In Soniah Kamal’s 2019 novel Unmarriageable, high school English teacher Alys Binat advises her former student Sarah about possible Jane Austen-related thesis topics: “You can . . . compare colonizer Babington Macaulay and Kipling’s ‘England’s Jane’ with a ‘World’s Jane,’ a ‘Pakistani Jane,’ a ‘Post-Colonial Jane,’ Edward Said’s Jane. What might Jane make of all these Janes? Discuss empire writing back, weaving its own stories” (83). Kamal’s novel, which relocates Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) to twenty-first-century Pakistan, calls attention to a theme that is reiterated throughout the story: the power of interpretation. Noting the many contested readings that writers and scholars have offered of Austen, Alys encourages Sarah to add her voice to the literary conversation about one of England’s most canonical authors.
Alys’s conversation also draws readers’ attention to the gendered and postcolonial contexts in which she and Sarah interpret English literature as Pakistani women. In The Empire Writes Back, Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin consider women’s experiences in postcolonial countries, citing Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s well-known analysis of “the double subjection of colonized women and her discussion of the muted native subject” (Ashcroft et al. 175). Spivak, Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin discuss the intersectional oppression women in postcolonial countries have faced due to British colonialism, on the one hand, and patriarchy, on the other. Due to these forces, Spivak suggests, the colonial or post-colonial woman’s voice is often muted or ignored.
In Unmarriageable, Kamal challenges this double silencing through a protagonist who speaks and “writes back” to the intertwined forces of patriarchy and colonialism. Kamal uses Austen to unsettle patriarchal and colonial hierarchies by creating a heroine who negotiates her identity through two types of subversive literary interpretation: first, by using canonical English and American authors as templates for challenging gendered restrictions and, second, by proposing a revised version of the literary canon to include Pakistani and South Asian authors. In the afterword to Unmarriageable, Kamal writes that her goal was “to write a novel that . . . combined my braided identification with English-language and Pakistani culture” (352). Similarly, Alys uses English and Pakistani literatures to understand and create her own “braided” identity, arguing for the equal importance of each strand.
The ability to offer confident interpretations of texts empowers Alys to exercise control of the narrative of her own life as she articulates an identity that combines Pakistani and English literary and cultural traditions, and she encourages her students to do the same.1 Alys insists on her right to claim, interpret, and teach canonical English and American texts ranging from Jane Austen to Edith Wharton; she uses these authors as lenses for critiquing gendered scripts regarding women’s roles. These texts empower Alys to heed her own desires regarding her career and relationships rather than give into pressures to pursue a financially advantageous marriage above all else.
Alys’s authority as a teacher and interpreter of literature mirrors Kamal’s narrative authority and highlights the power inherent in the act of adaptation. Writing what Susan Stanford Friedman and Linda Hutcheon call an “indigenization,” Kamal’s adaptation critiques the lingering legacies of patriarchy and colonialism and the unequal power dynamics they have created. Hutcheon notes that
In political discourse, indigenization is used within a national setting to refer to the forming of a national discourse different from the dominant. . . . But the advantage of the more general anthropological usage in thinking about adaptation is that it implies agency: people pick and choose what they want to transplant to their own soil. Adapters of traveling stories exert power over what they adapt. (150)
Hutcheon suggests that “indigenizations” inherently have the potential to trouble hierarchical legacies, for they place power in the hands of the adaptor. In this case, Kamal chose to transplant Jane Austen into a twenty-first-century Pakistani context, noting in the afterword that she sought “to write a novel that paid homage to Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice” and at the same time explored the troubling history of British colonialism that led to Austen being introduced and taught on the Indian subcontinent (335).
Alys performs similar, though more informal, acts of transcultural indigenization throughout the novel. She strategically deploys Austen and other British and American women writers to challenge patriarchal and colonial narratives that would restrict her freedom. Following Hutcheon’s analysis, these acts of adaptation demonstrate Alys’s agency as she chooses which “traveling stories” to adapt to her own life and classroom. Sometimes, she asks her students to adapt Austen literally to their context; for example, as I discuss below, she always has students rewrite Pride and Prejudice’s famous first sentence at the beginning of the school year. Other times, she uses Austen and other English-speaking writers as lenses for interpreting the world around her as she crafts her own lived story.
English-language texts are not the only ones Alys uses to make sense of her identity. She asserts her right not only to interpret individual authors but also to revise the literary canon as a whole by challenging the dominance of English-language texts. Alys deploys Pakistani and other South Asian literatures to challenge the hierarchical legacy of colonialism. Specifically, Alys contests the assumption that Pakistani and South Asian literatures are inferior to the English and American literary canon. Challenging her principal’s assumption that English-language texts are superior, Alys advocates for the inclusion of South Asian authors alongside English texts in her literature classes, rather than positioning them as racial or colonial “others.” The novel ultimately proposes a model of reading that equally values both the English and Pakistani strands of Alys’s “braided” identity. She claims English and Pakistani literature as belonging to her, and she reads her life through both traditions, inextricably interwoven threads that she uses to understand and interpret the world. For Alys, adaptation and interpretation thus become strategies for challenging the double silencing and “double subjection of colonized women” (Ashcroft et al. 175).
Alysba or Alys Binat is a thirty-year-old high-school English teacher in the fictional city of Dilipabad in Punjab, Pakistan. Like the Bennets in Austen’s novel, the Binat family is in a relatively precarious financial position. Before the story begins, Alys and her sisters, Jena, Mari, Qitty, and Lady, lose much wealth and status when Mr. Binat is cheated out of his business by his brother. In order to help support the family, Alys begins teaching, which she finds she greatly enjoys. Taking pride in earning an income, she refuses to give in to her mother’s insistence on marrying the first financially eligible man who proposes, Farhat Kaleen (Mr. Collins’s counterpart). She also refuses the first proposal of the wealthy Valentine Darsee, but eventually falls in love with and marries him as they bond over a shared interest in English and South Asian literature and their sense of an identity that encompasses both traditions. The Binat family’s reputation is once again threatened when Lady runs away with lawyer Jeorgeullah Wickaam, who has a history of abandoning young women after they become pregnant. By the end of the story, Wickaam and Lady are married, but Alys is more happily married to Darsee and is planning to open a bookstore with her best friend and fellow former teacher Sherry Kaleen.
Austen’s novel serves not only as the source text for Kamal’s book, but also as a reference point for Alys to use as she asserts her desires and articulates her sense of self, especially in terms of gender and national identity. In the afterword to Unmarriageable, Kamal writes that “it was Jane Austen’s wit and wisdom that first encouraged me to think critically about patriarchal society; a woman’s traditional role; the ties of family, friends, and frenemies; and the cost of keeping up appearances” (333). For Kamal, Pride and Prejudice provides the framework for this critique, as evident not only in the obvious parallels between the two books such as plot points and characters’ names, but also because the novel self-referentially comments on those parallels throughout.
Much like Kamal, who describes herself as a “postcolonial child who grew up in the 1980s and was educated in Pakistan’s English medium system,” one strand of Alys’s braided identity is composed of her love of English and American books that encourage her “to think critically about patriarchal society” (333). When their father was wealthy, Alys and her older sister Jena attended an international school in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, “where their classes looked like a mini-United Nations and the girls made friends from all over the world” (23). It was “in the school library in Jeddah, where she’d first fallen in love with books: Enid Blyton. Judy Blume. Shirley Jackson. Daphne du Maurier. Dorothy Parker. L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, and S. E. Hinton’s class-based novels, which mirrored Indian films and Pakistani dramas” (20). As she falls in love with these books, she draws a parallel between them and stories she already knows: Indian films and Pakistani dramas. She does not elevate the English above the Pakistani and Indian but values them alongside one another. When her family moves to Dilipabad a few years later, Alys continues to develop her love of reading, devouring authors from Jane Austen to Agatha Christie to William Shakespeare (20).
Alys uses these canonical authors as a way to make sense of her peers’ behavior and to critique the gendered scripts women around her are expected to follow. She confronts these expectations every day as a teacher at the British School of Dilipabad, “an English-medium establishment” that has become a “finishing school of sorts for girls from Dilipabad’s privileged” (12). The school’s motto is “Excellence in Obedience. Obediently Excellent. Obey to Excel” (14). As the motto suggests, school administrators believe girls should be taught to conform to social expectations and prepare for marriages to wealthy and successful men.
Alys’s literary experience, however, warns her of the dangers of emphasizing marriage at the expense of all else, and the disadvantages this creates for women. When the Binat family attends one of the major social events of the season, the wedding of Fiede Fecker and Nadir Sheh, Alys imagines the guests as characters in canonical nineteenth- and twentieth-century European and American stories: “‘I wonder,’ Alys sighed, ‘how many Emma Bovarys are here, sick of their rash marriages, and how many of Wharton’s May Wellands, guarding their ‘property.’ And how many girls here are tomboys like Jo March in Little Women and what will happen to make them realize they are only women in a man’s world?’” (148). Alys lists examples of characters in famously unhappy marriages who take their own life out of despair, such as Emma Bovary, or who find themselves in loveless marriages, such as May Welland. Others, like Jo March, plan to avoid marriage but eventually succumb to societal pressure.
Alys draws parallels between the challenges these characters encounter and the still-existing gender inequalities she and her peers face. Her wide reading allows her to see multiple possible storylines that the women around her could follow. In this case, these storylines are cautionary; while people like Alys’s boss, Principal Naheed, insist that there is only one ideal life path for the young women they teach—marriage to an eligible bachelor—Alys’s literary knowledge reveals the unhappiness her students may face if they are not also taught to consider their own personalities and needs when marrying. By the end of the novel, Fiede and Nadir are already pursuing divorce, validating Alys’s observations at the wedding.
As her comments about wedding guests indicate, Alys is no passive consumer of literature. Instead, she uses stories as lenses for interpreting the people around her, and she inserts herself and her peers into the story arcs of canonical literature. While European and American authors such as Flaubert and Wharton enable Alys to understand and critique the gendered scripts she is expected to follow, Jane Austen helps her imagine an alternative narrative for her own life. Alys finds agency in imagining a transcultural “indigenization” of Pride and Prejudice, where she exerts power by adapting Austen to her own cultural moment in twenty-first-century Pakistan. When asked which literary character she is, Alys responds, “I’m the omniscient narrator and observer in Austen’s novels” (149). While of course on one level Alys is, as her friend Sherry remarks, Elizabeth Bennet (149), her declaration of identity is significant, as it reveals how the heroine sees herself. She asserts her right to interpret canonical stories and use them as she sees fit.
Additionally, by equating herself with the story’s narrator, Alys claims the right not only to participate in the story but to tell it. Alys is at once both Elizabeth Bennet and the narrator of the events around her, especially of her own storyline. Though the novel shows us that she is certainly not omniscient (she initially misjudges Darsee and Wickaam) she exercises control over her future by rejecting Farhat Kaleen’s proposal as well as Darsee’s initial offer. Her reading helps her interpret the events of her own life, as she seeks to navigate the dangers of patriarchy and pursue her own well-being. Literature allows her to envision a future for herself in which she will not be doomed even if she never marries.
Alys does her best to pass this ability to interpret and adapt canonical literature on to her students, encouraging them to challenge patriarchal assumptions that would restrict their futures. While Alys’s supervisor, Principal Naheed, often reminds her that “[t]he goal of the British School Group is for our girls to pass their exams with flying colors so that they become wives and mothers worthy of our nation’s future VIPs,” Alys uses Austen to challenge the assumption that this is her students’—or her own—only purpose (14–15).
The novel opens with one such subversive act of interpretation when Alys invites her students to enter into dialogue with Austen and, much like Kamal, adapt her to their own cultural moment. When, on the first day of class, Alys asks her ninth-grade students, all girls, to rewrite Pride and Prejudice’s famous first sentence, their sentences include observations that range from, “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” (3) to “It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you are the daughter of rich and generous parents, then you have the luxury to not get married just for security” (5). Many of the students follow Austen in pointing to the economic and social forces that influence marriages. Alys tries to help her students consider how these forces can disadvantage women and to explore the benefits of supporting themselves financially (6).
While Principal Naheed expects teachers to reinforce the value of marrying well, Alys encourages her students to value education and independence for their own sake. She urges a newly engaged student, for example, to continue her education after marriage, reminding the rest of her class that they can “still live perfectly meaningful lives” even if they never marry or have children (9). Alys uses Austen to bolster her belief that happiness does not depend on marriage, informing her students, “Jane Austen is a leading example. She didn’t get married, but her paper children—six wonderful novels—keep her alive centuries later” (10). Once again, Alys uses Austen to prompt her students to consider the gender inequities in their society, and she urges them to recognize and challenge those inequities. Interpreting Jane Austen as a happily successful single woman rather than a spinster, Alys encourages her students to see themselves in Austen and her novels.
But patriarchy is not the only systemic injustice Kamal interrogates. She extends Austen’s critique of England’s class and gender hierarchies to analyze another system Pride and Prejudice does not address: British imperialism.2 Kamal adapts Austen’s framework to examine the historical forces that introduced the English author to women in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. By examining the literary legacy of postcolonialism, the novel invites English-speaking readers to evaluate the biases that might inform their beliefs about what makes a text valuable and to consider expanding their reading habits to include Pakistani and South Asian authors.
Alys grapples with the colonial history that made Austen a commonly read text in Pakistan. She tells Wickaam, “I wrestle with how to incorporate history. Can any amount of good ever merit the interference of empire? Do we never speak English again? Not read the literature? Erasing history is not the answer, so how does a country put the lasting effects of empire in proper context? Not deny it, but not unnecessarily celebrate it” (124). Alys does not offer easy answers to these questions, and the novel emphasizes the need to articulate the tension she feels as she reckons with the complexity of the ways that Pakistan’s colonial history has shaped her individual identity.
Ultimately, the novel proposes a model of reading that recognizes the diverse strands of Alys’s braided literary and cultural heritage. Alys personally and professionally embraces an expanded literary canon that includes South Asian stories as well as the English-language texts Principal Naheed promotes. As Alys tells Valentine Darsee, “a book and an author can belong to more than one country or culture. English came with the colonizers, but its literature is part of our heritage too, as is pre-partition writing” (117). As an English literature teacher, Alys also vigorously argues for the value of Pakistani literature, despite the risk of being disciplined at work. The school’s curriculum assumes the superiority of English over Pakistani languages and literatures. This is evident when her supervisor, Principal Naheed criticizes Alys because, among other things, “Another year you told them that they should be reading Urdu and regional literature instead of English. An absurd statement from an English-literature teacher” (14). Alys quickly counters, “Not ‘instead.’ I said ‘side by side’” (14).
This phrase “side by side” aptly reflects Alys’s philosophy as a teacher. She encourages her students to value Pakistani and English literature equally, enacting Spivak’s call to resist designating “literatures as ‘central’ and ‘marginal’ in a benevolent spirit; that differentiation is a mere legitimation by reversal” (Spivak 141–42).3 Rather than reading South Asian texts primarily in terms of their difference from English texts, Alys destabilizes colonial hierarchies by insisting on their equality. This decentralization of English texts is reflected in an Analogous Literatures class she describes to Darsee:
I’m pairing Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s Sultana’s Dream with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland for utopias. Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath for family stories alternating with socio-pastoral chapters. Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place with Krishan Chander’s short story “Mahalaxmi Ka Pul,” comparing women’s lives. (116–17)
In this listing, Alys places texts, some written in Urdu, some in English, by writers from the Indian subcontinent (Alys asserts that “pre-partition writing” is also part of Pakistan’s literary heritage) on an equal footing with English and American texts. Alys’s position as a literature teacher makes her especially suited to disrupt colonial hierarchies. Spivak argues that “in the postcolonial context, the teaching of English literature can become critical only if it is intimately yoked to the teaching of the literary or cultural production in the mother tongue(s)” (151). Alys seeks to do just that as she encourages her students to read Urdu and English texts, and her own reading reflects this goal as well. Kamal also includes a “Notes and Resources” section at the back of the book, which lists the authors and books mentioned throughout Unmarriageable. Once again, she lists South Asian texts alongside English-language texts (the list is alphabetical), visually suggesting that both are equally notable.
This list of texts in Alys’s Analogous Literatures course also serves another purpose. While Austen’s story illuminates how class and gender shape the assumptions and behavior of Fitzwilliam Darcy, Elizabeth Bennet, and other characters, Kamal’s novel invites readers, especially English-speaking readers, to consider their literary biases. Alys’s syllabus, as well as Kamal’s “Notes and Resources” section, introduces readers who have been schooled primarily in British and American canonical texts to a variety of authors from South Asia and invites them to expand their reading list.
A shared investment in negotiating their braided identity through reading South Asian and British texts is a key factor that draws Alys and Darsee together. Though he initially looks down on her for mentioning Reader’s Digest, a publication he does not consider particularly impressive, Darsee comes to greatly respect her taste. He tells Alys that Attia Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column is his “favorite partition novel,” and it made it possible for him to “believe [he] could have a Pakistani identity inclusive of an English-speaking tongue. We’ve been forced to seek ourselves in the literature of others for too long” (117). Darsee shares Alys’s desire to reckon with Pakistan’s colonial past in order to understand his national and personal identity. Alys and Darsee also agree on the beauty and value of works by Austen and other canonical authors, while at the same time insisting that Pakistani and South Asian literatures be treated with the same respect. Like Alys, Darsee believes “it shouldn’t just be a one-sided appreciation. . . . At the wedding, you talked of a Pakistani Jane Austen. But will we ever hear the English or American talk of an equivalent?” “Let’s hope so,” Alys answers (117–18). Darsee echoes Alys’s words to Principal Naheed that Pakistani and South Asian literatures should be valued alongside British texts.
Darsee and Alys’s conversation also winkingly references Kamal’s project in Unmarriageable, which is of course to tell a Pakistani Pride and Prejudice. Unmarriageable extends Austen’s critique of the gender inequities the Bennet sisters face to additional systemic injustices that continue to shape the world today, especially for women in postcolonial countries. Darsee and Alys’s discussion about Pakistani and English books responds to a question implicitly raised at the beginning of the story about whose literature deserves to be interpreted. Before the story begins, Unmarriageable opens with an epigraph from Thomas Babington Macaulay’s infamous 1835 “Minute on Education” that signals the ways literary interpretation was implicated in colonialism: “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” British “efforts ought to be directed,” he says, towards training “thoroughly good English scholars, . . . to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern—a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect” (n.p.). Macaulay imagines Indian “interpreters” translating British books and ideas, which he considers superior, “to refine” the rest of their Indian communities.
Unmarriageable challenges Macaulay’s assumptions about which literature is worth interpreting and, at the same time, suggests that literary interpretation can also be used to destabilize the legacy of colonialism. Kamal inverts Macaulay’s formula, conveying Pakistani culture and literature to readers, including non-Pakistani English-speaking readers, by offering her own interpretation of Austen: a “Pakistani Jane” (83). Instead of translating English authors to South Asian readers, Kamal, who currently lives in Georgia in the United States, sought to educate English-speaking readers about the value of South Asian languages and literature. Kamal hoped “to write a novel that . . . combined my braided identification with English-language and Pakistani culture, so that the ‘literature of others’ became the literature of everyone” (335). In Kamal’s formulation, it is not Indian or Pakistani readers who need to be trained to become “thoroughly good English scholars”; instead, the novel provides a route for willing English-speaking readers to educate themselves regarding South Asian literatures.
As we witness Alys’s and Darsee’s discussions about literature and the ways it has shaped their identities, readers are encouraged to consider the historical factors that have shaped their own reading habits and to ask which authors have been excluded from those habits and why. American and English readers in particular are prompted to remedy that exclusion, to be open to finding a “Pakistani Jane Austen,” and the reading list from Alys’s Analogous Literatures course and Kamal’s “Notes and Resources” gives them a specific place to begin.
1While there is a fair amount of scholarship on South Asian adaptations and appropriations of Jane Austen’s text, many scholars, such as Elena Oliete Aldea, Sohinee Roy, Sandra Heinen, and Meenakshi Bharat, have focused on Gurinder Chadha’s 2004 Bollywood film Bride and Prejudice. In this article, I aim to draw attention to a growing body of Austen-centered fiction authored by South Asian women and women of South Asian descent. While I focus on Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal, several other recent books have relocated Austen to twenty-first century South Asian communities: Austenistan (2018), an anthology edited by Laaleen Sukhera features Austen-inspired short stories set in Pakistan; Ayesha at Last (2018) by Uzma Jalaluddin focuses on Indian immigrants who have moved to Canada; and Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors (2019) and Recipe for Persuasion (2020) by Sonali Dev adapt Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion to tell the story of an Indian American family in Northern California.
2Edward Said famously argues that Austen’s novels, particularly Mansfield Park, are “implicated in the rationale for [British] imperialist expansion” (84). While Said raises valuable questions, I tend to find Susan Fraiman’s critique of Said a more thorough and convincing analysis of Austen’s commentary on imperialism. My point here, though, is that Pride and Prejudice does not explicitly critique imperialism.
3Spivak is specifically talking about British and Indian literatures here, but she also suggests that her analysis has applications in other postcolonial colonies.