Jane Austen's multicultural afterlives

Uzma Jalaluddin.
Uzma Jalaluddin.PHOTO: ANDREA STENSON
Sonali Dev.
Sonali Dev.PHOTO: HARPERCOLLINS
Ayesha At Last (above), the debut novel of Canadian author Uzma Jalaluddin, is set in a close-knit Muslim community in Toronto.
Ayesha At Last (above), the debut novel of Canadian author Uzma Jalaluddin, is set in a close-knit Muslim community in Toronto.
Pride, Prejudice And Other Flavors (above) by Sonali Dev recasts the original into a story about immigrant life.
Pride, Prejudice And Other Flavors (above) by Sonali Dev recasts the original into a story about immigrant life.
Pride (above) by Ibi Zoboi tells the story of a headstrong teen of Haitian and Dominican descent.
Pride (above) by Ibi Zoboi tells the story of a headstrong teen of Haitian and Dominican descent.
Unmarriageable (above) by Soniah Kamal features a teacher who discusses Jane Austen in small-town Pakistan.
Unmarriageable (above) by Soniah Kamal features a teacher who discusses Jane Austen in small-town Pakistan.

The past year has seen a slew of retellings of Pride And Prejudice which recast the classic enemies-to-lovers story in diverse ethnic communities

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a beloved Jane Austen novel must, more than two centuries after it was published, still be good for a remix.

The past year has seen a slew of retellings of Pride And Prejudice (1813), which Austen finished the first draft of this month 222 years ago.

These fresh versions recast the classic enemies-to-lovers story between the strong-willed Elizabeth Bennet and the uptight Mr Darcy in diverse ethnic communities, from Pakistan to an Afro-Latino neighbourhood in Brooklyn.

Canadian author Uzma Jalaluddin, whose debut novel Ayesha At Last is set in a close-knit Muslim community in Toronto, tells The Straits Times over the telephone: "I think a lot of the people who are writing Pride And Prejudice remixes are responding to the fact that Jane Austen's humour was always gentle and inclusive.

"She wrote about regular people. Oftentimes for marginalised, racialised people, the only times we appear in books is when something sensational is happening, not the small moments that define our everyday lives.

"I think that's why people find Jane Austen appealing and rewrite her stories for themselves - that feeling of what it is like to fall in love for the first time."

The hero of her novel, which had its film rights scooped up by American production company Pascal Pictures, is the conservative Khalid Mirza, who expects to meet his future wife through a match arranged by his mother. But he falls for free-spirited slam poet Ayesha Shamsi, even as they clash over religious observance and women's freedom.

Jalaluddin, 40, also wanted to explore Islamophobia through Khalid, who experiences workplace discrimination because he chooses to wear white robes and a skullcap to the office.

Pride And Prejudice has racked up hundreds of retellings from the respectable to the ridiculous.

It has been told from the perspective of the Bennets' servants in Jo Baker's Longbourn (2013), reinvented for modern-day Cincinnati in Curtis Sittenfeld's Eligible (2016) and spun off into a murder mystery in P.D. James's Death Comes To Pemberley (2011). It has even been infamously overrun by zombies in Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride And Prejudice And Zombies (2009).

Critics have drawn comparisons between Pride And Prejudice and the social satire of Kevin Kwan's Crazy Rich Asians series, which The Washington Post called "Jane Austen meets Singapore".

The latest retellings take the ingredients of Austen's classic - the pressure of social expectations, the dissection of class privilege and the fallibility of first impressions - and reinterpret them in new cultural contexts.

In Pride by Haitian-American young adult author Ibi Zoboi, headstrong Haitian-Dominican teen Zuri Benitez takes a dislike to her wealthy new neighbours, the Darcys, whom she views as a sign that their Bushwick neighbourhood is rapidly gentrifying.

In Pakistani-American writer Soniah Kamal's Unmarriageable, bookish Alys Binat teaches English literature - including Austen - at a girls' school in small-town Pakistan. In one scene, she argues with supercilious newcomer Darsee about post-colonial literature.

"You talked of a Pakistani Jane Austen," he tells her. "But will we ever hear the English or Americans talk of an equivalent?"

Indian-American author Sonali Dev gender-swops Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride, Prejudice, And Other Flavours, in which prickly Indian-American neurosurgeon Trisha Raje is drawn into the orbit of black British chef DJ Caine, who resents the elite Raje family for looking down on his rough upbringing.

Dev, 46, wanted to deconstruct readers' love for Darcy, an arrogant misanthrope who makes no effort to be likeable.

She says over the telephone: "Give readers a male character like that and we lap it up. But a female character is expected to be endearing and likeable. Do we live in a world where women are afforded the same lens as men?"

Her book also tackles cultural appropriation. Its antagonist Julia Wickham is a white woman who wears kurtas and henna and later moves on to dreadlocks.

Dev has three more novels about the Raje family in the works, which will retell Austen's Persuasion, Sense And Sensibility and Emma.

"Her female characters have this intrinsic self-worth, even when society tells them they don't have it," says Dev. "She was a very astute commentator about people's places in society, how they look out at society and how it looks back at them."


• Ayesha At Last ($17.95), Pride ($31.20), Unmarriageable ($29.43) and Pride, Prejudice, And Other Flavours ($27.82) are available at Books Kinokuniya.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 20, 2019, with the headline 'Jane Austen's multicultural afterlives'. Print Edition | Subscribe