Saturday, December 4, 2010

Sara Suleri's Meatless Days -- Novel or Autobiography?

Although in private conversation Suleri herself does not term Meatless Days an autobiography, her publisher markets it as one, presumably with her permission. Is Suleri then duping the reader, making -- or allowing others to make -- a claim for authenticity when she has created some of the events and people? Suleri counters, "Why would a novel be any less true than someone saying this is my life?"
(Interview). She asks for a viable definition of authenticity, implying that fiction, too, is as authentic as the so-called real events in someone's life. Not interested in writing a confessional, which she feels is "too expansive and revelatory" for this task, she returns to her thesis that she wanted to write a history, a chronicle of the inextricably married histories of her own and that of Pakistan. The distance, then, that reviewers from The New York Time Book Review and The Library Journal have criticized her for is intentional. Daniel Wolfe wrote in The Book Review that "Her writing is beautifully constructed and yet a little cold; Sara Suleri expertly paces out the boundaries of her subject without giving the reader the pleasure of getting inside." Suleri would respond that the novel is not about getting inside but is about showing what happened, without explanation, with "no introductions" (Interview).
To be sure, she acknowledges that genre of autobiography, by its very definition, engenders a form of self-censorship because it is one's own choice what to include and what to leave out of the text. However, she adds, "Forgetting is just about as important as what you remember." At the same time, she does not believe in authorial control, saying that "a narrative should shape itself." When she writes, "a lot of it is being dictated by what is down there on the page; what I remembered and forgot was beyond my control." Perhaps for this reason Suleri's prose is peppered with the phrase "of course," as in the opening sentence cited above: "Leaving Pakistan, was, of course, tantamount to giving up the company of women." The book, as Suleri sees it, creates itself so that the things she writes down become, in a way, obvious. The fact that her memory somehow chose to recall selectively only certain events is, for her, not altogether that mysterious, because she believes the narrative "shapes itself." Of course she remembered -- her memory allowed her to recall -- this particular thing and not that particular thing, for the process of memory is beyond her control. Related to this is that Suleri finds she does not need to make many if any revisions to her work; her first draft usually is her last, and she avows that her writing is a mirror of her speech and not created artifice as some say it is.

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