Love matches have existed for centuries. Cultures from all over the world have resorted to fixing single people together to find the best match possible. Often times these matches are associated with prestige, class, and riches.
There may have even been a point in our lives when we may or may not have been offered the choice of an arranged meeting, one where our parents arrange a date for us to meet a suitor of their choosing. Now, these meetings can either go disastrously or end in a happy ever after.
MuslimGirl had the wonderful opportunity to interview Priyanka Taslim, Bangladeshi American writer and teacher about her debut novel The Love Match. The Love Match follows Zahra Khan, a high-school graduate whose mother thinks the solution to all their problems is finding the perfect match. Now Zahra must juggle between the suitor she’s met, the boy she’s actually falling for, and all the problems that come with being a young, Desi Muslim woman in a Bangladeshi diaspora community.
Muslim Girl: Having grown up in a Bangladeshi diaspora community, what made you decide writing was the career for you? What were your most and least favorite parts of growing up in such a wonderfully culturally heavy community?
Priyanka Taslim: I’ve always loved to read. My mother instilled that in me when I was in kindergarten. She was worried I would struggle in school because even though I was born in New Jersey, my family didn’t speak much English at home, so she would read with me all the time. At the time, it felt like I was caught between two worlds. I didn’t quite fit in with the other Bangladeshi kids, who were mostly recent arrivals from Bangladesh, but I faced a lot of the same xenophobia, racism, and Islamophobia that they did from non-Bengali peers. Reading became my escape, especially after 9/11, and sometime around when I started high school, I began writing in the form of fanfiction, then dreaming about seeing my name on the cover of a book.
There were definitely good and bad things when it came to growing up in a vibrant Bangladeshi diaspora community like Paterson! I was surrounded by the beauty of Bangladeshi culture, the delicious food, and clothes in particular, but also the scrutiny that comes from such a close-knit community where everyone knows everyone else.
There’s often a lot of intracultural drama even to this day – both family drama and larger community disputes about politics back home or how to plan a local event – although I’m mostly on the outside looking in now and avoiding trouble whenever I can. Perhaps because of the way I was bullied for it, it took me a long time to actually learn to love my identity, and I think the media I consumed fostered that. The protagonists never looked like me, prayed like me, or lived like me.
Thankfully, I overcame that internalized shame around the time I went to college, which is when I started writing Bangladeshi characters into my work for the first time. Writing helped me learn to love my Bangladeshiness and connect to it with a fierceness, and I hope more books like The Love Match existing will make it easier for kids now than it was when I was younger.
Zahra Khan, our protagonist, is an extremely strong young woman. She’s on the verge of an arranged marriage, working extra shifts to help her mum and trying not to give up on her hopes and dreams all at the same time. What was the inspiration behind Zahra?
PT: In part, Zahra is inspired by my own experience of being the eldest daughter in an immigrant family. I think that position can hold a lot of pressure. But she’s also inspired by the experiences of the students I’ve taught over the years, who have to balance their studies with work and helping out at home. I think it’s very much a reality for a lot of working-class teens but you don’t often see it represented on pages in joyful stories like romances. I want teens like the one I was, and the ones I taught, to feel seen and uplifted by characters like Zahra and know whatever their struggles may be, happily ever afters are possible. They’re worth being protagonists, worth being loved, and worthy of sweeping love stories.
Arranged marriages have always been a big part of Desi culture and while some arranged marriages do end up with happy endings, a lot of them don’t. Zahra is only eighteen and yet, her mother sees an arranged marriage as the only option to bring them honor and financial stability. How do you think we can move away from this type of thinking and give our young women and girls a chance to establish themselves first before trying to tie them down?
PT: I think, at least in the west, this narrative is slowly starting to change, but even so, there are very strict ideas when it comes to women and girls that often tie to the need to be tied to a male partner. I’ve been very fortunate to have parents who support the majority of my ambitions, but even they get a little squirrely sometimes, the older I get because it was so common for women in my mother’s generation to get married in their late teens or early twenties and happened even earlier for my grandmother’s generation. By the time she was my age, my mother had me and my siblings already.
One reason I wrote about Zahra’s situation the way I did was to explore this idea and why we should move away from it. I had friends that got married soon after high school or immediately after college because at that point it seemed like what had to be done rather than because it was something that would make them happy. As an ambitious older daughter like Zahra, I would often hear jokes from my dad about how I should have been his son instead because he felt I was doing traditionally “son” things. I was getting an education, driving places myself, and starting a career. He doesn’t say things like that anymore, because he sees more and more of his friends’ daughters and his own female relatives doing these things too.
I think people have to reframe how they think about girls and what they’re capable of. Throughout history, women have achieved so much, often while being held back by patriarchal societies. Muslim women, especially, have historically achieved so much and are often at the forefront of revolutions. More and more women have higher standards for the people in their lives because they have more opportunities now. Everyone else just needs to catch up and let them do what they’d like at their own pace. Their families need to be aware that they’ll be okay even without a partner by a certain age.
It’s quite often that young women are told to give up on their passions, hopes, and dreams to become someone’s wife and bring honor to their family’s reputations. It may not be very common in the west but it’s still very prominent in countries all over Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The Love Match does a wonderful job of addressing this. What made you decide this particular theme was something you wanted to write about?
PT: It’s something that I’ve given a lot of thought to. As fortunate as I am with my own family when I tried to get to know some potential partners, many of them or their families came with expectations for what I should be doing. Some didn’t like the idea of me having a career of my own or wanting to be educated. I’ve had men say to me, “You don’t need to work, you just need to be a wife and mother and I can support the family myself.”
I think that’s all well and good if a woman actually wants to do that, but it isn’t fair how common the expectation of sacrifice falls to women. We rarely ask men to temper their ambitions, but sometimes, with girls, that expectation comes early. Even as more women get careers, there are ideas of “good careers for women.” For example, I am often complimented on my decision to become a teacher, which is seen as professional but also traditionally feminine. I have girl cousins who want to be engineers and get told—thankfully, more often by uncles and aunties than their own parents—that it might be too hard for them. No one says that to their sons. In fact, in our cultures, there’s a tendency to laud those choices in boys.
That’s why I wanted to write a heroine who has her own ambitions and explore how even the people who love her sometimes hold her back from them because I want young girls who read The Love Match to know it’s okay to choose themselves when it comes to things like their dreams, and perhaps for parents who read it to be a little more supportive of their daughters’ ambitions.
Zahra and her mother have a complicated relationship but ultimately, they love each other. Reading about Zahra, her mother, and her siblings and grandmother was so heart-warming. And even though they’ve all been through very difficult times together, they have each other’s backs. What was the inspiration behind such a wholesome family?
PT: I’ve been very blessed to have a close-knit family myself. We’re not always in agreement about everything, but I know, for the most part, they’ll have my back when I need them, so they were ultimately the inspiration for Zahra’s family and the nuanced family relationships I’m often drawn to in my books.
I feel like traditional romance novels don’t have strong familial relationships that often and I always missed reading about that element in the ones I read growing up, so I love exploring those bonds in my own work.
The Aunty Network was absolutely amazing to read about, mainly because it is such an accurate representation of the gossipy and nosey nature of Aunty Networks all over the world. Have you ever had a run-in with the Aunty Network in your community?
PT: Definitely! Living in a place like Paterson with such a rich Bangladeshi diaspora community, I was often hyper-aware that someone or other was around to report my every move back to my parents. For the most part, I was a “good kid,” the kid that everyone else probably hated because I was the reference for their own parents when they said, “Why can’t you be more like her?” But I think I was that kid, in part, because I was so afraid of embarrassing my family in their community since both of my parents have strong ties to it.
There are many young boys and girls who aspire to be writers one day but are constantly being told it isn’t a suitable career option. Did you ever go through that? What advice would you give those young boys and girls?
PT: So, as I said, my parents and family are pretty supportive – but in that “immigrant elders worried about your livelihood” way. What I mean by that is, my parents never deterred me from my creative pursuits, but would often tell me to make sure I have a “real” career to fall back on.
When I was very young, I discovered a talent for drawing. I was really quite good – at one point, the father of a friend even commissioned me to make a portrait for their living room, which I thought was the coolest thing at the time. I won the “best artist” title for my middle school yearbook. But when I told my parents I wanted to be an artist, that’s how they reacted – they told me to focus on teaching and doing art as a fun hobby.
I think eventually I lost my interest in art because of that. It felt like a waste of time as my studies got more and more challenging and time-consuming. Thus, when I started writing, I guarded that close to my heart. My parents knew that I was a skilled essayist because my grades and the occasional competition medal reflected that, but they didn’t know I wanted to be an author because I didn’t want them to discourage me again, even if it was well-meaning.
It was only after I signed with my agent (two years into my teaching career) that I told them about writing, and they have been among my most enthusiastic cheerleaders since – although constantly getting asked “have you sold a book yet?” for the next nearly two years presented its own challenges.
If it’s something they truly love and want to pursue, I would tell others to fight for it, even if like me, it’s a secret battle for a while. If your family isn’t supportive, find a community that is, find other writers, and let them be the people to whom you lay your fears and ambitions bare. I hope someday you can share it with everyone you love, but it’s okay to protect it for yourself until you’re ready.
‘What will people think?’ The question that holds a tight noose around every Desi household. Zahra is succumbed to this question quite often in the book, especially when it comes to her romantic interests. Why do you think Desi culture is so embedded in making sure decisions are taken with other people in mind?
PT: I think Desi culture absolutely gives too much credence to the opinions of others. Sometimes—too often—not getting embarrassed in front of their peers is more important to Desi parents than their children’s happiness, and I think that tends to affect daughters more than sons. Sons are given a certain amount of room to mess up and grow whereas daughters are warned that just about anything can ruin their reputations and leave a mark on them forever. There are probably many reasons why this came to be. I believe it stems from the fact that we’re often community and family-centric. That can be a strength, but as a society, we should teach our kids that it’s okay not to always be perfect and prioritize their well-being—or our own well-being—over upholding impossible standards.
I’m not saying individualistic societies are better, but a balance so that we’re not constantly shaming people is important – because I think the fear of this outcome unintentionally alienates people from their loved ones and prevents them from seeking the help or guidance they may need due to stigma. Zahra is a perfect example of that because she loves and respects her mother, but is afraid of losing her and that shouldn’t be a weight someone so young has to bear.
Priyanka teaches English by day and tells all kinds of stories about Bangladeshi characters by night. The Love Match incorporates Bangladeshi culture into Muslim characters in an intricate yet wonderful way and is a swoon-worthy romance that should definitely be read. The Love Match is all set for release on January 3rd, 2023. To preorder a copy, visit the link here. You can also check out Priyanka’s website here and connect with her on Instagram here.