Soniah Kamal: A life-changing journey of identity, loss and betrayal - EasternEye

Soniah Kamal: A life-changing journey of identity, loss and betrayal




ALL novels have a unique journey, but sometimes stunning stories can get lost and then gain a new lease of life later on.

That is exactly what happened to Soniah Kamal’s acclaimed debut novel An Isolated Incident, which went on limited release in India in 2014 and like a hidden treasure was buried. Then the acclaimed writer’s 2019 second novel Unmarriageable becoming globally successful led to her precious story of a young girl, who leaves war-torn Kashmir for a new life in America, getting re-released in 2020.

The writer, who was born in Pakistan, brought up in England and Saudi Arabia, and now settled in USA, has used diverse experiences to deliver two novels that have gained a lot of attention.

Eastern Eye caught up with the rising literary star Soniah Kamal to speak about her writing journey, An Isolated Incident, receiving a compliment from world-famous writer Khaled Hosseini and future plans.

What first connected you to writing?
My dream was to be an actress, but despite acting offers, it was a path I was not permitted to follow. I had been telling stories since a very young age, but it wasn’t until I had an epiphany during my TEDx talk about second chances that I realised I had stuck to writing because, unlike acting which is telling other people’ stories, with writing you are the creator and in control of your character’s fates. I think this appealed to me.

Your second novel Unmarriageable was a huge success; how did you feel when you had finished writing it?
Unmarriageable is a postcolonial parallel retelling of Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice and set in Pakistan. I wrote it in order to reorient and remap, if you will, the linguistic legacy of colonisation. It was a project I’d long wanted to attempt and was relieved when it was done.

What inspired your debut novel An Isolated Incident, which has been given a bigger re-release?
My grandfather was from Srinagar, Kashmir. Before he passed away, he made me promise that I would write on the Kashmir conflict. I think he thought I was going to be a journalist, but I’m a novelist and hope he would have been pleased with the novel I wrote.

Tell us about the story?
An Isolated Incident is about Zari, a young girl who goes through a terrible event in Srinagar and ends up at the home of a distant uncle in America, where she meets his idealistic son, Billal-Billy. One is a homebred Kashmiri and the other has grown up in a diaspora. So much of the story revolves around the meaning of identity and belonging, and who lays claim to truly calling a place their home, as well as what ‘home’ means once you leave it. It’s a novel about geography really, internal and external, about borders and whether hyphenated identities are a loss or a gain or both.

Who are you hoping will connect with this book?
Readers who enjoy complex stories about history, memory, loyalty, betrayal and what it means, or doesn’t, to be a freedom fighter, terrorist, survivor, victim, activist, and other labels we see bandied about daily in the news.

What was the biggest challenge of writing An Isolated Incident?
Setting a novel in an on-going conflict between Pakistan and India, as well as 1947 Partition elements, is always a tricky business, as well as writing a tale my late grandfather would, I hope, have been proud of. I wish he’d lived to see it.

How did it feel when acclaimed writer Khaled Hosseini complimented your debut novel?
Absolutely brilliant! Hosseini called An Isolated Incident ‘a wonderful novel’ and said it was written with ‘remarkable poise and elegant, precise prose’ and was ‘riveting’. Such praise from a master storyteller of his calibre is beyond gratifying and affirming. This was a very hard novel to write and his commendation was everything.

How does the experience of writing An Isolated Incident compare to your second novel Unmarriageable?
An Isolated Incident took 10 years plus to write and was research heavy since it takes place in four countries. Unmarriageable took two months (I was under a severe deadline). I believe that knowing my world – as the novel is set completely in Pakistan, although across several social classes – certainly helped.

Do you have a set process for when you are writing?
I think whatever works, whenever. I’ve written while bringing up three children and teaching creative writing, among others, and I’ve learned to be kind to myself. So, sometimes I’ll go months without writing and then I’ll be finishing three to four essays back to back (usually these are solicited so I’m on a deadline, which always works). But I don’t have any set routine, place or rituals, except for a big fat cup of chai next to me.

You are fast becoming a hero, but who are your heroes?
The ones who yet are able to find some peace, beauty, hope and reason no matter how bad their life, or the world around them, is or seems.

Is there a book you really love or one that impacted you in a big way?
I read the novel Sunlight on a Broken Column by Attia Hosain a little later in life, but it was the first time I came across a Pakistani author navigating dual identities and duelling backgrounds, and languages. Having grown up in different countries, often with one culture at home and another outside, the themes of (un)belonging and juggling opposing cultural influences spoke to my own lived experience. I saw my concern reflected in this and as such gave sunlight  a seminal cameo in Unmarriageable.

What can we expect next from you? 
I hope more novels and personal essays.

From where do you draw your inspirations for writing?
An Isolated Incident was born when an aunt of mine visiting from Srinagar mentioned the dread of late-night knocks and I immediately had an image of two sisters confronting such a situation. I talk about more of the real-life inspirations that went into An Isolated Incident in a supplemental essay included in the book. But too often a character will speak to me or mutter something not very nice to another character and I’ll just take it from there. I’m also interested in the crossroads of exile, forgiveness and misunderstandings between cultures, and so, ideas often spring from these fountains.

What according to you makes for a good story?
Stories which enter interiority deeply and follow characters’ wrestling with moral and ethical dilemmas, and allow a reader to chew on the meaning of choice, good or bad or mediocre! I am also riveted by beautiful language combined with artful pacing, which knows when to meaningfully digress and meander and when to trot on.

Why should we pick up your new book?
Because you have never read a story like An Isolated Incident or so I’m told by readers and reviewers over, and over again.

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