Laaleen Khan with a Jane Austen statue in Bath
Laaleen Khan with a Jane Austen statue in Bath

Iconic author Jane Austen is becoming popular in Pakistan largely thanks to writer, journalist and literary enthusiast Laaleen Khan.

The British Pakistani media professional is the founder of the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan (JASP). She is also editor and co-contributor of Austenistan, a new Jane Austen-inspired anthology set among Pakistani society and aims for its publication next year.

The talented writer is a professional advisor at the Jane Austen Literacy Foundation, founded and chaired by the legendary author’s fifth great-niece, Caroline Jane Knight.

“I am delighted to be working with Laaleen and JASP. This enthusiastic group is keen to support the aims of the foundation, fundraising initiatives and help select the literacy partners and programmes in Pakistan that will benefit from the funds raised,” said Caroline.

JASP was covered in the March/April edition of the official magazine of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath. Tim Bullamore, editor and publisher of Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine said: “We are always happy to learn of groups that share her work outside the country in which she lived. We were particularly thrilled to learn of JASP, and Laaleen’s work in bringing her writing to Pakistan. Jane Austen transcends boundaries and cultures and has something to offer to everyone.”

In October, Laaleen will be a panellist in Washington DC as part of the Emma At 200: No One But Herself themed annual general meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America.

Linda Slothouber, co-chair of the 2016 AGM said: “Officers of the Austen societies from Australia, Brazil, and the UK, as well as Pakistan, will join us to talk about what makes Austen’s novels exciting and relevant to them. On the internet, Laaleen Khan has been a witty and insightful commentator, so we’re thrilled to be able to meet her in person and have her represent JASP.”

Eastern Eye caught up with Laaleen to talk about her love of Jane Austen, the English writer’s relevance to contemporary Pakistan, the society founded in her name, Laaleen’s new book Austenistan and more.

When did you first become interested in Jane Austen?

Like many people in the Commonwealth, I grew up devouring British classics and even performed the Sir Roger de Coverley (dance) at my girls’ school in Lahore. I dreamed of forbidden midnight feasts at Malory Towers, channelled Hercule Poirot as I cut my breakfast toast into perfect OCD squares, yearned to twirl at Almack’s in an Empire-waisted gown and chuckled over Bertie Wooster’s romantic entanglements. I also wept inconsolably over Heathcliffe, Mr Rochester, Sydney Carton and the Mayor of Casterbridge.

It was only a matter of time until I was introduced to Austen and inevitably became a Janeite (an Austen fan).

Where did your strong connection with Jane Austen come from?

On my 12th birthday, I received a beautifully illustrated Jane Austen omnibus from my aunt Helen in Watford. It was love at first read.

On a visit to a Washington DC bookshop as a university student, I picked up Maggie Lane’s exquisite Jane Austen’s World and pored over every detail. I borrowed every book on Jane the Goddard Library at Clark University had to offer. By this time, I had also written a college essay juxtaposing Austen’s regency-era marriage market with what I termed Pakistani drawing-room society – the latter replete with match-making engineered around tea trolleys bearing porcelain, cakes and finger sandwiches.

By my senior year, I was awarded high honours on my Screen Studies thesis, which combined my love of period drama and literature in the context of Jane Austen and post-modernism. Then I entered the real world.

Now after a decade and-a-half of working in media, getting married and raising children, you are coming full circle with your upcoming anthology Austenistan. Tell us a little bit about it?

Austenistan is an engrossing anthology of more than 15 short stories. I’m the editor and one of its contributors. Earlier this year, I invited an array of brilliant women, who are also members of JASP, to contribute stories inspired by Jane Austen’s characters or storylines, and set in Pakistani society. It’s already created a flutter among international publishing circles, which is so encouraging.

When the opportunity arose to sign with agents, I went with my gut and warmed to Jay Vasudevan at Jacaranda. She’s south Asia’s first literary agent and a kindred spirit.

What makes Austenistan different from the other Austen-inspired fan fiction?

Austenistan isn’t going to be your typical Asian chick-lit novel with a cover bearing Sanskrit-inspired font and a veiled woman displaying henna-stained hands. It’s unabashedly mainstream commercial fiction for global readership and relatable for women everywhere. Through our words, I hope to reveal an authenticity about Pakistani society that is seldom explored internationally to generate a new appreciation about metropolitan lifestyles here. I’m very excited to share these perspectives with the world.

When will Austenistan be out?

Ideally, around the time of Jane’s 200th death anniversary in 2017 to honour her legacy and the delight she has brought to our lives. Can you even imagine a world without Mr Darcy?

Tell us about JASP and how it has grown?

JASP has grown organically in two years from an online page to a thriving literary community of like-minded people from 45 countries coming together to celebrate and discuss her work as well as fan fiction, sequels and period drama. Online, we’re under 1,000 members. We have met up several times in Islamabad and Karachi as a group to discuss socio-literary topics.

What types of women join the club and are there any men?

We are an eclectic group comprising journalists, academics, barristers, creative professionals and doctors, age group ranging mostly from 22 to 50. Our members are from various social circles – we aren’t cliquish in the least.

We prefer our current 100 per cent female demographic for our group meet-ups to ensure that our discussions remain candid. Our online community is about 96 per cent female.

Tell us about your annual parties?

We plan very small tea parties annually. We indulge in a bit of role-play and attempt to dress and behave in character over tea and scones. It’s great fun and a good laugh.

Are there any parallels between the era that Austen lived in and modern-day Pakistan?

Many Regency-era social conventions among the ton can be found in Pakistan today – the importance of making ‘a good match’, the influence of families over individuals and couples, elements of social decorum, maintaining a fashionable veneer at all costs, social criteria for eligibility in marriage, saving oneself for marriage or at least appearing to, striving for a facade of propriety and, of course, inherent snobbery.

You also have ladies who appear privileged yet are often bound by conventions that define them first by their fathers and then by their husbands. I could go on, but I would rather that you waited for the book.

There are clubs devoted to Jane Austen around the world. Why do you think she generates so much interest?

Austen’s characters are so relatable, universal and fascinating. That every corner of the world has discovered this and continues to celebrate it two centuries later doesn’t surprise me.

What’s next for you?

I’m a panellist at the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA)’s annual general meeting in October in Washington DC. A first for Pakistan and for south Asia.

Finally, you also have a Mr Darcy experience…

I’ve been fortunate enough to meet the extremely affable Colin Firth (who played Mr Darcy in a TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) in London in 1999. I was too embarrassed to bring up the D-word, though we spoke about films and characters for about half an hour. He was very witty and certainly very far from being, ‘ill-qualified to recommend himself to strangers!’

Visit www. Laaleen.com, Facebook: @Janeites Pakistan & @LaaleenMedia, Instagram: @Jane Austen_Pk & @Laaleen_Official, Twitter: @Laaleen to find out more