A Note from Sonali Dev, Author of Pride and Prejudice and Other Flavors:
As someone who credits Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with being a defining influence in my life, not only as a writer but as a person, Pride and Protest immediately called to me. But the strength with which I was wrapped up in the raw power of Liza and Dorsey’s spirit from the very first page took me by surprise. It’s at once funny and insightful, and incredibly brave in its candor about our world and the lens through which we view each other across cultural, economic, and racial divides. Nikki Payne manages to infuse the pages with such real emotion, breathless sexual tension, and heartbreaking tenderness that every time I left the book to do something else, I left a piece of my heart in it and had to hurry back. Oh, and Dorsey might be the hottest version of Darcy I’ve ever read.
The following questions were written from Sonali to Nikki.
1. How did you come up with the idea for Pride and Protest?
I was reading about desirability. As a cultural anthropologist, I studied aesthetics and power, and taught a popular course entitled “Politics of Ugly” at the University of Pennsylvania. I’ve always been deeply interested in the cultural aspect of desirability.
Online dating is rough on everyone, but particularly Black women and Asian men. OkCupid app data revealed certain racial biases in online attractiveness (measured by likes and response rates). Dataclysm is an assessment of how people date in the modern age, and what they found was that Black women and Asian men were the least responded to in their data. That Black women and Asian men carry less sexual capital in these digital cultures was a prevailing truth I wanted to counter in the least digital way possible. Classical literature. Classic heroes and heroines are often archetypes of desire. But gendered racial hierarchies of desirability are as socially constructed as other racial hierarchies. Seemingly, personal preferences and choices in modern romance are profoundly shaped by larger social forces.
These characters in Pride and Protest are raced and gendered in the way they are in my story on purpose. Making Dorsey a hot Asian male savior and Liza a hot Black vulnerable, delicate woman in need of care is an act of reclamation. I see it as a subtle counter to the overarching narrative of desirability while also managing to be funny and exciting to read.
2. There are several themes in Pride and Protest, some of which include gentrification, interracial dating, and the adoption of brown children by white families. How did you decide to include these elements in the novel?
Perception and curated reality play a major role in my work. Gentrification, adoption, and interracial dating all are circling around this broader theme of one’s perceived value to society and how you display that. The cases for gentrification are often centered around “revitalization” of a city. What does it mean for an area to be perceived as vital? Transracial adoption is often a way for wealthy westerners to signal virtue and care for international issues. That is not to say that this method of adoption is performative, just shining a light on what it often signals.
Working for a large social media company, my role as a technologist is to tease out that difference between what we want to show the world and what we are. My social justice warrior work is mostly online, while Liza, my main character, takes her fight to the blocks. Visibility is so important to her, because she knows how being heard and seen impacts perception of our shared humanity.
I don’t think romance has to tackle social justice issues, but I do think Jane Austen’s retellings have to. You misread Jane Austen if you think she just wrote characters that somehow ended up married. She was such a keen social observer, so tongue-in-cheek about what was happening in society and how people interact with each other that if you stripped Jane Austen of social commentary, then you take away what makes her work so enduring in classical literature.
3. What are elements from Pride and Prejudice that you knew needed to remain in your story?
“Mr. Darcy” had to have a stick up his ass. That’s non negotiable. Next, “Mr. Collins” had to serve as a perfect foil for Mr. Darcy. He had to represent the best “Elizabeth” could hope for in her current social standing. Of course, the proposal had to be absolute trash. He had to simultaneously insult her and profess his burning desire for her hand, which is not an uncomplicated endeavor. Additionally, the main character Liza Bennett had to have a raucous, completely uncontrollable family. And lastly, my main female character had to be the only one to know “Mr Darcy’s” true nature. Little Wayne once said “real Gs move in silence like lasagna” and my Dorsey is a real one.
4. What do you think makes Jane Austen novels and her characters so timeless?
Jane Austen has this ability to incorporate very, large ideas into tiny interactions. She can have an entire argument about romanticism versus rationalism when Marianne Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility) goes on and on about dead leaves. I find her work so rich and full of humor, but also full of extremely sharp observations born out of a perspective just outside of the mainstream. There is something anthropological, timeless, and a little gossipy about her POV, and I can’t resist that.
We do diverge in one important way however, and that is around leisure. Women of color were often not afforded the leisure time to take a gentle turn about the room when they were bored. My heroines WORK, and work hard, for everything they have. And, in fact, work itself becomes a major theme of my novels.
5. What were the challenges of modernizing and adapting such a beloved and well-known story?
Wow. The truth? Sometimes my own community.
Someone has told some of these beautiful Jane Austen Fans that new or inclusive adaptations will supplant or replace their firmly held faves, and it is simply not true. It’s scarcity economics and it will have us clawing our eyes out when, to quote Hamilton, “The world was wide enough.” I’ve read 1,000 Jane Austen adaptations and I’m likely to read 1,000 more. My appetite for Jane Austen in new and inventive ways is endless and a lot of our readers feel the same.
There is also a class of fans that like to read Regency novels to escape into a “safe and sacred white space.” I blame Masterpiece Theater for bombarding us with these uniformly white histories. Regency England was raucous, teeming with life and diversity. And most of those claims yearning for “historical accuracy” quite miss the point of Jane Austen’s fiction. These aren’t biopics. The Marriage Plots were about economics and social engineering. Somewhere along the way, people have gotten the idea that they were about whiteness.
6. What do you hope readers take away from Pride and Protest?
That Jane Austen can be #fortheculture. I relate to Jane Austen as a Black woman because there is something of the pithy outsider to Jane Austen. I call myself Jane Austen’s sassy Black friend as a play on that very common TV trope. Often in books and television, the sassy Black friend is allowed to transgress propriety and social mores to speak to the simple truth of a situation. If you want to get nerdy about it, Henry Louis Gates Jr’s Signifying Monkey is a great place to start.
Sassy Black friend is a double agent though, speaking truth to power in a way that mainstream culture folks won’t recognize as critique. This is what Jane Austen does. She sits slightly outside of the British upper class and just critiques everything she sees, mostly to hilarious effect. I hope readers of color can see Jane Austen for what she was, and find joy in her god tier side eye and the society around her.
A Final Note from Sonali:
This is a fairly faithful retelling of the classic. But while Liza and Dorsey do Elizabeth and Darcy proud, they are very much their own people with contemporary demons to wrestle. Whether you’re an Austen nerd or someone who stubbornly avoids her, this book is a perfect sexy escape with a big heart that speaks to building empathy so we might see the world without the prejudices that blind us.