Representation is a hot topic in literary circles these days, as publishers reckon (late, slowly, and imperfectly) with their long unnoticed white-male-privileged-heterosexual-etc. biases. The world of Jane Austen fanfic is no exception, as the past month’s news makes clear:
* Mid-June saw the publication of Uzma Jalaluddin’s Much Ado About Nada (great title), which sets a Persuasion-inspired tale of romantic second chances in contemporary Toronto’s community of observant Muslims with South Asian roots.
A voracious reader, and Austen fan, as a girl, “the older I got, I realized there were so few stories that were representative of my own experiences,” Jalaluddin said in a recent interview. “I’m the daughter of immigrants from India, and I’m visibly Muslim. There were very few stories that represented me back in the day.”
I had mixed feelings about Jalaluddin’s 2019 Ayesha At Last, a Pride and Prejudice update also set among Toronto Muslims—for me, it was an affecting family story struggling to escape from an overstuffed, semi-incoherent tangle of subplots—but the new one is on my list. Like I said—great title.
* If you prefer your Muslim Austen updates a few hundred miles southeast of Toronto, just wait till next summer, the scheduled publication date for Aamna Qureshi’s If I Loved You Less, an Emma relocated to Long Island and featuring a matchmaking Muslim-American heroine. Like Jalaluddin, Qureshi hopes her book will help readers feel seen.
"Everyone deserves to have stories written for them that they can relate to,” Qureshi said in an online story about the sale of her manuscript. “There are two billion Muslims in the world and millions of those are avid readers, yet there are hardly any books being published to cater to their needs. Muslims deserve to see themselves in happy, fun, romantic books."
* Queer Austen more your thing? Worry not—the gay Northanger Abbey update that you’ve always wanted just came out. Or, to be exact, Northranger, the “swoony and spooky teen summer romance graphic novel set on a Texas ranch” that you’ve always wanted.
Growing up poor, closeted, and half-Mexican in 1990s Texas was hard and lonely, author Rey Terciero explains in a blog post; novels, comic books, and horror movies were his escape. When his teacher assigned Jane Austen, Terciero worried that reading a girly book might clue others in to his then-secret sexual orientation, so the relatively obscure Northanger Abbey seemed like a safer choice.
“I didn’t expect much. A few pages in, and I couldn’t put it down. I devoured it. I loved it,” Terceiro writes. “But as with all the books I read as a youth, there was something missing—a character that reminded me of me.”
Northranger, the story of a budding romance between closeted, Latino Cade and handsome, secretive Henry, aims to fill that gap while bringing new readers to Austen, Terceiro says. “It’s been a hard road to accepting myself,” he writes, “but here I am—writing books about young gay Texans in the hope that my books reach other young gay Texans, and of course any reader out there that feels marginalized.”
Whether rewriting all-white stories with more diverse casts signifies representational progress or whitewashes a racist past is a complicated question, as Sayantani DasGupta, a prolific YA author, notes in a recent essay promoting her two Austen spinoffs, which feature Indian American protagonists.
"Is a brown Eleanor [sic] Dashwood or a Desi Mr. Darcy enough to heal all our psychic wounds—postcolonial, representational, or otherwise? Of course not," DasGupta writes. "But it’s a beginning, a start of a new sort of literary and historical imagining in which we all belong and we are all celebrated."
Of course I agree: It's unquestionably a Good Thing that publishers are finally trying to tell long-neglected stories that reflect the experiences of more readers. But may I also say: There are many reasons to read literature, and many ways to find yourself in a book. After all, years ago, an observant Muslim girl in Canada and a gay Latino boy in Texas found something to love in the novels of a white, Christian spinster from England.