Romance readers are no strangers to wedding bells; happily ever after is practically preordained. Lately, however, there’s a common twist on the marriage trope: depictions of arranged marriage within South Asian and Muslim cultures.
Written by women with intimate knowledge of this particular happy ending, these books offer a corrective to misconceptions about the tradition.
For starters: “There is a difference between forced marriages and arranged marriages, and I think a lot of people get those two things confused,” author Nisha Sharma said during a recent interview. Sharma, a first-generation Indian American and the author of “The Takeover Effect” — who was in a semi-arranged marriage after seeing the success of her parents’ union — argues that love and arranged marriage are not mutually exclusive and that books can offer “texture” to readers outside the culture who may want to understand it more.
Arranged marriages have been a staple in romance novels for a long time — even if they weren’t always depicted in particularly nuanced ways.
“I think readers like marriages of convenience and arranged marriage plots because they effectively and quickly pair the protagonists together in a way that is sure to generate conflict,” said Elle Keck, an associate editor at Avon and William Morrow Books. “The sparks can fly and, in a romance novel, turn into a terrific love story.”
A new crop of books keeps the sparks while also dismantling stereotypes and inviting critical discussion about the traditions themselves.
Sonali Dev’s 2014 debut, “A Bollywood Affair,” is actually about undoing an arranged marriage — a child marriage to be specific — that the protagonist had no say in, while trying to find herself (and love!) outside of its scope. Dev finds the old-fashioned portrayal of arranged marriage problematic because it so often involves coercing protagonists into marriage and forcing love. To her, that sounds “regressive” compared with what many modern-day arranged marriages typically entail.
While Dev, also the author of the upcoming “Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors,” acknowledges how complex the tradition is, at least in the urban, educated Indian culture, she sees merit in writing romances about arranged marriage as long as the relationship is mutually consensual and, “as long as the storytelling is authentic and sensitive without exotifying or vilifying a tradition.”
The new romances that focus on the tradition are part of a larger push for inclusivity within the genre, celebrating writers from diverse backgrounds with various kinds of stories to tell.
“There’s a demand for narratives with characters that accurately represent the real-life struggles of people from all backgrounds,” said Bianca Flores, assistant publicist at William Morrow Books.
She’s currently working with author Zara Raheem on “The Marriage Clock,” which comes out in July. Raheem’s novel follows Leila, a Muslim-American woman whose parents give her a three-month ultimatum to find the right husband before they take matters into their own hands. Leila goes through a series of dates to find “the one,” even though her identity and views on love are at constant odds with parental pressures to settle down. After giving into her mother’s requests about matchmaking, Leila thinks to herself: “It might at least buy me some time to discover love on my own while my parents scoured the western region for a husband for me. Just because I had agreed to an arrangement doesn’t mean I actually had to go through with it.”
“The Marriage Clock” joins a number of other South Asian novels out this year, including Sharma’s “The Takeover Effect”; a modern-day Pakistani adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” called “Unmarriageable,” by Soniah Kamal; “Ayesha at Last,” by Uzma Jalaluddin — another modern-day “Pride and Prejudice” adaptation; and “The Matchmaker’s List,” by Sonya Lalli. All richly diverse and complex, many of them analyze gender stereotypes, tradition and double standards through the lens of young women pressured by their family and culture to get married.
In “The Matchmaker’s List,” for example, a woman named Raina fends off her grandmother’s matchmaking — and that of the Canadian Indian community they’re part of.
“I think arranged marriage is important to talk about because the idea that a family or community member might set us up with someone we share values with isn’t inherently a bad idea,” Lalli said. “It’s the execution that can oppress women.”
In the novel, Raina calls out the misconceptions people have about modern arranged marriages. “I am often bombarded with questions by co-workers or middle-aged women sitting next to me on long-haul flights after they’ve picked up on the fact that I’m half Indian,” she laments. “They want to know more about this whole ‘arranged marriage’ thing, whether soon I, too, might be enlisted. But the protocol of today’s arranged marriage in my community is less glamorous than they might anticipate.”
Lalli points out that, while arranged marriage and matchmaking have endured in the South Asian subcontinent, they transcend cultural and religious boundaries — and just about everyone can relate to feeling the pressure to pair off. “Raina, who is 30 and hasn’t settled down, is viewed as being at fault for being single and not yet finding a husband,” Lalli said. “This is an incredibly pervasive double standard affecting women everywhere.”
For Lalli, writing about this trope felt personal, and she wanted her experiences to be more represented in the publishing industry and in culture. “As a woman living in the South Asian diaspora, it was important for me to write a book that reflected my own experiences and those of women like me. Both my grandmothers had arranged marriages, and both had very long, supportive and loving marriages. So even as a modern woman, with that sort of example, I never ruled out the idea that I might one day too.”
Kamrun Nesa is a full-time publicist and a freelance writer whose work has appeared on NPR, USA Today’s Happy Ever After romance blog, Bustle and HelloGiggles.