Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 10 2018 02:00PM

Jane Austen’s mature work features only one character of color: the teenaged West Indian heiress Miss Lambe, “half mulatto, chilly and tender,” who receives a passing mention near the end of Sanditon, the novel Austen left unfinished at her death.


The lily-white nature of Austen’s cast of characters isn’t surprising, given the racial makeup of the rural English world she knew best. What is intriguing is a recent spate – I think we can call it a trend! -- of Austen fanfic, in both book and screen form, featuring characters of color.


The latest example is Unmarriageable, by the journalist and novelist Soniah Kamal, which updates the story of Pride and Prejudice to contemporary Pakistan, much as did the short stories in last year’s Austenistan.


But although the Indian subcontinent, as I’ve noted before, is a longtime hotbed of Austen adapters, the current characters-of-color trend is broader.


Late last summer, a production company acquired the movie rights to Ayesha At Last, a Pride and Prejudice update set among young Muslims in modern-day Toronto, and HarperCollins published Pride, a P&P update set among young Latinos and African-Americans in Brooklyn.


Then, last month, Lifetime TV announced plans for Pride and Prejudice: Atlanta – yes, a P&P update set against the backdrop of a black church in Georgia. (The producers may have a good idea here: it might be easier to keep these versions straight if the titles of all P&P spinoffs were required to identify the adaptation’s location, CSI-style.)


The impulse to adapt Austen’s stories -- or at least her most famous one -- to characters whose life experiences diverge significantly from those of the people she knew is yet more proof, were any needed, of the universality of her incisive portraits of families, relationships, and comings-of-age. I haven’t yet read the latest offerings, but with luck the writers will use Austen’s narrative template as a vehicle for reflecting on the issues of class and gender that we still wrestle with, two centuries after Austen’s time – as well as the issues of race that she mostly ignored.


No idea how Unmarriageable will stack up against all these other products of the ever-churning Fanfic Factory. But one thing is for sure: Her publisher, Penguin Books, is just a little bit off when it calls Kamal’s novel a “one-of-a-kind retelling of Pride and Prejudice.”


By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 1 2018 02:00PM

Once upon a time, Jane Austen was a British writer. But today, she’s an international phenomenon, with fan societies on at least five continents. As 2018 dawns, herewith an entirely unscientific and incomplete sampling of a few of the places Austen will turn up this year, as fans mark the sort-of bicentennials of Austen’s last two published novels:


* In a bookstore in Islamabad, where members of the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan will convene to discuss Austenistan, their newly released collection of Austen-inspired stories set in contemporary Pakistan.

January 11


* In a nineteenth-century town hall in Salem, Massachusetts, where Regency dance enthusiasts will celebrate at a Jane Austen Ball.

February 17


* In a Baroque palace in Ansbach, Germany, where yet more dancing will take place at Der Grosse Jane Austen Ball.

April 7


* In a building called “the Dutch Versailles,” where Austen’s fans in the Netherlands will celebrate the bicentenary of Persuasion with still another ball.

May 12


(Which should not be confused with the Gothic ball being held in a suburban London church a week later to celebrate the bicentenary of Northanger Abbey.

May 19)


* At a women’s university in Tokyo, where the Jane Austen Society of Japan will hold its twelfth annual convention.

June 30


* In the capital of Australia, Canberra, where the country’s Jane Austen Society will hold a weekend-long conference on the bicentenary of Persuasion.

July 6-8


* On streets where Austen herself once walked, as Georgian-costumed revelers parade through Bath, England, during the annual Jane Austen Festival.

September 14-23


Here's hoping that this year you find a dance, a tea, a conference, an exhibition, a festival -- or even just a conversation -- about Jane Austen somewhere near you.


By Deborah Yaffe, Nov 16 2017 02:00PM

As I’ve noted before, the Indian subcontinent has a curious affinity for the works of Jane Austen. (The Economist's current online issue has a fascinating look at the reasons why.) No surprise, then, that one of this year’s most intriguing Austen spinoff books hails from Pakistan. Its title could almost serve as a metaphor for the subcontinent’s Austen cult: Austenistan.


The book, subtitled The World’s Favourite Author Goes to Pakistan, consists of seven Austen-inspired short stories – fanfics that transplant Austen characters or situations to the world of affluent contemporary Pakistanis. Journalist and writer Laaleen Sukhera, the founder of the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan, edited the collection. (Read an interesting interview with her here.)


Historically, Jane Austen fanfic – at least the published kind -- has been an Anglo-American affair. I can’t wait to experience a non-Western spin on the genre.


But it looks like I’ll have to restrain my impatience. Although the book will be published in Pakistan next month by Bloomsbury India, with a British release planned for next year, I can’t find mention of an American edition. Austenistan is not yet listed on American or British Amazon, and my efforts to pre-order it through Amazon’s India site were unsuccessful: apparently, international shipping isn’t available for this title. Grr. Something else to hope for in the new year.


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