Saturday, December 4, 2010

Sara Suleri – life, works and critical reception

Sara Suleri Goodyear is Professor of English at Yale University, the founding editor of The Yale Journal of Criticism and on the editorial board of The Yale Review and Transition. As an academic, her fields of interest are listed as "Romantic and Victorian poetry…Edmund Burke…" and her concerns "postcolonial literatures and theory, contemporary cultural criticism, literature and law, Urdu poetry."

            Ms Suleri was born in Pakistan, grew up in Lahore, graduated from Kinnaird College, did her Masters in English from Punjab University and a doctorate from Indiana University. She encapsulated memories of her Lahore childhood in her creative memoir Meatless Days (1989), at the heart of which were the tragic accidents that killed her mother and sister. Furthermore, as the daughter of the eminent journalist Z.A. Suleri, she observed political events and political opinions being forged from close quarters and wove the story of Pakistan into her narrative. The book was remarkable for the quality of Suleri's prose and her use of metaphor to define chapters, and not only marked an important milestone in Pakistani English literature, but is now one of the classical texts of South Asian English literature. She went on to write a critical work The Rhetoric of English India (1992), a rather complicated work, which explores the way English writing was used to perceive and define the subcontinent, from the rhetoric of Edmund Burke to the fiction of Salman Rushdie. The book also includes discussions on Fanny Parkes, Kipling, E.M. Forster and Naipaul.
            She lives between Maine and New Haven and has recently published another accomplished memoir Boys Will Be Boys: A Daughter's Elegy about her journalist father. In this brief fax interview with Newsline, she answers a few questions about her books.  My novel is that "the novel is not about getting inside but is about showing what happened, without explanation, with "no introductions"
Sara Suleri’s Boys Will Be Boys
Sara Suleri Goodyear's memoir "Boys will be Boys - a daughter's elegy" is a slim volume, a nostalgic tribute to her late father, Zia Ahmed Suleri. Or, as she refers to him, 'Pip' - her compression of 'patriotic and preposterous'. My copy is bound in a bea utifully understated saffron jacket with a textile design motif that puts me in mind of a a dupatta flung casually over a slim shoulder. In a small insert, as if being viewed from a discreet jharokha, appears a photograph of a Punjabi gentleman of leonine appearance, leaning back and smoking a cigar in an attitude of rapt attention, as if listening closely to someone off-camera.
The book has a rambling structure, reminiscences tumbling helter-skelter from a stuffed almirah as the author picks and chooses from a lifetime of bittersweet memories. Each chapter is preceded by a line or two of Urdu poetry - sometimes Iqbal, sometimes Momin (although Ms. Suleri has an obvious preference for Ghalib) - that sets the tone for that particular essay. The book follows no chronological or even thematic pattern that I can discern. It reminds me of the structure of a ghazal, where every sher - Suleri finds the English term 'couplet' unsatisfactory - is complete in itself with little obvious connection to the others, except in a general thematic way. It is not unusual to find the narrative jumping forward or backward in time by several years in the space of a few lines.
Suleri addresses herself to her late father in the voice of an indulgent parent to a wayward child, sometimes admiring, sometimes exasperated, occasionally complaining. Her admiration for his intellect and the force of his personality is unmistakable. The occasional complaint is muted in the graceful style of desi womanhood.
To say that the author has an eye and more importantly an ear, for the comic would be to stress the obvious. Whether she is chuckling over her sister bringing one chicken to a picnic of four under the mistaken assumption that a chicken has four legs or at the bizarre translations at a literary meet in Moscow, she comes across as a woman who is quick to spot the incongruous or the inexcusably pompous. In her transliterations of Punjabi-mediated English sounds ('Scorch' for scotch, 'no dort' for 'no doubt', 'Freak Pee' for sweet peas) there is little malice, merely a delight at the diversities of human speech. And yet, in describing her own interactions with others I thought I noticed some of those same eccentricities. For instance, she describes what strikes me as her squeamishness when asked by her student if she may embrace her as 'friendly sagacity'. I detect a certain desi penchant for ponderous phrases where simpler words would suffice. Having said that, I enjoyed the book in large part for its awareness and deft use of the English language.
Squeamishness over physical intimacy aside, Suleri shares little of the subcontinental distaste for the physical details of the human body. She positively gloats over the desi "Yumpax" - substitute for a certain Western feminine hygiene product - and goes into considerable detail concerning its usage and shortcomings. Here's another characteristic passage that combines the memory of adolescent discomfort with a distanced amusement. Ruing her choice of a newly acquired pair of panties on a walking trip, she says:
I realized I should not have put on the brand-new knickers that I sported. On a bed they looked quite sportive - floral, gay - but on the bottom they were an entirely different matter. They crept. They sought out indentations of the body that makes walking quite an attitude of rumination [An attitude of 'rumination'. I love it!!] I would lag behind our jolly troupe, merely to pull the knickers from where they did not belong, and my feet hurt badly too...
The episode ends with an 'elderly hills man' taking pity on the poor girl. Gently, he says 'soti leke chal, mere lal.' The faintly sarcastic writing voice changes at this point to that of a little girl moved to tears at the compassion of an elder even as he expresses himself in an earthy vernacular.
Suleri's talent for spotting the pretentious and comic serves her well when she describes her relationship with her 'stepsister'. This stepsister is described as having an ambiguous status in the family - a sort of a female junior Svengali who worked her way into the author's father's heart and later into his coffers. Suleri's interactions with her are hilarious. The stepsister gives as good as she gets - more so if anything.
I derived considerable personal enjoyment deciphering the frequently interspersed Urdu writing - partly from my now rusty familiarity with the Urdu script but also aided in large part by the accompanying translations.For instance, I spent a considerable amount of time puzzling over this translation of a quatrain:
Darling, darling, do not lie
Sooner or later we all die
We don't go there in coat and pant
We don't go there on elephant!
For the cryptologically minded, the preceding Urdu lines display - even to those who cannot read the script - an 'abbb' rhyming pattern. You know my methods Watson, apply them ! The alert reader will notice how the author occasionally skips glibly over certain details. It is as if we are being invited to read between the lines. This is in areas where, presumably, subcontinental ideas of morality and indecorum conflict with the au thor's own. At the risk of adding more mystery to the above puzzle, I will leave it upto you, dear reader, to figure out where such sleight of hand is practiced.

Sara Suleri’s A Daughter Remembers
Sara Suleri's timeless creative memoir Meatless Days was a wonderful collage of memories, a reclamation of her Welsh-born mother and her sister, Ifat, both killed in hit-and-run accidents. Her new book, Boys will Be Boys: A Daughter's Elegy, revolves around her late father Z.A. Suleri - 'Pip', as she calls him, the nickname given to him by his children, short for Patriotic and Preposterous. The title of the book is taken from his oft-repeated announcement that one day he would write an autobiography and call it Boys Will Be Boys.
            Sara Suleri Goodyear brings her family vividly to life once more, beginning with the bond she shared with her sisters, into which she introduces an image, her father trudging up "the bitter stairs" with her, at the death of her eldest sister, Nuzhat Akhund, saying, "She should have made this trip for me." The author has the rare ability to knit together moments of such absolute sadness, with vivid, light-hearted memories of those she has loved and lost.
            Her elegant, tightly woven prose, movesseamlessly from one country to another, scattering references to a holiday in Nathiagali, or a stay in London, in between recollections of Karachi, Lahore,Brooklyn and New Haven, and knitting them together into rich, enjoyablenarrative. Describing Lahore and Kim's gun she comments that in Vermont, she wasinvited to give  a talk at Kipling House. Recalling Kipling's famous words, "OhEast is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet," she finds itstrangely ironic that she and her American husband, Austin Goodyear are givenKipling's bedroom to stay overnight. She adds: "I think you would have enjoyedthe evening in Vermont, Pip, because you liked to hear me speak of Lahore, and you were also fond of Kipling."
            Sara Suleri Goodyear addresses her father inthis way often, welding her memories of him with the present. She wonders whathe would think, if he had lived to see events unfold, including the dismissal,incarceration and exile of Nawaz Sharif, described by her as "Bobby Shafto, fatand fair with his Model Town estate and innumerable mills of corruption…"
            The title of each chapter is taken from an Urdu verse, song or saying, under which is printed the English translation and defines the theme. She writes:
            "Language! What a nuisance it is! I knew how pained Pip would be - almost as pained as was I - when I went through like a blunderbuss through the delicacies of Urdu, which remained surely his most favoured language. He was glad, I think, that I developed at least a nodding acquaintance with its poetry…"
            Further on, she adds:
            "In a way, my mother lived most of her life in translation. She never spoke Welsh, which her parents did; her French was merely academic; Urdu was one of those illusions which cast its shadow over her, but never long enough for her to possess it. As for Punjabi, it always struck us as a singularly male language."
            In a chapter which takes its name from Ghalib, 'Love Demands Patience,' she describes her mother's first meeting with Z.A. Suleri at his lecture on the independence of India in London where "doubtless he was eloquent" and his future wife said, "Now I could marry that man."
            She goes on to describe her mother in Lahore and touches upon the same ambience as Meatless Days, but from another perspective, introducing different incidents and details. She writes: "I am not even sure how Mamma would have responded to Meatless Days, although of course she couldn't, since it is largely an elegy for her. But I cannot describe my trepidation when I sent the book to Pip. "
            The full-blooded personality of her indefatigable father, with his "lion's head" and "memorable gaze", dominates the book, as do his comments, conversations and quirks, his love for newsprint, words and grand ideas, his passionate commitment to Pakistan and Quaid-e-Azam.
            She says: "For a man, Pip, you certainly gave continuous birth. I refer less to your offspring than to your newspapers, your projects. You always seemed to have something afoot, a bird in the bush and several more in hand".
            Into this multi-hued tapestry, Sara Suleri weaves in the many vicissitudes of her father's journalistic career. This ranges from his editorship of The Pakistan Times, his spell in jail, his visits to New York for the UN General Assembly - and his enthusiasm for Zia-ul-Haq which she could not share. She blames "Zulu Haq" for much and describes him aptly as a "maniacal general". But then, this is not a book about father-worship, but love and loss, life and death. She enshrines memories of good friends such as Eqbal Ahmed and poet Agha Shahid Ali, who also died shortly after her father and enlivens her pages with a quiet humour and wit and small cameo portraits of friends that her many Pakistani readers will know.
            Boys Will Be Boys is written in an easier more informal style than Meatless Days, but Sara Suleri remains a skilled miniaturist. She can compress entire worlds into a few brief sentences, filling in the tiny details, but never losing sight of the balance and structure of the whole. This is a thoroughly satisfying read.

Critical reception
Suleri says that any further fiction that she may write inevitably will be about Pakistan via the West or vice versa. In any case, Suleri says her work sits "between genres," at once neither fiction nor non-fiction. "There's a lot of fiction in it. Some of the characters I invented, some of the incidents I invented. Minor things, when it was necessary," she says. Lest the reader assume entire key passages were fabricated, Suleri admits she changed mostly temporal elements such as chronology. For example, she is not sure that when her mother was teaching Emma that she was involved in the theater: "I compressed time, brought it closer together" so that the scene would work, she says. 

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