Nisha Sharma & Sonali Dev On Writing Arranged Marriages In Romance Novels With Respect & Honesty

Sonali Dev, photo courtesy of Ishita Singh Photography, and Nisha Sharma, photo courtesy of Jon Macapodi

Romance novelists Nisha Sharma and Sonali Dev understand the nuances of arranged marriage, and they've both written about it, in some way, in their books. In The Takeover Effect, released in April, Sharma introduced readers to Mina Kohli, a determined young woman who is willing to do anything to regain control of her mother's law firm, even if it means agreeing to an arranged marriage. In A Bollywood Affair, released in 2014, Dev centered her story on Milli, a woman who hasn't seen her husband since she was promised to him as a child bride at the age four. (Although, as Dev notes later in our conversation, child marriage and arranged marriage are not the same things.)

Off the page, both authors have personal experience with arranged marriage: Dev has, in her own words, "lived rather blissfully in one for over two decades now" and Sharma describes herself as the "product of a very successful arranged marriage." So when it comes to this topic and how it plays out in romance novels, they just might be two of the best people to ask about the misconceptions and prejudices that pervade conversations about arranged marriages, and the care required to write about such a marriage with compassion, honesty, and respect.

"We understand the intricacies of the cultural entity, social obligation and family involvement at a level of understanding that many people don’t have," Sharma says.

In the conversation below, Sharma and Dev talk about arranged marriage in their work, and what they'd like to see more of in South Asian romance novels:

Why was arranged marriage something you wanted to address in your work?

Sonali Dev: A Bollywood Affair, which is my only book that might be construed as an arranged marriage story, is the story of a child bride and how she finds her way out of the identity a social evil — child marriage — has tied her up in for most of her life. So, as you said, it's actually about undoing an arranged marriage that the protagonist had no say in (although arranged marriage and child marriage are certainly not interchangeable terms).

"Not that I have anything against arranged marriages... I just don’t want it to be the only South Asian story demanded by the American market to fit its stereotypes."

Honestly, I don’t think of myself as trying to address arranged marriage in my writing. But I do like the idea of twisting the heck out of the preconceived notions about it. This might explain why, in my most recent novel Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, I took one of the most popular romances that starts out with a parent trying to pressure her daughters into marriage — Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice — and reimagined it as not being about finding husbands, but about the distribution of power across classes and about first impressions and prejudices and how we navigate that entire mess in our suddenly non-homogenous societies.

The book I’m currently writing, a two-generational reimagining of Austen’s Persuasion, burns down the arranged marriage trope a bit more overtly, because a woman refuses to comply with the choice that’s made for her, no matter how devastating the consequences. Not that I have anything against arranged marriages — I happen to have lived rather blissfully in one for over two decades now. I just don’t want it to be the only South Asian story demanded by the American market to fit its stereotypes.

Nisha Sharma: Honestly, arranged marriages aren’t anything new or special to romance novels, nor are they isolated to South Asian culture. I was reading interpretations of the trope in category romances back when I was in middle school. I think the fascination that people have with authors like Sonali and myself and a few of our peers writing about arranged marriages is that it comes from a very real place for us. We understand the intricacies of the cultural entity, social obligation, and family involvement at a level of understanding that many people don’t have.

I was inspired to include it in my story because I knew I wanted to explore the trope in a different light.

In The Takeover Effect, I play with how arranged marriages are affected by family involvement. Mina is considering an arranged marriage to secure a merger between two family-owned companies. The cultural practice has evolved over the centuries, and after deep-diving into research about super rich brown people, I found a number of unions created as a vehicle to preserve family wealth. I was inspired to include it in my story because I knew I wanted to explore the trope in a different light.

In writing arranged marriages, what was important for you to impart to the reader? Were you worried about getting anything wrong?

Nisha Sharma: When I wrote The Takeover Effect, I kept my experiences in mind, because I wanted to make sure that I impressed upon readers that no two arranged marriages are the same. I wasn’t worried about getting anything wrong, because I lived with this cultural belief my entire life.

I was fortunate enough to be a product of a very successful arranged marriage, and my parents were also products of arranged marriages. Every single match was different. Every single relationship evolved in a unique way. When it came time for me to get married as the first daughter born and raised in the U.S. from both sides of the family, my match was unique, too. My mother and mother-in-law’s involvement included setting up a dating profile, constant encouragement (read: judgment) and feedback about candidates, and finally, overall approval after an initial meeting. Our pictures were also taken and shared covertly on the family Whatsapp group so everyone else in the extended family could provide feedback (read: judgment) as well. Despite the copious amount of mother’s guilt, which I believe transcends culture and background, there wasn’t any force or coercion on my part. I was on board. I respected tradition, and as long as I had a voice, which I did, I was cool with it.

I’ve often seen in literature that South Asian parents represent tradition while children represent change, and both tradition and change clash. It’s a tired narrative, and I’m exhausted seeing it used in the context of arranged marriages, too. I’m not saying that it never happens anymore. Parental pressure can be a real thing, but it’s also so much more complicated than people think. I tried to show that alternative narratives exist, and there are so many other fun stories that we can tell our readers.

" ... the tradition of arranged marriage (your family helping you find spouses) is a complex one and I'm not sure I like it being filtered down to the uni-dimensional rubber stamp of 'parental pressure.'"

Sonali Dev: Nisha is absolutely right. The social pressure surrounding marriage in Indian culture isn't a simple thing. Here’s some oversimplified background: Indian parents, because of the way Indian society has been structured for centuries, consider it part of their familial duty to make sure that their children are "settled" as adults into financially and emotionally stable lives. Traditionally, in educated and urban sub-cultures, education and marriage were considered the two means to that end. Consequently, this pursuit of stability for their children tends to make parents hyper-invested in those two means. In other words, the tradition of arranged marriage (your family helping you find spouses) is a complex one and I'm not sure I like it being filtered down to the uni-dimensional rubber stamp of "parental pressure." At least in the case of modern arranged marriages, it isn't like parents are selecting spouses for their children while their children show up at the wedding kicking and screaming. I’m not claiming that this never happens, but in my experience parents are simply willing to introduce their children to people they might hit it off with. The notion that arranged marriage automatically involves coercion or force isn't at all accurate. In a large majority of cases, the adult children are on board with the setting up, like in the case of Nisha and me. Think: Match.com, but the algorithm is your parents and family members, people who have known you all your life.

Within that context, there is scope for romanticism and hijinx. And as long as the storytelling is authentic and sensitive without exotifying or vilifying a tradition without fully understanding it, I think good stories can come out of it. Even so, it’s an easy theme to get regressive within your storytelling.

Do you feel the need to address consent explicitly in your novels about arranged marriages, and how so?

Sonali Dev: I feel the need to address consent explicitly in all my novels irrespective of whether or not they have anything to do with arranged marriages. Every sex scene in every one of my novels has overt consent, a discussion integrated into the scene where the hero explicitly asks permission and the heroine explicitly and consciously makes the choice to have, and to enjoy, sex. This might be because until Trisha in Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors, I wrote women who struggle with owning their identities and consequently their bodies and walk the tightrope between free will and familial and social expectations.

Also, I find this question a little discomforting. It seems to suggest that arranged marriages are forced marriages or marriages between strangers, and are automatically rapey. While I’m not saying that this is never the case, marital rape is a problem that transcends culture and geography and most certainly isn’t specific to arranged marriages. In my opinion, stated consent should be addressed explicitly by all authors who are writing about desired and consensual sex.

"It’s important to remember that arranged marriages and forced marriages are two completely separate things."

Nisha Sharma: Sonali has nailed it on the head. This question unfortunately stems from misinformation about arranged marriages and forced marriages. It’s important to remember that arranged marriages and forced marriages are two completely separate things. Just because a marriage is arranged, doesn’t mean that consent doesn’t exist. And yes, marital rape is an issue, but it is not synonymous with sexual relationships in arranged marriages. So to answer your question, I address consent in my books. Period.

When it comes to Indian-American romance novels, what would you like to see more of in terms of both cultural traditions and more universal tropes?

Nisha Sharma: Everything. Right now, there are not enough romances featuring South Asians. Publishing houses are still holding up one or two South Asian stories as their contribution to South Asians in the romance genre, but it’s not enough. I’d like for as many South Asian romances to be published as possible that show we are not a monolithic culture. That publishing our stories isn’t a competition between houses or authors, but a contribution to a collective narrative that is desperately needed. That we have many facets and dynamics within the South Asian community and readers who are starving for representation within the pages of books. I want to see as many cultural traditions explored from every possible angle.

Basically the answer would be the same as if you were talking to any other person from a different cultural background. Why should we have a focus, or a limit, or a type? I don’t know if that’s an answer you were looking for, but I think it’s important to address an overall need versus pigeon-holing Indian American romances to particular traditions and tropes.

"I’d like to see every single trope addressed and turned on its head in a way that burns down the patriarchy."

Sonali Dev: I’d like to see every single trope addressed and turned on its head in a way that burns down the patriarchy. I’d like to see the width and breadth of all the subcultures that make up Indian culture (and consequently Indian American culture) represented along with every sexual orientation, gender, religion, and ability. But I’d also like the Americanness of Indian Americans owned and explored in as many ways as possible. Each character should be able to be who they are without being measured for Indianness, because down that path lies Apu [of The Simpsons] and the land of stereotypes on one hand and Indian Americans dictating to one another what kind of Indian Americans are most authentically authentic. Let voices and authors bring their experiences with them, as opposed to trying to retrofit their experiences into boxes of expectations.

What are you both working on now?

Sonali Dev: Now that Pride, Prejudice, And Other Flavors has been released, I’m working on the next book in the series: a reimagining of Jane Austen’s Persuasion set on a fictional food show called Cooking With The Stars. Think, Dancing With The Stars but with a star paired up with a chef instead of a pro dancer. The chef heroine is on the show to save her failing restaurant and the star she gets stuck with is the legendary soccer star her family persuaded her into dumping years ago when they believed him to be a nobody. I’m also finishing up a novella set in this series that’s a romp about a bride who runs away the night before her wedding. The groom finds her and has that one night to convince her that they’re meant to be together as they traipse around San Francisco in search of the connection they’ve lost. It’s going to be part of an anthology called Once Upon A Wedding with 10 other second-chance romances set at weddings.

Nisha Sharma: I’m currently finishing up edits on my second young adult novel, tentatively titled Radha’s Recipe for Bollywood Beats about a classical Kathak dancer who has to pair up with a Bollywood dancer to compete for a college scholarship. The story also deals with socio-economic disparities within the South Asian community, and the belief that more education is the gateway to a better life. Also, food. Lots and lots of Indian food because that’s pretty on-brand for me. I’m also working on the draft for the second book in the Singh Trilogy about the middle Singh brother and his romantic entanglement with a female CEO who matches him in strength, intelligence and whit.

Nisha Sharma's most recent novel, The Takeover Effect, is available now, as is Sonali Dev's most recent novel, Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors.