Friday, 22 March 2019

Viewpoint: Soniah Kamal

Viewpoint invites authors to write about anything they want, as long as it's of interest to readers of Asian Books Blog. Soniah Kamal here talks about how she conquered her fear of cooking, and why food plays such a big role in her latest novel, Unmarriageable.

Soniah is a Pakistani-American writer. She is the author of two novels, An Isolated Incident (2014) and Unmarriageable (2019). Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, in the USA, and The Guardian, in the UK. Her short stories and essays have appeared in critically acclaimed anthologies.

Unmarriageable is a retelling of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice set in Pakistan in 2000 and 2001. It highlights issues of colonialism, race, and Pakistani identity. Balli Jaswal Kaur, the Singaporean author of Erotic Widows for Punjabi Widows, said: "Soniah Kamal has gifted us a refreshing update of a timeless classic. Unmarriageable raises an eyebrow at a society which views marriage as the ultimate prize for women. This atmospheric novel does more than simply retell Pride and Prejudice though. Crackling with dialogue, family tensions, humour and rich details of life in contemporary Pakistan, Unmarriageable tells an entirely new story about love, luck and literature."

Unmarriageable simmers with accounts of delicious Pakistani food, to set readers' mouths watering. Of course, cooking is a big part of Pakistani culture, but Soniah wasn't always such a fan, and her path to making a perfect aloo gosht was a rocky one.

So, over to Soniah...

My first attempt at preparing a meal happened when I was an international student in the U.S. in the early 1990s. I jumped to volunteer to make dinner for friends and merrily dumped an entire packet of spaghetti into cold water only to watch in dismay as it congealed into a lumpen mess.

My second attempt came a few years later, now married and living in a leafy Virginia suburb. I was making aloo gosht, a popular Pakistani meat-potatoes dish stewed in cinnamon, cumin, ginger etc., and a generous amount of oil. Unfortunately, I was clueless when it came to pressure cookers and, upon forcing open the lid, the oil leapt out and my face and neck were very badly burned. In fact, it is thanks to my prescription spectacles that I still have my eyesight.

I had two options after this, to either be forever scared of the kitchen or to conquer it. Gathering all my courage, I decided on the latter. Eventually I mastered spaghetti served with marinara-from-scratch, as well as more complicated recipes, and I learned how to safely use a pressure cooker and other utensils. I discovered that I love to chop, slice, julienne and dice. Instead of being tedious, the repetition required is akin to meditation for me. Preparing meals became my place to ponder on writing, characters, plot, life, everything.

It should not have come as a surprise to me then, the great role cooking plays in Unmarriageable: Pride and Prejudice in Pakistan to the point where food is a piping hot character in its own right, not to mention that many characters, including my Mrs. Bennet, and my Charlotte Lucas's mother, going head-to-head on how important, or not, it is for a 'good girl' to be an excellent cook in order to be 'marriageable material.'

As for me, going from that person who turned pasta into paste, to cooking into a joy has been a long, often sweet journey, one I wouldn't exchange for anything, including a burnt face, now quite healed.