Uzma Jalaluddin worked backward toward her dream of becoming a writer. At least in the eyes of her South Asian parents, whose expectations had already been met when, at a relatively young age, she started a family and armed herself with a full-time job to support them. Secure and settled, it was while she was pregnant with her second son and approaching her 30th birthday that Jalaluddin decided it was now or never.
“I always wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know how to go about doing that,” she says. “At the time, the publishing industry wasn’t very welcoming of people who weren’t from certain backgrounds or who didn’t know how to navigate the industry. My parents are immigrants from India, so I also knew that I had to make my way in this world and get a steady profession.”
Sure enough, her first novel took nearly a decade to draft, write, revise and publish. That included an initial version that she sheepishly says “was very bad,” and was something those in the writing world call a “trunk novel,” a.k.a. the one you dump in a trunk in your basement, unfixable and never to be seen again. But she plucked one character she particularly liked, ran with it, and out came – eventually – 2018′s Ayesha At Last, a romantic comedy that follows a young woman who puts aside her dreams of becoming a novelist to teach and support her family.
While there’s an obvious autobiographical element there for Jalaluddin, her first novel might sound familiar for another reason: It’s inspired by Jane Austen’s oft adapted Pride and Prejudice. Except in this iteration, the lead is Muslim, rejecting a romantic set-up (or, as you might say in South Asian culture, an arrangement) in hopes of falling in love. Jalaluddin’s second novel, the charming 2021 Hana Khan Carries On, was also based on another popular rom-com, the 1998 film You’ve Got Mail, while her latest, Much Ado About Nada is a fresh take on Austen’s Persuasion.
In recent years, a number of South Asian authors have taken on Austen: there’s Sonali Dev’s The Emma Project (2022), Soniah Kamal’s Unmarriageable (2019), and Debeshi Gooptu’s Mr. Eashwar’s Daughter (2019), to name a few. (And lest we forget, the well-intentioned but best forgotten 2005 film Bride & Prejudice.)
At first, the tie may not be so obvious. But consider Austen’s brand of heroine: an independent, strong-willed woman who lives to challenge the norm. With a relatively new platform, South Asian authors have found a way to represent the modern-day brown woman, who goes against stereotypes and clichés. This is a woman who works and falls in loves and who has agency, all while supporting her family. This woman is very real for a current generation of South Asian readers – who are also far too familiar with Austen’s themes of class warfare and societal expectations.
“When I set out to write, I wanted to subvert expectations,” Jalaluddin says. “In all of my books, the Muslim woman is smart and strong, but I also wanted to delve into and subvert family relationships.” In Ayesha At Last, for instance, the lead’s mother would rather she focus on her career over marriage, while her male love interest is the one being pressured to get hitched [because, yeah, Muslim men feel that pressure, too]. “While the story is unfolding and hopefully entertaining my readers, it’s also asking them to rethink and re-evaluate the biases they probably don’t even know they have.”
Much Ado About Nada, meanwhile, follows a Muslim engineer in her late 20s who’d rather be working away on her side project, an advice app called Ask Apa, than looking for love – until it stumbles into her, as the story often goes. In this book, Jalaluddin examines the internal misogyny and oppression in the South Asian community and the impact that can have on a young woman coming into her own (as opposed to her first two novels, which were more of an exterior examination, on racism and prejudice).
Jalaluddin has another novel coming out, this September, titled Three Holidays And A Wedding, co-written with friend Marissa Stapley, who penned the 2021 bestseller Lucky. A multifaith rom-com, it follows what happens when two friends find themselves snowbound in a small town, right when Christmas, Eid, and Hannukah fall at the same time.
While she was writing that book, Jalaluddin was also in production on her first play, The Rishta, which tells the story of a South Asian woman who falls in love with a man outside her community. It premiered at Montreal’s Centaur Theatre this past March.
Looking ahead, Hana Khan Carries On is in development as a movie at Amazon Studios by none other than writer and actress Mindy Kaling, another South Asian force who has been a pioneer for brown stories. According to Jalaluddin, the script is “fantastic,” and once the dual Hollywood strikes resolve, the hunt will be on for a director.
“A nobody from Toronto wrote a book and captured the imagination of big Hollywood producers – I hope that’s inspiring for young up-and-coming creatives, to know there is a way forward,” she says. “And hopefully they won’t wait until they’re in their 30s with two kids and a full-time job.”