Author Uzma Jalaluddin deploys romance tropes to expand the boundaries of the genre.
After updating Pride and Prejudice with her debut romance, author Uzma Jalaluddin turns to a more modern but no less beloved classic: You’ve Got Mail. Her sophomore novel, Hana Khan Carries On, is a retelling of the beloved Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks rom-com that swaps the film’s duelling bookstores for halal restaurants. The titular Hana helps run Three Sisters Biryani Poutine, a community staple that’s owned and operated by her family. Unfortunately, sales are down, and an upscale halal eatery opening nearby could put them out of business for good.
But Hana’s heart is not in the restaurant business. She launched her own podcast while interning at a local radio station and recently formed a flirtation with an anonymous caller. Add in a fearsome, scene-stealing aunt and a cousin so compelling he seems destined for his own spinoff novel, and Hana has her hands full.
Hana Khan Carries On was dozens of drafts in the making, and Jalaluddin freely admits to reworking the story several times over. “The book itself took me many, many years to write. Like a lot of people, I wear a lot of hats,” she says with a laugh during a call to her home outside Toronto. Not only is she a mom, but she also writes a column for the Toronto Star and teaches high school English. Her love of language is evident in every sentence of Hana Khan, as is her gift for precise plotting and clearly defined, immediately lovable characters.
“You don’t usually see a woman in a hijab having agency and being the star of her own love story.”
A lengthy crafting process isn’t new for Jalaluddin. Her first novel, Ayesha at Last, also took a long time to write, beginning in 2010. “I wasn’t writing every day, but it did take me around seven years to reach a final draft,” she says. She describes that story’s Jane Austen connection as a “happy accident,” as it was some time before she noticed Lizzie and Darcy reflected in the novel’s characters.
“I know that sounds ridiculous looking back on it,” Jalaluddin says, “but I also feel like I was writing in a vacuum.” Jalaluddin’s parents immigrated to Canada from India, and she seldom saw an experience like hers represented in the type of books she wanted to write. “In the early 2010s, there was so little South Asian representation in romance or comedies, especially South Asian Muslim representation,” she says. “Part of the reason why I decided to turn my head toward Jane Austen in my first book was because I was a little bit scared that people wouldn’t know how to deal with my story.”
Jalaluddin’s concerns were justified. Even with the Austen hook, Ayesha at Last was rejected countless times by publishers who didn’t know how to sell a novel that featured characters and storylines outside of the industry’s narrowly defined expectations for a Muslim romance.
“You don’t usually see a woman in a hijab having agency and being the star of her own love story,” she says. “You expect a story about her arranged marriage where she runs away, takes off her hijab and dates a white boy. That’s the story we usually hear—not one where she falls in love with a conservative Muslim man who changes a bit but still has his beard at the end of it.”
By adopting familiar frameworks, like the beats of a rom-com or the slow burn of an Austen novel, Jalaluddin artfully deploys classic tropes to give happy endings to characters from backgrounds that are rarely represented in the works she is referencing. And those happy endings aren’t just about romantic love. Jalaluddin also addresses other aspects of her heroines’ experiences such as community, identity and honoring your faith in a secular society.
Though both of Jalaluddin’s novels contain similar pleasures, the author sees differences between her debut and Hana Khan Carries On, which was written during a time of political and social upheaval. “In the past few years, I was more aware of the storm clouds gathering, and I think that comes through in Hana Khan Carries On.” she says. Within the course of the book, Hana and her community must deal with microaggressions and hate crimes while pursuing their dreams.
But passion flows through it all, from the devotion of Hana’s family to keeping their halal restaurant afloat to Hana’s excitement and ambition in launching a podcast. It’s similar to the passion in Jalaluddin’s voice when she’s discussing her path from reader to writer.
“When I was growing up, I wondered, where is the Muslim Bridget Jones? Where is the Muslim Meg Cabot?” Jalaluddin says. She has become what she sought as a young reader, and if another young girl has those same questions now, hopefully she’ll discover that the answer is Uzma Jalaluddin.
Author photo by Andrea Stenson.