During these unsettled and unsettling times, we’ve been finding solace in the novels we’ve long loved, returning to some of those we wrote about in A Secret Sisterhood: The hidden friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf. Who better to chat to this month, then, than fellow fan of Jane Austen, Soniah Kamal, whose latest novel Unmarriageable is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in Pakistan. Soniah introduced us to poet, Shikha Malaviya, who is currently working on a novel. The candour of their conversation made us to feel, for a moment, as if we’d all gathered in one room.
How did the two of you meet, and what were your first impressions?
Soniah: Shikha founded and edited Monsoon Magazine, a literary journal dedicated to showcasing South Asian writers. I was impressed with the quality of work and submitted a short story. Shikha accepted it and gave me an editorial call in which we discovered that we had a lot in common. Even though Shikha is from India and I’m from Pakistan, we’ve both spent formative childhood years in those countries as well as in England. We’d both married young and moved to the US, and we have children, our sons the same age. We’d both grown up on similar authors and books. We bonded instantly. Because of Monsoon Magazine, I already knew that Shikha cared about literature and new voices, but she also turned out to be smart, warm and gentle, funny, no-nonsense, and honest. We laughed a lot and really connected over literature and life both on and off the page. I remember hanging up and feeling like I’d known Shikha forever. Fifteen years later, I know I was blessed to have met Shikha. I always wonder what might have happened had she rejected my story!
Shikha: I first met Soniah through her story, ‘Call Me Mango’, which she had submitted to Monsoon Magazine. In it, Soniah had subverted many of the common themes in South Asian immigrant literature and I wanted to find out more about the person behind the story. It didn’t matter that Soniah was Muslim and I was Hindu or that our countries were always at war with each other in one way or another. We talked on the phone as if long lost sisters. The week after, she came over with her kids and since then, we’ve been a part of each other’s lives through every good and bad moment, every good and bad word written. In Soniah, I found a best friend and colleague who is blunt, courageous, brutally honest, funny, talented, hard working, sensitive, and always there, despite my numerous moves. I’ll never forget how she called every single day after my father passed away, despite her being in Atlanta and my being in India, and her youngest child barely a few months old.
What do you particularly admire about each other’s writing?
Shikha: Soniah is a brilliant writer who takes no shortcuts when it comes to writing about difficult things and I really admire that about her. She often writes about things that people like to avoid or are too scared to write about. There’s a raw honesty in her work that is rare to find these days, especially so in Soniah’s essays. Also, Soniah’s psychological insight into her characters is amazing along with her ability to make connections that are unique yet very insightful. If you read Soniah’s short stories and novels, you’ll see how she is able to balance all the elements that make a good story – plot, pacing, setting, narrative arc, and above all voice. All her characters are heard.
Soniah: I was drawn to Shikha’s poetry because of her stunning imagery and her subject matter – hyphenated identities and homelands, displacement, the ability to sensitively layer women’s experiences and emotions. Shikha is working on a novel right now and what I’ve read so far is breathtaking. She’s really able to take her poetic language to write stellar character descriptions and even do some awesome things with pacing through images. She can capture an entire universe in one image; I really don’t know how she does it, but the result is magical.
Do you share each other’s unpublished writing?
Soniah: We absolutely do critique each other’s work and also offer suggestions, run ideas past one another and give encouragement on days when we get the writer blues. I have great respect for Shikha’s craft skills and tastes so trust her judgment implicitly. It’s a huge relief when I send her something and she says she likes it. We’re very upfront if something not working for us and we end up laughing about our duds. At one point, I planned to set part of my novel An Isolated Incident in a pet shop. I told Shikha, who’d already read myriad drafts, my brilliant idea, and her groan alone and ‘please don’t do that’ was enough to deter me but also I realized how absurd the idea was and it’s till a running joke.
Shikha: It’s amazing we aren’t sick of each other’s writing yet! We share things for feedback almost every week. We’ll send each other stuff and then text each other to follow up and then a phone call, which often leads into other tangential conversations. Soniah’s advice is often about me having to expand on things, and mine usually involves her cutting down. We complement each other by coming to the table with different literary/editorial strengths. We’ve learnt together and learnt from each other, and I hope that continues for many years to come.
Which female author from history or female literary character would you have liked to have as a friend?
Soniah: Any author who sees through pretense and speaks up about it. Jane Austen of course would be very entertaining with her wit as would Ismat Chughtai. As for literary character, it’s a toss up between the speaker in Dorothy Parker’s poem ‘One Perfect Rose’ and Melia in Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Ruined Maid’. They’d be droll and perceptive and great fun.
Shikha: To meet an author is one thing, to have one as a friend…There are many who I would have loved to have had as a mentor: poets Eavan Boland, Adrienne Rich, Gwendolyn Brooks. But perhaps the 16th-century Hindu mystic poet Mirabai would have been a great friend – to see her world of devotion and revel in it. She lived life on her own terms in a world that was deeply patriarchal.
How have the unprecedented times we are living through in 2020 impacted your lives as writers and friends?
Shikha: Our friendship is a constant in this turbulent time. Just before the shelter-in-place orders kicked in, Soniah and I attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs‘ conference in San Antonio. For the past few years we had been meeting and rooming together for this conference, and with the threat of COVID-19, we knew that it might be a while before we met up again. We showed up for each other in a way.
Soniah: Except when we first met and lived within driving distance of each other for six months or so, Shikha and I have never lived in the same place, so we’re used to talking over the phone. I think what has become even clearer is the realization that life can be cut short and that brings with it an urgency to focus on the things that are important. In these precarious times, Shikha is my ballast – but then she always has been.
Soniah Kamal is the author of novels Unmarriageable and An Isolated Incident. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram: @SoniaKamal. Her website is: soniahkamal.com
Shikha Malaviya is the author of poetry collection Geography of Tongues, and publisher & co-founder of literary press The (Great) Indian Poetry Collective. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShikhaMalaviya. Her website is: shikhamalaviya.com