Finding Jane Austen in Pakistan

We chat with Laaleen Khan, editor of a brand new anthology of short stories set in Pakistan and inspired by Jane Austen's fiction
Finding Jane Austen in Pakistan
Laaleen Khan, editor of Austenistan

Two centuries have passed, but Jane Austen continues to live in our midst. Be it the wicked whispers in the grand evening balls, the sheepish courtship or the subtle ways of expressing desire, Austen’s is a world that continues to resonate across cultures. Inspired by her fiction, Austenistan, a brand new anthology of short stories set in Pakistan, will find its place in the bookshelves next year. Laaleen Khan, co-contributor and editor of the anthology, tells us what it means to inhabit Jane Austen’s world in Pakistan.

What aspects of Jane Austen’s characters/stories find resonance in the Pakistani society of today?
Pakistan and indeed, much of South Asia, may at times be regarded as the land of Austen; twenty first century in many ways, yet quintessentially Jane’s world in others, much more so than the western hemisphere. Many social conventions among the fashionable society of the Regency era are still found in Pakistan today: the importance of making ‘a good match,’ the influence of families over individuals and couples, elements of social decorum, maintaining a fashionable veneer at all costs, social criteria for eligibility in marriage, saving oneself for marriage—or at least appearing to, striving for a facade of propriety, and, of course, inherent snobbery. There are ladies who appear privileged yet are often bound by conventions that define them first by their fathers and then by their husbands. Even our fashions are similar! Our cotton-lawn is similar to the fashionable muslin and chintz of Jane’s era, our wedding pouches are variations of Regency reticules, and the Kashmiri shawls and kundan jewellery that ladies of fashion wore in England two centuries ago via the East India Company continue to be classic fashion staples here today.

How did you go about selecting individual writers? What are some of the most heartwarming stories you came across?
I was thinking of ways to commemorate Jane’s upcoming 200th death anniversary with fellow members of the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan, our literary group, and Austenistan came into fruition this summer. Things happened astonishingly quickly after that! I went with my gut and invited women whom I found had a unique voice, wit and eloquence alongwith an affinity for Austen. Our stories range from fun and quirky to dramatic and emotive. There’s love and laughter, hope and heartbreak, angst and anguish—something for everyone! It’s a real page-turner and I like to think it’s as irresistible as chai and pakoras on a rainy afternoon.

The contributors of our anthology have ethnic, cultural or geographic ties with Pakistani society. Team Austenistan’s an eclectic bunch! We’ve got public health scientist Gayathri Warnasuriya writing from Amman, Jordan, and author and essayist Soniah Kamal writing from Atlanta, Georgia. Nida Elley is an academic who’s writing from Austin, Texas, Meera Ghani is a climate change and human rights advocate writing from Brussels, Belgium and Meher I Daultana is a jewellery designer attending Cambridge University. Zeenat Pasha is a barrister writing from Colchester, Essex, as is Saniyya Gauhar, who’s writing from Islamabad. Sophia Saifi heads CNN International’s Pakistan bureau. In Karachi, we’ve got Salima Feerasta who’s a physicist-turned-fashion blogger, Mishayl Naek, an economist-turned-lifestyle journalist, and homeware entrepreneur Ayesha Rehman-Nizami. In Lahore, we’ve got textile journalist and magazine editor Mahlia S Lone, published poet Afshan Shafi, and prolific print journalists Mehr F Husain and Sonya Rehman. Screenwriter Sirah Haq’s writing from London and research associate Atika Khawaja’s writing from New York. And then myself—I’m a media professional based in Islamabad.

Last but not least, Jane Austen’s fifth great niece, Caroline Jane Knight, has written an illuminating foreword. We’ve been working together on her Jane Austen Literacy Foundation and it’s been a synergistic journey.

The contributing writers of Austenistan

What is the most challenging aspect of putting together an anthology like this one?
Firstly, our insane yet inspirational timeline! The idea began this summer and we’ve been moving at the speed of light in time for Jane’s bicentennial. We hope that Austenistan will be one of many notable global tributes to Austen next year, including films, theatrical productions, exhibits and the Bank of England’s new £10 note. Secondly, coordinating with the contributors, narrative development and deadlines. Thirdly, writing and editing. I’ve worn multiple hats on this anthology and I’m enjoying it all. Every moment has brought us closer together as a fraternity.

Be it the Pakistani dramas or literature, the portrayal of women in the popular media has undergone a change. What led to this churning?
Well, art imitates life and life imitates art! And there’s nothing more powerful and terrifying than a Pakistani aunty! Jokes aside though, our women are not pushovers or wallflowers and never were. I think that the traditional perception of meek, mild-mannered maidens that you’re alluding to was the result of societal expectations on how girls and young women ‘ought’ to behave. In reality, some of us are not daunted by societal restrictions like Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, some persevere in trying circumstances like Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, and others are as ardent as Marianne Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility, as confident as Emma Woodhouse of Emma and as capable as Anne Elliot of Persuasion. I feel that the increasingly multifaceted depiction of women in Pakistani fiction, film and TV also has a lot to do with the fact that there are far more women authors, journalists, photographers, producers, directors and screenwriters today, so we are in essence actively participating in the narrative process on the page and on the screen. I would love for Austenistan to be embraced by mainstream pop culture internationally and offer Pakistani women added representation in the literary and entertainment sphere. We’re too often pigeonholed as victims of abuse or violence. There are nearly 100 million of us and we have a lot to offer the world! We’re brilliant, we’re fascinating and we’re relatable.

But the kind of independence and authority that the 18th century women in Austen’s novels aspire to seem ambiguous for the cultural milieu women inhabit in the 21st century. Institutions like marriage, for instance, have assumed different meanings. 
On some level, women in Pakistan have a great deal in common with Austen’s characters and Regency England norms, but we are twenty first century women after all. Austenistan talks about romance and matchmaking—this aspect is indeed similar to Austen’s world—but our stories also include protagonists’ professional and academic ambitions that are the privileges of living in our current era. We tackle romance and relationships in the anthology as one does in mainstream commercial fiction, but we go beyond the norm. For instance, how long does happily-ever-after last and what happens afterwards? How can one find love again after a failed relationship? What if your perfect partner is your career? Austen held a mirror to her society and we hold a mirror to ours. She wrote about hope and betrayal and second chances. We offer glimpses into contemporary Pakistan and recent eras; snapshots of human experiences ranging from light-hearted joy to heavyhearted anguish depicted through nuanced characters in familiar situations but sometimes with unexpected outcomes.

Are there any plans of turning Austenistan into a larger series?
I’d be open to exploring fun ideas as long as they maintain a high standard of quality and creativity. A fiction series, a film adaptation, a TV series, a web series, a graphic novel…Bring it on!

Austenistan’s publishers’ names were not announced at the time of this interview. For more information, visit www.laaleen.com.

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