Saturday, December 4, 2010

Public and Private History in Sara Suleri's Meatless Days

Suleri constantly reminds the reader that she is writing a public history. Even the death of her sister Ifat connects to chaotic politics in Pakistan, for her family fears Ifat was murdered as a result of her father's political leanings.
The "alternative history" that Suleri calls Meatless Days is an attempt to deal with private history in a public sphere, setting the two "in dialogue." According to Suleri, she tried to create "a new kind of historical writing, whereby I give no introductions whatsoever. I use the names, the places, but I won't stop to describe them" (Interview). In contrast to other third world histories, which she criticizes as too "explanatory," Meatless Days simply presents Pakistan as it appeared to her. Using names and places without much definition, description, or explanation was her "attempt to make them register as immediately to the reader as it would to me."
Some might argue with her assertion, however, that she does not interpret. The New York Times Book Review claimed, for example, that Suleri takes "one step back for analysis with every two it takes toward description." Indeed, some amount of reflection and interpretation is to be expected when one writes from the present looking back on the past. At one point she writes as she recounts a memory in the book, "Could that be itÅ ?" Here she is wondering, as she reflects back. Indeed, Suleri readily admits, "How does one maintain a sense of privacy when you construct a text like this?" and she acknowledges, "I'm sure I did reveal a lot" and that Meatless Days is "a very private book".
Personal elements in her work
Suleri, like Anglo-Pakistani author Salman Rushdie, weaves her own personal history into that of Pakistan because the two entities are, as she says, "inextricably connected to one another." Thus entwined, the food feeding her book (Pakistan, her siblings, her parents, relatives and friends, the West and her professorship of English at Yale) are intertwined while Suleri's own personal history acts as a woven bag holding and linking the content together. However, at the same time, Suleri hesitates to characterize Meatless Days as a memoir or autobiography and asserts instead its status as an "alternative history" of Pakistan. For this reason, those critics who accuse her of writing a distant, cold autobiography may have missed the point: Suleri set out to write a historical novel, but one that is not based solely on facts and figures but rather is based on the facts in interconnected public and private histories. The deeply intimate aspect of the work, then, is not subjugated to the history of Pakistan but, combined with her remarkable use of syntax and diction, works instead to complement and redefine the country itself.

Suleri: the new fragrance for women

The pages of Sara Suleri's Meatless Days are concerned in large part with notions of kinship and family ties. Suleri, like us all, sometimes expresses confusion and weariness regarding what seem like the inescapable bonds of blood relations:
I missed Tillat's children when they left. There are too many of them, of course--all of my siblings have had too many. Each year I resolve afresh that my quota of aunthood is full, that I no longer am going to clutter my head with new names, new birthdays. But then something happens, like finding in the mail another photograph of a new baby, and against my will they draw me in again. I did not see Ifat's children for four years after she had died, and when Tillat and I visited them in Rawalpindi, in the pink house on the hill, Ayesha, the youngest, whispered to her paternal grandmother, "My aunts smell like my mother." When she repeated that to me, it made me tired and grave. Tillat and I slept for ten hours that night, drowning in a sleep we could not forestall, attempting to waken and then falling back exhausted into another dreamless hour.
Rather despite herself, Suleri is drawn in again and again to new additions to the family, by what seem to be mystical forces beyond her control. Similarly, when she visits with her sister's children, they recognize their mother's familiar scent on Suleri with ease. Why, though, does this cause in Suleri such distubance? She and her her other sister, Tillat, seem troubled by it to the point of insomnia. Is Suleri merely being melodramatic, or is there something truly disturbing about the fact that blood, and sisterhood in particular, is thicker than water? These are the very points of discussion about Sara Suleri’s Meatless Days.

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