaps want to return to a place that may well only exist via their memories.
TK: Do you believe more Pakistani writers should explore this theme in their work and is there a particular reason why they don’t?
SK: If writers feel capable of writing about the politics and people of Kashmir, they should, especially in fiction, where one has to step into characters’ minds in order to write about them. To me it comes down to comfort and I’m of Kashmiri origin and so I feel comfortable writing from these points of view. In contrast, I would not write a novel about the situation in a place where I did not know the culture or language instinctively. Everyone can write whatever they want, but the caveat is to do a good job. You have to have some degree of familiarity with a particular setting.
Then comes the characters’ emotions. It isn’t necessary that you should have experienced exactly what the characters do emotionally. I haven’t been through what Zari and Billy go through in An Isolated Incident and I had to put myself in their shoes and imagine what it would have been like to go through those experiences. An Isolated Incident is set against the backdrop of the Kashmir conflict and it is both Billy and Zari’s alternating story. In an early draft of the novel, Billy is introduced at the beginning and Zari appears after three chapters. I decided to restructure the novel for narrative purposes as, otherwise, I’d have to explore what happens to Zari in the form of flashbacks. As a result, I think readers tend to believe that the novel is more Zari’s than Billy’s whereas it is equally both their stories. I believe people are drawn towards Zari because she goes through such excruciating circumstantial trauma. In contrast, Billy’s problems may appear to be self-created since he’s idealistic and is driven by the desire for social justice.
TK: Zari Zoon, your protagonist, is “supposed to balance a life torn between those who are here and those who are forever gone”. How did you manage to capture her pain and suffering with authenticity and sensitivity?
SK: For me, An Isolated Incident is a book about memories and the role they play in our lives. We always think of happy memories as opposed to sad ones. My first memory is of the death of my six-year-old cousin. I was younger than her. We were in London and my aunt called my mother to tell her the tragic news. I vividly remember my mother getting that phone call. As I grew older, I realised that this is a memory of a family member who I didn’t know at all. I didn’t see a picture of her until many years later. However, the memory left a deep imprint on me since I heard my mother scream and saw the phone fall out of her hand when she received the news.
I’m also an immigrant child who grew up in England, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. In those days before social media, we either wrote letters to friends who we left behind or had no choice but to say goodbye forever. Therefore, the concept of memory and what it means in terms of gain and loss is something I’ve always lived with and so much of my work grapples with. For instance, in my essay on curtains and legacy (available on www.ApartmentTherapy.com) I explore the relationship and emotional attachments we develop towards inanimate objects and how that can perhaps hurt or heal.
My maternal grandparents were refugees from Kashmir and lived with us their whole lives. My mother’s sisters are still in Srinagar, and it is often difficult to obtain visas to visit India. My grandparents would remember their home and their children and weep.
As such, for me, memory wasn’t always about the happy times, but also entailed painful moments. I brought a lot of that into the character of Zari. I wanted to explore what we can do with memory. If you, like Zari, are the last surviving member of your family and there is no record of your relatives, you can decide how to remember them, meaning you can reinvent them per se. But should you? In a similar vein, my character Billy can change the trajectory of who his grandfather was by scratching out his name in a file, but should he? What does it mean to remember, remould and even invent memories?
Unmarriageable is my postcolonial linguistic project, by which I mean that it is an attempt to remap and reorient British linguistic history in Pakistan via the Subcontinent. It is a parallel retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice wherein I have taken the classic British novel and transplanted it to Pakistan
TK: Do you perceive Zari as a victim or as someone who is fortunate to have survived and gained the benefit of escape?
SK: There’s a moment in the novel when a goat survives a bomb blast and Billy imagines the creature wondering if it is special because it has survived. This was my way of questioning why anyone survives. Zari didn’t actively do anything to ensure her survival. In fact, she is a passive survivor and has survivor’s guilt about this because the rest of her family and her fiancé, best friend and their help perish.
As with memory, we tend to think that survival is a good thing, the best option, the only one. But Zari is an unhappy survivor who is tormented by her memories. When you’ve lost so much, what does survival mean? And after losing her loved ones, she is sent away from her home and the life she knows. Each reader should bring their definition of what survival means in these circumstances and decide if she is indeed a survivor. Is survival as simple as making it out of the rubble?
TK: Through your narrative, you have explored the ways in which women’s lives have been torn asunder by war and conflict. Did you consciously choose to explore this theme?
SK: The novel came about because my grandfather asked me to write about Kashmir when I met him for the last time. He thought I was going to be a journalist, but I was drawn towards writing fiction. Since I had promised him that I would write about Kashmir, I had had to fulfil that promise. It took me many years before I started writing the book because I was extremely intimidated about writing a novel set in an ongoing political conflict.
I began writing An Isolated Incident soon after I read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. In her author’s note, Kingsolver mentions that she’d been meaning to write the novel for a long time and decided to do it even though she didn’t know if she was capable of doing it. After reading this, I told myself to take the plunge and fulfil the promise I’d made to my grandfather.
Another incident that inspired me to write Isolated happened when my maternal aunts were visiting Lahore from Srinagar. It was late at night in Lahore. There was a knock at the door. One of my aunts commented that a knock on the door this late at night in Srinagar would create extreme panic because it could mean the arrival of military personnel, militants, or miscreants. When I heard my aunt’s words, the events of the first chapter of An Isolated Incident sprang into my mind. I don’t know if Zari came to me during that conversation, but the scenario of a late-night knock at the door in Srinagar emerged. I wanted to work with the concept of what safety means to us on a psychological level.
When I was at school, a student’s brother ran off to fight for freedom in the same way that I heard stories, while growing up in England, of Irish boys who joined the IRA. That sowed the seeds for Billy’s character, and I wanted to explore what a non-political family would go through in the event of their child doing such a thing. I also wanted to explore what would happen to a family if a girl like Zari arrived to stay with them and they had a son like Billy.
All of these strands came together slowly. After 9/11, the West assumed that Muslims were terrorists. It was fascinating because the labels of freedom fighting and terrorism changed overnight. John Updike wrote a novel titled The Terrorist in which the boy is radicalised by the Muslim faith, and I looked around for a novel he may have penned for a boy radicalized by the Christian faith and/or white supremacist ideology but somehow Updike, a white suburban American author, decided he could write on the former rather than the latter. I wanted to explore the decision to join a militant movement because of ideological reasons instead of religious ones.
All of these ideas, percolating for some time, came together in the characters of Zari and Billy. I wanted to bring these two damaged characters together and see what would happen to them and how they would survive their particular histories together as well as individually.
TK: Your debut novel also offers useful insights on the life Indo-Pakistani Kashmiri diaspora. How did this help you explore the role of silence in the way we remember the past?
SK: There’s an image in An Isolated Incident of Zari cutting out paper dolls and reflecting on the remaining paper, in other words the discarded silhouettes, that are thrown away. I see silence in the same way. Silence has its own roar. Silence is a language of its own. Silence has the ability to convey what the greatest noises sometimes can’t.
This is evident in the novel when Zari goes silent on Billy, which propels him to make a drastic decision. Silence is its own dialogue. But of course, it’s a dialogue that can be misheard, misconstrued because no words are spoken. One of the themes in An Isolated Incident is of adults choosing to go ‘silent’ about their pasts. What does silence mean in this context? If you don’t know the history of your parents or your grandparents, is your life lacking in some way? Can you lead a fulfilled life? What does the past mean when people just want to concentrate on the future and may erase their past by never talking about it? What happens when you have a child like Billy who insists on being told the past, who believes that unless he knows his past, it’s impossible to forge a future. An Isolated Incident is in so many ways a tango between memory and silence.
TK: Billy and Zari are locked in an unspoken battle when it comes to their perspectives on Kashmir. Zari grew up in Kashmir while Billy’s perceptions of the valley are informed by anecdotes and memories. Is there a victor in this battle of perceptions?
SK: They’re both winners in their own perspectives and their own ways. All of us lay claim to our memories and the places to which we belong. For instance, does a child who lives with his or her grandfather have a stronger claim to him than a grandchild who can only telephone the grandfather every day? It’s difficult to quantify these things.
These ideas are possibly shaped by my own immigrant background. I lived in Pakistan for some years but moved to other parts of the world. I’m often told that I’m not Pakistani enough because I don’t have conventional thinking. When someone says “you don’t belong,” they’re showing their own biases and prejudices.
Even in Pakistan, we have people who belong to different sections of society. How can we tell who is more Pakistani and who isn’t? Identity politics are infinitely fascinating. The identity dance that Zari and Billy perform throughout the novel about who Kashmir belongs to, is fascinating.
There was a knock at the door. One of my aunts commented that a knock on the door this late at night in Srinagar would create extreme panic because it could mean the arrival of military personnel, militants, or miscreants. When I heard my aunt’s words, the events of the first chapter of An Isolated Incident sprang into my mind
TK: In light of the illegal annexation of Kashmir, how can novels such as An Isolated Incident build awareness about the human dimensions of war?
SK: I don’t really see a connection between the two per se. The annexation is a policy that the Indian government has implemented, which has obviously changed the nature of that geographical location and the lives of the people who live there. All novels that address historical or traumatic events and are set in real life circumstances have an impact. The most challenging aspect of writing on Kashmir for me is that it is an ongoing conflict and there is no one definite outcome per se. Many Indian readers presumed that An Isolated Incident would be a pro-Pakistani narrative and some Pakistanis were upset that it wasn’t per se. A reviewer commented that the novel would upset everyone in equal measure, and I was delighted to read that because my job as a novelist is to not write propaganda. Instead, my job is to present a larger picture and allow readers their own conclusions. Regardless of the policies implemented on Kashmir by both Pakistani and Indian governments, An Isolated Incident sheds a window into what they mean to the ordinary people who live there and the impact of their lives.
TK: Unmarriageable marks a radical shift in your style. What inspired you to write this book?
SK: I think readers of An Isolated Incident were definitely surprised by Unmarriageable. For me, Unmarriageable was a postcolonial parallel retelling project. I planned on writing it since my twenties after coming upon Thomas Babington Macaulay’s “Minute on Education,” an address he gave to the British Parliament in 1835, in which he recommended that English replaced indigenous languages throughout the empire. English is the only language I know fluently, and it was distressing to place myself within that policy.
Even though I was an immigrant child, I have never encountered an identity crisis. I was equally familiar with Makkah and Madonna, and never felt confused in different cultures – and yet here suddenly the only language I spoke and its origins was causing me some angst. I had read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice when I was sixteen and instantly found myself thinking, “this is a Pakistani novel and Austen was Pakistani, i.e Jane Khala.”
When I was growing up, I didn’t have books for my age group that were written against a Pakistani backdrop. I wanted to give my teenager self a Pakistani Jane Austen, something that British Empire took away from me by setting an English curriculum and white writers as those to aspire to. I decided to write a parallel retelling, which means take Pride and Prejudice and follow the same plot and include all the characters but set it completely in Pakistan with no white characters.
Professor Nalini Iyer of Seattle University, who interviewed me for the novel, commented that I’d penned ‘Macaulay’s nightmare’ meaning I was a brown person who had taken on the Empire. This is the best compliment ever as was the review in the national Pakistani newspaper Dawn which said: “There is, in Kamal’s novel, notable attention to detail when it comes to situating characters within a specific class context that Anglophone Pakistani fiction rarely manages to accomplish.” Professor Iyer didn’t know that Macaulay was the seed for my writing this book and, in fact, a quote from his ‘Minute on Education’ is one of my epigraphs and the lens through which to read Unmarriageable. When she made that comment, I could finally exhale and say, “Yes, that was my intention — to write the identity that was denied us.” There was also a lovely piece in the literary journal Ploughshares about reading the novel through the prism of the epigraphs.
Unmarriageable was shortlisted and won several awards and acclaim in the US. Western readers love Unmarriageable, which surprised me since it is so difficult to publish a novel in America that is set in Pakistan and does not follow any stereotypes such as terrorism or honour killings or sad Eastern women triumphing in the West or any white saviours, or in the case of Unmarriageable, any white characters at all. Professor Iyer’s comment made me ponder that perhaps I had succeeded in bringing brown and white people together and there is a whole theme in the novel about linguistic policy and what I call analogous literature: literature from the East and the West with overlapping thematic content, eg. feminist utopias in Rokeya Sakawat Hossain’s Sultana’s Dream and Charlottle Gilman Perkins’ Herland, and so then so much for Kipling’s “never shall the twain (East and West) meet.” Readers with Subcontinental roots such as Professor Iyer, as well as other reviewers such as the one who wrote my NPR review, were both able to see that Unmarriageable is a postcolonial critique. I’m not sure if Unmarriageable is a radical shift in my style as much as that I’m versatile stylistically and like to tackle different forms and structures and themes and narrative shapes. Thematically Unmarriageable tackles many of the issues that my non-fiction and essays discuss. The big challenge writing it was that it should be both a standalone novel as well as an Austen parallel retelling.
TK: How does your reimagining of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice differ from those attempted by other South Asian writers?
SK: To my knowledge, no one has done a parallel retelling of Pride and Prejudice. Since I was working on a parallel retelling, I followed the exact same plot and all characters from Austen’s novel also appear in Unmarriageable. Unmarriageable is, however, a postcolonial parallel retelling, so a code-switch from ‘British’ to ‘Pakistani’ and ‘empire’ to ‘postcolonial.’ I also wanted to be as true to Austen’s own tone and intent as I could. She called Pride and Prejudice her “light, bright and sparkling child” and so I wanted to stay true to that intent. Unmarriageable can be read in two ways — as parallel retelling, but also very much a standalone novel in its own right for those readers who know nothing of Jane Austen or Pride and Prejudice. In fact, writing with this dual intent was challenging, but readers say it’s very much a standalone as it is a retelling.
TK: You’ve been published in India, the US and the UK. How different was it being published in India than in the West?
SK: Unmarriageable was acquired and published in the US by Penguin Random House’s Ballantine imprint and it has been by far my best experience. I was also invited to read the audio of the novel in America and that was an absolute honour because authors are not usually asked but the PRH Audio editor had heard my TEDx talk and believed I could narrate a novel. My American editor made sure to ask my input on everything and I will say that I was initially fearful she might ask me to perhaps add what I call the ‘mango factor’ (as per my essay in Lithub.com “When Your Exotic is My Authentic”) but to my utter delight there was none of that. My editor told me to write what I was comfortable with and there was no expectation of catering to ‘expectations of the West’. Perhaps publishing in the West is changing. Or perhaps I got lucky with this book and editor.
Editorial feedback varies in different countries for sure. In the past, if a Pakistani writer in Pakistan didn’t get picked up in the US and the UK, they didn’t get published. Indian publishing has, therefore, been a gift to Pakistan. However, after the recent tensions between India and Pakistan, this has started to change and with Pakistan banning books from India and so, effectively, books from Pakistani authors coming into Pakistan — a huge disservice. I think along with differences in being published in India or the West, there is also a big difference in whether you’re being published by a small or a big press and what they plan to do with your novel and your career as an author rather than just one book.
TK: What are your thoughts on the direction of Pakistani fiction? Do you believe it is in desperate need of an overhaul?
SK: Pakistani fiction is not in a good place in terms of publishing, especially with the situation in India regarding the ban by Pakistan, to date, on importing books from India. Pakistani publishers have started emerging and eventually Pakistan will have some form of publishing infrastructure. It boils down to the question of money. Anyone can set up a publishing house but require finances to sustain them and marketing for authors and books. I wish Pakistani readers would embrace Pakistani writers the way they often do writers from the West – and often mostly white writers. I think Pakistani writers would have a better chance at getting published abroad if agents and publishers knew that Pakistani diaspora readers and otherwise are eagerly waiting to spend dollars on books by Pakistani writers. In America, my events are so often full of eager white writers as you can see on my Instagram and I hope Pakistani readers embrace Pakistani books just as enthusiastically.
In the past, there were very few Pakistani writers but now when I visit a bookstore in Pakistan, there’s a whole section devoted to Pakistani literature in various genres and there seems to be new writing emerging every day. There are still so many genres that Pakistani writers haven’t tapped. I look forward to seeing Pakistani writers explore horror, mystery, thrillers, fantasy, middle grade, etc.