In honour of Canada Day, we invite you to reflect on the diversity of contemporary Canadian literature with debut #CanLit author Uzma Jalaluddin. Jalaluddin’s novel, Ayesha At Last, has been called a remix of Pride and Prejudice, as it offers a unique take on the romance genre. We asked Jalaluddin about her foray into the genre, how she approached it from a non-mainstream perspective and her experience as a debut novelist.
We started at the beginning: why romance? For Jalaluddin, it began with her mother:
UJ: Growing up, I used to watch my parents playfully bicker about what movies to watch. My dad loved westerns and action movies, while my mom loved what she called “chick flicks.” She introduced me to some of the classics of the genre like While You Were Sleeping, Sleepless in Seattle, Legally Blonde, Pride and Prejudice, and Gone with the Wind (which I now realize has a problematic narrative but we watched it for the flouncy ball gowns and Clark Gable’s oozing sex appeal.)
I also watched a lot of Bollywood as a child. My parents would rent a VCR and a whole bag of Bollywood movies on VHS for the weekend, and head over to their friend’s house for a movie marathon (oh God, I’m dating myself right now, aren’t I?). My brother and I were dragged along, because that’s how South Asians roll – everything is a family affair, and no one hires babysitters. So basically, drama-filled romantic movies were always part of my life.
As for my writing interest, I read and write in all sorts of genres. I’ve written a fantasy epic that will never see the light of day, as well as the bones of a few different mysteries. Romance is what stuck because I wanted to write joyful narratives about people of colour.
I’m also a high school English teacher, and in this capacity, I have taught weighty literary classics that are almost always tragedies. The only comedies are Shakespearean and my students never get any of the jokes, not even the dirty ones. Yet, the books people read for fun cross all genres. So I was determined to write a page-turner, a fun read that dealt with important topics like identity, discrimination, family loyalty and strife, and which featured first and second generation immigrants struggling to figure themselves out. It also had to promise the one thing that all romance readers want: a HEA (happily ever after), or a HFN (happy for now). I wanted an optimistic ending for my brown, Muslim characters, instead of the tragic endings that so often befall people of colour in books.
Jalaluddin had a goal in mind: a page-turner that would deal with the topics that she mentioned above but also involved people of colour in a situation that wasn’t tragic. If you’ve read her book, Ayesha At Last, you’ll know that she’s succeed in this. So who were the writers that she drew inspiration from?
UJ: My debut novel, Ayesha At Last, has been billed as a Pride and Prejudice remix, so obviously Jane Austen. I’ve always loved her dry wit, her mischievous observations about everyday people. When I read Austen, I feel like I’m in on the joke, which is remarkable considering she was a white woman living in England over 200 years ago, and I’m a second generation Muslim Canadian living way out in the colonies.
Other authors who influenced me are some of the great Canadian comedic writers starting from my childhood fandom of early Gordon Kormon—Our Man Weston, Son of Interflux, A Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag—which all made me laugh so hard I cried. I also love Lucy Maud Montgomery, Jack Hodgins and Donald Jack. They all wrote comedy that reflected the flavour of their unique social and physical settings. I wanted to include a similarly unique outlook in Ayesha At Last.
The first writers of colour I read, who wrote contemporary stories, also influenced me greatly. I read A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth when I was in university and not just so I would be able to boast that I had finished a 1000+ page novel (though certainly bragging rights are an excellent reason to read anything) but also because the voices of the characters were compelling. I think A Suitable Boy was one of the first funny books I read about South Asians. Jhumpa Lahiri was also an inspiration. When she burst onto the literary stage with Interpreter of Maladies, I fell in love with her deft prose, and her ability to capture the essence of the intersection between South Asian and American life.
A romantic story involving Muslim characters is not a usual occurrence, which leads to a fresh take to the happily ever after framework. Although love transcends cultures and religions, we wanted to know whether there were mentors or a community of writers available to Jalaluddin as she embarked on this relatively new terrain in Canadian literature as a debut author. For her, it took a while before others joined her in her writing journey:
UJ: For a long time, I wrote in secret. I knew that with my responsibilities—in addition to teaching, I also have young children, not to mention my Netflix addiction—it would take me a really long time to finish anything book-length. I was afraid if I told people I was working on a novel, they would grow disappointed with my slow pace, and after a year or five, I would absorb that disappointment, and give up on my dream. And watch more Netflix.
It wasn’t until I had been writing for six or seven years that I started to share with people. I didn’t even tell my parents until I decided to take an unpaid sabbatical to finish the manuscript that became Ayesha At Last. So they think I’m a genius for pulling this off in a short amount of time, but really I’ve been on this journey for about eight years.
However, once I did start to finally admit that I maybe, sort of, kind of, wanted to write a novel, I was fortunate to find “my people,” fellow writers whose feedback and support has been invaluable. I was lucky to find other writers—Rukhsana Khan, S.K. Ali, Ausma Zehanat Khan—all of whom, ironically, have roots in the east end of Toronto.
Asking Jalaluddin how her book fits in the larger #CanLit conversation felt boring so instead, we asked how her character, Ayesha, would respond to that question:
UJ: Ayesha is a struggling spoken word poet at the very beginning of her own artistic journey in the novel and so she is very invested in the larger #CanLit conversation. In fact, she hopes to play a part in #CanLit in the future. As someone in the arts, she would say that her story matters because it adds to the growing tapestry of narratives, all of which reflect different ideas and ways of thinking, and enrich all stories through their diversity.
One of the first poems Ayesha recites in the novel is titled, “What do you See?” As a hijab-wearing spoken-word poet, Ayesha challenges listeners to confront their assumptions. The first line is: “What do you see when you think of me? A figure cloaked in mystery/ With eyes downcast and hair covered/ An oppressed woman yet to be discovered?”
Ayesha is a storyteller and an empathetic observer of human nature. Like Lizzie Bennett, she enjoys studying character and coming to her own conclusions about the world around her. The reader will do likewise about Ayesha and the other characters, and it is through this act of sharing—and accepting!—diverse stories, that everyone changes, and benefits from that change.
Recently, the demand for diverse experiences and voices has increased considerably here in Canada and internationally. Romance, however, has always been a powerhouse and mainstream genre, Uzma Jalaluddin’s entry into the Canadian literary scene brings these two styles of stories together, allowing for interesting characters to showcase their own cultural takes on love.
Before you go, here’s a fun bonus question we asked Jalaluddin:
In your book, Khalid’s sister signs off her e-mails to him with things she’s missed about Canada. What’s the one Canadian thing you’d miss if you had to leave this place behind?
UJ: I used to go on a lot of road trips to the U.S., visiting family and for vacations. Every time my family crossed the border back into Canada, we had one tradition: we stopped off at the first Tim Hortons off the 401. I always ordered the same thing: a steeped tea, double double. I don’t even like sugar in my tea, but there’s something quintessentially Canadian about asking for a double double, and knowing that the person taking my order would know exactly what I wanted. A shared language, from sea to sea.
Also, I’m a big fan of poutine. The cheesier and gravy-er the better!
Aside from food-related things, I would miss the sense of community I experience in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area). I’m a visible Muslim woman and yet, I always feel comfortable and safe walking around the city. No matter where else I go, this is home.
Uzma Jalaluddin, a high school teacher, writes Samosas and Maple Syrup, a regular column about modern Muslim life for the Toronto Star. She’s also been a guest on the TV show Cityline, speaking on the Muslim experience.