Saturday, December 4, 2010

"I" Versus "They": The Textual and Communal Self in Sara Suleri's Meatless Days

Although Meatless Days is more explicitly personal than Joan Didion's The White Album or Slouching Towards Bethlehem, it nevertheless belies a clean categorization as autobiography. Suleri, like Didion, links her personal story to the narrative of her culture. She conflates her internal landscape with the external landscape so that what is personal is never simply personal -- it is part of a larger question, a more historical assertion. In turn, Suleri begins to "lose the sense of the differentiated identity of history and [her]self". Her mind becomes a "metropolis" "a legislated thing".

Suleri, like Didion, lives amid fragmentation: whereas Didion grapples with the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, America's deepening involvement in Vietnam, the general disillusionment and confusion of the '60s and '70s, Suleri struggles with a feeling of national displacement: her motherland is Pakistan, and yet her own mother -- White, Welsh, representative of the colonizer -- can barely speak the "mother tongue." She is a woman from the third-world, and yet, as she puts it, "There are no women in the third-world" , "Pakistan is a place where the concept of woman was not really part of an available vocabulary". In "Joan Didion's Dreampolitics of the Self," Evan Carton writes that "The disintegration of the times, felt in seismic tremors of the self, may after all be held and suspended in solutions of self-consciousness, and precipitated on the page". In Suleri's case, too, it is by means of self-conscious gestures -- "precipitations on the page," the creation of a "vocabulary" -- that her identity is constructed. By rooting her self in language, Suleri addresses her postcolonial identity. She deals with the "the unpronouncability of [her] life" by becoming "engulfed by grammar" , by "living in plot".
The manner in which Suleri constructs the identity of her family and friends, sheds light on the way in which she constructs her own identity for, in discussing them, Suleri uses the same techniques as in discussing herself: she fuses somatic discourse with civic and textual discourse. The sister who was once "a house I rented" becomes after her death "the news" , and later, a "municipality". Her mother, who "seemed to live increasingly outside the limits of her body", becomes "the land [her father] had helped to make" and later, "the past [Pakistan] sought to forget" . Her face is described as "wearing like the binding of a book" . Even her friend, Muskatori, is represented as such a convincing piece of "land" that, as Suleri declares, "they could build an airport on [her]" . Suleri refers to her own "schizoid trick" of disconnecting the syntax of "life and body"  and, again and again, we see the trick, or technique, in action. The book, which is self-consciously intertextual and academic, turns everything in its wake into a construction of language, a piece of text. The body becomes a narrative device, a metaphor for -- but also a way of dealing with -- its fragmented surroundings.
When Suleri leaves Pakistan, she remarks that she "was not a nation anymore" . More than a denial of physicality, the statement contains an explicit correlation between her self and her narrative subject. She abstracts history -- nationhood -- into her body, and then reads her body for historical clues. At various points in the book, Suleri describes herself as a "landscape", an "otherness machine" , and a "state" . In one particularly poignant scene, Suleri and Shahid swim together and get bitten by fireflies. Suleri interprets the bites as "tiny writing on [her] skin" . When Shahid attempts to apologize, Suleri tells him it doesn't matter: "It never had any plot to it anyway" . In this scene, Suleri, like Didion, dramatically broadens the personal and physical. She turns this scene of physical play into a scene of textual play. She interprets the blemishes on her body as metaphors for the place she holds in the community: she is written upon, Other, colonized.
Throughout Meatless Days , food functions as a link between body and nation. In "Reading Communities and Culinary Communities," Parama Roy writes that "Food in the migrant/diasporic subject's cosmos becomes -- whatever it might be at its place of putative origin -- tenaciously tethered to economics simultaneously and irreducibly national and moral" . In Meatless Days , this logic holds: through food -- what the body consumes -- dramas of national identity play out. In the second chapter, Suleri writes that "Food certainly gave us a way not simply of ordering a week or a day but of living inside history, measuring everything we remembered against a chronology of cooks. Just as Papa had his own yardstick -- a world he loved -- with which to measure history and would talk about the Ayub era, or the second martial law, or the Bhutto regime, so my sisters and I would place ourselves in time by remembering and naming cooks" . Whereas her father measures history by keeping track of male heads of state, Suleri measures history by keeping track of what enters her body. The passage makes explicit not only the connection between body and history, but it reveals a gendered dichotomy: the males participate directly in history; the women, on the other hand, exist only in metaphorical relation to it. They keep track of history by what they consume, by what enters and fills their bodies. This blurry relation between body and nation/language, is one that structures the novel, and a particularly crucial moment for this issue is Suleri's discussion of the kapura . The kapura are testicles, but for the first forty years of her life Suleri has eaten them believing they are sweet breads -- that is what her mother said, that is the name she gave them. In a sense, Suleri has ingested the food as if it were a word, "sweet breads" -- a linguistic symbol. If called the right thing, she would happily consume them. This moment of cultural and linguistic displacement literalizes the process by which body connects to nation, a process which Suleri has gestured towards throughout the book. The kapura connect what is spoken with what is eaten; the food connects language with one's own flesh.
Like Didion, Suleri complicates the notion of the personal by blurring what is internal with what is external. In an interview I conducted with Sara Suleri this past October, she discussed the public nature of her personal pronoun. "The two books I've written that are designated memoirs," she said, "are not about me at all." She went on: "The personal pronoun is just as academic as if I was to say, 'This Reader believes this about Conrad.' The "I" is just as much a persona" (Suleri interview). Again we see that the "I," like the "I" in The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem , functions largely as a narrative construction -- a means of abstracting cultural issues into a seemingly personalized unit. The personal and autobiographical function less as a subject, than a style: a technique of symbolically crystallizing community and culture.

The Female Landscape and Body representation in Meatless Days

Female body shapes provides descriptions of landscapes and metaphors for natural scenery and space in Meatless Days, Shame, and Waterland. Common phrases such as "mother earth," "motherland," "mother country" and "mother tongue" exemplify the prevalence of conceiving one's place and space in maternal terms. Titles within the novels reaffirm the individual author's gendering of land and place, like Swift's "Unknown Country" and Rushdie's compilation, "Escape From the Mother Country". In the three novels, the maternity of home repetitively appears in different forms as gendered landmarks, means of sustenance and descriptions of fertility.
The repetition of water: its fluidity, direction, force and female correlations appear throughout Waterland and intermittently in Meatless Days. Swift and Suleri specifically feminize water as sexual and maternal; Suleri envisions herself "laying hands upon the body of her [mother's] water". (Suleri). The author uses the characteristics of both body and water to depict an image of maternal comfort. Intensity of any kind made her increasingly uneasy, and as a consequence she worked at all hours to keep her connection with her children at low tide--still a powerfully magnetic thing, but an ebbing tide, so that there was always a ghostly stretch of neither here nor there between her sea and our shore. (Suleri).
The imagery of water clearly describes the balancing act with which Suleri's mother held her children at length. The pull of the tide and the pull of her children sway carefully before the reader as a gentle yet forceful equilibrium of a mother's strength. Water and mother fuse into one body of power; the imagery makes real the delicate intricacies of mothering.

The Culinary Grotesque

Sara Suleri's Meatless Days questions her role in family and culture with grotesque examples associated with food. She uses these grotesques to find meaning in her life and to connect to the ethos of her country, a project exemplified by her disillusionment in finding that kapura are, "Not sweetbread...They're testicles" . Suleri describes the grotesqueness of food with awe and humor. She uses the shock of kapura as a way to review her relationship with her mother and looks at the situation philosophically:
Had I borne something of those lessons in mind, it would have been less of a shock to have to reconceive the kapura parable; perhaps I'd have been prepared for more skepticism about the connection between kidneys and sweetbreads — after all, they fall into no logical category of togetherness. The culinary humor of kidneys and testicles stewing in one another's juices is, on the other hand, very fine . . . I should have remembered all those nervously comic edges, and the pangs, that constitute most poignancies of nourishment.
Suleri's use of the word parable implies her search for morals or wisdom in her testicular discovery. The search for comedy in this particular passage reveals Suleri's desire to make something of her discovery — to find the meaning inherent in kapura. The phrase "poignancies of nourishment" demonstrates how Suleri brings the grotesque in food to a greater level than cuisine, equating nourishment not only with food but also with her and her country's soul.
Suleri also calls attention to her familial relationships as a result of the culinary grotesque  One day Qayuum insisted that only kidneys could sit on my plate, mimicking legumes and ignoring their thin and bloody juices. Wicked Ifat came into the room and waited till I had started eating; then she intervened. "Sara," said Ifat, her eyes brimming over with wonderful malice, "do you know that kidneys do?" I aged, and my meal regressed, back to its vital belonging in the world of function. "Kidneys make pee, Sara," Ifat told me, "That's what they do, they make pee." And she looked so pleased to be able to tell me that; it made her feel so full of information. Betrayed by food, I let her go, and wept some watery tears into the kidney juice, which was designed anyway to evade cohesion, being thin and in its nature inexact.
Suleri makes the word betrayed especially poignant by following it with the word food. Her sister, though wicked, is not the betrayer — food now has the power to not only shock but also betray. The last clause discussing the nature of food shows that Suleri's relationship to and observation of the food is not just about consumption she describes the food as having a nature and a purpose, and therefore subject to interpretation and human-like character flaws.
Suleri again muses about the nature of food after hearing a story about a cat eating doves, "Am I wrong, then, to say that my parable had to do with nothing less than the imaginative extravagance of food and all the transmogrifications of which it is capable? Food certainly gave us a way not simply of ordering a week or a day but of living inside history, measuring everything we remembered against a chronology of cooks". Food gives Suleri history and meaning, and therefore her observation of the grotesque in food is also an observation of the grotesque in history and meaning. Her continuous use of the word parable portrays these incidents as a series of stories meant to teach the reader, and by questioning herself at the same time she takes the reader on the journey alongside her. Suleri thus uses the vocabulary of food to discuss history: "There is something nourishing about the memory of all those shadow dynasties: we do not have to subsist only on the litany" . The words nourishing and subsist directly relate food and Suleri's personal history.
Whereas Suleri uses the grotesque derived from food to question her surroundings, Annie Dillard uses food slightly differently, focusing more on the grotesqueness of the eating process rather than in the food itself. Like John Ruskin, Annie Dillard uses her sight as her primary sense, stating before quoting him, "Seeing is of course very much a matter of verbalization. Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won't see it" , and her observations of the grotesque lead her to question herself and the meaning of life. Her first observation of the grotesque in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek — the deflating frog — creates a powerful image that permeates the rest of the book with a grotesque aura.
At last I knelt on the island's winter killed grass, lost, dumbstruck, staring at the frog with wide, dull eyes. And just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed. His skin emptied and drooped; his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent. He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football. I watched the taut, glistening skin on his shoulders ruck, and rumple, and fall. Soon, part of his skin, formless as a pricked balloon, lay in floating folds like bright scum on top of the water: It was a monstrous and terrifying thing. I gaped bewildered, appalled. An oval shadow hung in the water behind the drained frog; then the shadow glided away. The frog skin bag started to sink...That one bite is the only bite [the giant water bug] ever takes. Through the puncture shoot the poisons that dissolve the victim's muscles and bones and organs — all but the skin — and through it the giant water bug sucks out the victim's body, reduced to a juice. 

The Bodily Grotesque

Moving from what goes into bodies to bodies themselves, Suleri uses the grotesque in the body to examine questions of beauty and humanity. In her section titled "Excellent Things in Women," Suleri discusses two bodies specifically — the bodies of her brother and her grandmother. Her description of her brother's burning epitomizes her outright grotesqueness: "I slammed down the carving knife and screamed 'Irfan!' with such ferocity that he jumped, figuratively and literally, right out of his skin. The bowl of water emptied onto him, and with a gurgling cry Irfan leapt up, tearing at his steaming clothes. He clutched at his groin, and everywhere he touched, the skin slid off, so that between his fingers his penis easily unsheathed, a blanched and fiery grape" . This quotation shocks not only because of the burning but also because of the sudden reference to the unsheathing of his penis. The horror of his losing his skin contrasts with Suleri's description of her grandmother's burning:
By the time Tillat awoke and found her, she was a little flaming ball: "Dadi!" cried Tillat in the reproach of sleep, and beat her quiet with a blanket. In the morning we discovered that Dadi's torso had been almost consumed and little recognizable remained from collarbone to groin...She lived through her sojourn at the hospital; she weathered her return. Then, after six weeks at home, she angrily refused to be lugged like a chunk of meat to the doctor's for her daily change of dressing...Thus developed my great intimacy with the fluid properties of human flesh. By the time Mamma left for England, Dadi's left breast was still coagulate and raw. Later, when Irfan got his burns, Dadi was growing pink and livid tightropes, stung from hip to hip in a flaming advertisement of life. And in the days when Tillat and I were wrestling, Dadi's vanished nipples started to congeal and convex their cavities into triumphant little love knots.
I learned about the specialization of beauty through that body. There were times, as with love, when I felt only disappointment, carefully easing off the dressings and finding again a piece of flesh that would not knit, happier in the texture of stubborn glue. But then on more exhilarating days I'd peel like an onion all her bandages away and suddenly discover I was looking down at some literal tenacity and was bemused at all the freshly withered shaped she could create. Each new striation was a victory to itself, and when Dadi's hairless groin solidified again and sent firm signals that her abdomen must do the same, I could have wept with glee.  
These two vivid images serve as extreme examples of the bodily grotesque. Suleri shows her brother and her grandmother's humanity while stripping them, literally, of their bodies. However, there are differences in the descriptions. For example, Suleri focuses on the stripping of her brother's body whereas she focuses on the rebuilding of her grandmother's. Suleri's words "specialization of beauty" draw insight about beauty from her grandmother's body. By comparing the grotesque regrowth process to love, Suleri discusses abstract concepts of beauty and love in a surprising medium, calling in to question the reader's, and her own, beliefs and preconceptions. The section's title —"Excellent Things in Women" — makes these passages especially interesting because she only focuses specifically on the regrowth of her grandmother's body and not that of her brother. In both examples Suleri calls direct attention to the groin or sexual organs, but in her brother's case it unsheathes and in her grandmother's case it regrows. Suleri's grotesque images of the create meaning and a deeper understanding of her family, simultaneously questioning beauty and love.

The Search for Meaning in the Grotesque

Suleri finds a similar difficulty in examining Tom's body: "With me the man was so large that he could conceive of himself only in bits, always conscious of how segments of his body could go wandering off, tarsals and metatarsals heedlessly autonomous...Perhaps I should have been able to bring those bits together, but such a narrative was not available to me, not after what I knew of storytelling". Suleri's grotesque description of Tom's body separating and floating away shows her inability, like Didion's, to impose a narrative structure on bizarre events and situations.
Though they write about different subjects, Dillard, Suleri and Didion all search for meaning in a hostile confusing world. Unlike the traditional Victorian Sages —Thoreau, Carlyle, Ruskin — they travel with their audience to find meaning instead of berating their audience with examples of absurdity. Like Bruce Chatwin, these three women examine the grotesque to examine their world, but unlike Chatwin they turn inward and examine themselves as well. Each author uses the grotesque differently but each one uses it to raise questions and forge an attempt at meaning. Though they do not use the original sage structure, these three female authors use real-world examples of the grotesque to lead to their own wisdom statements and, using this wisdom, create an internal sage that cradles the audience in her arms throughout the journey.

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