Saturday, December 4, 2010

Women and Postcoloniality Stripped to the Bone in Meatless Days; discuss the statement.

Sara Suleri's Meatless Days rejects any ideological ease in cataloguing otherness. Forcing both postcolonial and feminist theory to circumnavigate the bounded yet contested terrain of identity and discursive formations, she embarks on her poetic voyage with the confident declaration that "leaving Pakistan was, of course, tantamount to giving up the company of women".

Suleri then proceeds to map her discourse by telling her reader, "my reference is to a place where the concept of woman was not really part of an available vocabulary: we were too busy for that, just living, and conducting precise negotiations with what it meant to be a sister or a child or a wife or a mother or a servant". Following this assertion, the reader can envisage how Suleri¹s deliberate prose aims to reconstruct this absent community of women.
Suleri's listed roles that fill the displaced category of women -- sister, child, wife, mother, servant -- name without apology only the predicated female to the male subject. Of course, a woman's business depends a great deal on her socio-economic standing. The servant, for example, will locate her negotiated gender position in significant variance with Suleri. In an effort to explain her denial that women in Pakistan live in the "concept of woman" to an otherwise lost audience, Suleri introduces her grandmother Dadi who exists outside of any possible Western feminist terminology.
Closing the text's first chapter with a studied irony similar to its inception, Suleri arrives in a classroom at Yale University where she currently teaches English. Shuttling the reader from Pakistan to New Haven, Suleri shares a classroom anecdote that captures and guides her literary project:
When I teach topics in third world literature, much time is lost in trying to explain that the third world is locatable only as a discourse of convenience. . . And then it happens. A face, puzzled and attentive and belonging to my gender, raises its intelligence to question why, since I am teaching third world writing , I haven't given equal space to women writers on my syllabus. I look up, the horse's mouth, a foolish thing to be. Unequal images battle in my mind for precedence--there's imperial Ifat, there's Mamma in the garden, and Halima the cleaning woman is there too, there's uncanny Dadi with her goat. And against all my own odds I know what I must say. Because, I'll answer slowly, there are no women in the third world .
What does this bold assertion signify, given that Suleri herself constitutes a so-called woman from Pakistan, a country conveniently located in the so-called third world? And why would a student assume that the subject of third world literature necessarily precludes a sensitivity to gender? In her disconcerting response, Suleri refuses the false comfort of binary extremes that haunt continual attempts to define race, gender, and nation.
Suleri simultaneously problematizes Western notions of women within the Pakistani context, as she complicates the popular trope in both postcolonial and feminist theory that posits a racial or national authenticity as prerequisite to any informed analysis. "The claim to authenticity" Suleri explains, "--only a black can speak for a black; only a postcolonial subcontinental feminist can adequately represent the lived experience of that culture--points to the great difficulty posited by the authenticity of female racial voices in the great game that claims to be the first narrative of what the ethnically constructed woman is deemed to want" ("Feminism Skin Deep"). A progressive feminist politics relies on a rejection of the seductive yet restrictive boundaries of any either-or paradigm that defines or constrains the experience or identity of women. The assumption that a monolithic category of women exists as a result of sexual difference or shared subordination denies the multiple yet specific overlapping entities--political, cultural, historical, economical--that position women in particular locales at a given time. For that matter, overly determined either-or politics reify the very sexual confines or gendered binaries that feminism seeks to challenge. Therefore, by emptying the dubious categories of women and third world of their superficial authority, Suleri then moves on to a detailed narrative hosting audacious and marvelous women.
From the first page of Meatless Days, Sara Suleri breaks down the barriers of her authority. In contrast to the brilliant Neoclassical prose of Johnson, whose stylistic devices function as an assembly line for the production of meaning, Suleri's seems more a collaborative effort, an effort whose goal itself is ill-defined. For one thing, Johnson confines himself to a single world -- the social, perceptible world of upper and upper-middle class English citizens. -- from which he embarks on his quest for significance in his own, unfragmented narrative. The roles, and the theater, of Suleri's work are nowhere nearly as secure. She does, like Johnson, fit the dominant contemporary artistic movement of her time -- her case postmodernism. Yet, again like Johnson, these categorizations seems inadequate to appreciate her work and its intention.
For example, the motivating idea behind postmodern prose is the defiance of traditional narrative lines. The act of definition, the use of sententia as headlines, is anathema to the postmodern work. Instead of dealing in pat universals, the postmodernist explodes the whole system altogether by denying that there is one particular reality that can be generalized. The work, instead of asking epistemological questions about the world, becomes, as Brian McHale quotes Thomas Pavel, "'an ontological landscape...a complex ontology, involving different domains, populated by different kinds of beings.'" (McHale, 36) Instead of limiting reality to one particular social sphere, this landscape reflects the social construction of a much different kind of reality, one that includes social classes, religious sects, occupations, a series of smaller worlds that make up either a meta-reality, or, in McHale's syntax, an "(un)reality." (McHale)
This idea of multiple realities, or no reality at all drives in Meatless Days. From the opening sentence, Suleri juggles the different worlds that hold meaning for her: "Leaving Pakistan was, of course, tantamount to giving up the company of women."  She immediately presents us with her national identity and her gender identity. These are not simply two causal components of her personality; they comprise separate universes that either overlap or collide. Suleri spins out these possibilities in her opening chapter, as she moves from one episode to the next, each one adding a new tile to the mosaic, sometimes highlighting this interface between personal and political worlds. For instance, in one episode Suleri recounts a confrontation she had with her younger sister, Tillat, who came home suspiciously late from an evening out, and Sara responded with jealous, helpless violence. The implications for their close sisterhood are severe:
Till then we had associated such violence with all that was outside us, as though somehow the more history fractured, the more whole we would be. But we began to lose that sense of the differentiated identities of history and ourselves and became guiltily aware that we had known it all along, our part in the construction of unreality.
In this case, Suleri shows how her naive placement of herself in one single world (that of sisterly affection) invariably leads to fragmentation, a sharp reminder of the lack of secure, coherent structures. It is not simply that the significance of her world is diminished by alternative, political realites; that world is destroyed by the alternative, not only by its violence, but by its very existence. In fact, as Suleri realizes, the more she identifies herself as Tillat's sister, the more she contributes to the multiplicity of realities, creating in the long run one overarching unreality.
Interlacing texts and their consequent fragmentation runs throughout the first chapter, as Suleri layers tales of family deaths with explosive political events. . She recounts one especially jarring incident when her father, upon receiving a cable from his wife, kissed it before putting it in his pocket. Suleri felt startled, "as we all did on the occasions when our parents' lives seemed to drop away before our eyes, leaving them youthfully engrossed in the illusion of knowledge conferred by love." . The multiple realities span not only political and personal spheres, but temporal ones as well. Suleri is confronted with the reality of a world of which she is a product, but not necessarily a part. She cannot enter this world, nor can she really negotiate with it. It simply stands as another thorn in the side of the idealized, neat, cohesive narrative.
Sara Suleri creates a complex web of metaphoric relations between discourse and woman's body in Meatless Days. In the episode when Sara strikes Tillat out of sexual jealousy when she returns home late, she acts as an agent of her internalized patriarchy, even though both knew that she was jealous of Tillat's activities. The bodily violence/violation is coded with a message, an ideology that frames them both within history and makes them complicit with outside violence in their lived experience.
Till then we had associated such violence with all that was outside us, as though somehow the more history fractured, the more whole we would be. But we began to lose that sense of the differentiated identities of history and ourselves and became guiltily aware that we had known it all along, our part in the construction of unreality.
The following passage, which concludes the novel, collects the various themes and interweaves them:
Bodies break, but sometimes damage feels a necessary repair, like bones teaching fingers how to work, to knit. When my bone broke, I was perplexed: was I now to watch my own dismantling body choose to unravel with the cascading motion of a dye in water, which unfurls to declare, "Only in my obliteration will you see the shapes of what I really can be. . . Put upon by sentences galore--like starlings, vulgar congregations! In pale and liquid morning I hold the Adam in me, the one who had attempted to break loose. It is a rib that floats in longing for some other cage, in the wish-bone cracking urge of its desire. I join its buoyancy and hide my head as though it were an infant's cranium still unknit, complicit in an Adam's way of claiming, in me, disembodiment." (Suleri)
At the same time that Suleri feels distanced from her own body, from the male, Adam, in it, she also experiences her placelessness as a woman since she is continually a migrant in the world. She conceives of the body as an entity engaging in discussion. Without the support of her rib, the fluidity of her body mirrors the apparent lack of "scaffold" in her novel, which exists as a collection of integrally connected but "unknit" memories and anecdotes. The fragmentation of her narrative appears expressed in the fragmentation of woman's bodily parts.
Her father, one of the book's central male figures, is aligned with language and discourse in his journalism--and consequently history, and its production. Ironically, Mair, Suleri's mother, as a Welsh woman living in Pakistan epitomizes the theme of woman's lack of place and history. "She let commitment and belonging become my father's domain , learning instead the way of walking with tact on other people's land. . .I'm curious to locate what she knew of the niceties that living in someone else's history must entail, of how she managed to dismantle that other history she was supposed to represent."
In this way, she is a sort of backwards inverted colonial representation. In a passage reminiscent of Rushdie, Suleri writes:
"Mairi, look at the beauty -- the balance--of this front page!" He made each front page fit into his control of the aesthetic of his history. My mother, however, let history seep, so that, miraculously, she had no language in which to locate its functioning but held it rather as a distracted manner sheathed about her face, a scarf. "Mamma was more political. . . She did not have to put it into print--it was the sheet in which she slept. . . " So of course she never noticed the imprint on her face as it wore, for she was that imprint: she was her own dust before her bones had dreamed that they could crumble."
As in Remains of the Day, language signifies belonging to a place or a people. Suleri writes of her mother, "For a woman who liked to speak precisely: she must have hated her sudden linguistic incompetence: languages surrounded her like a living space, insisting that she live in other people's homes." Placelessness is correlated with public discourse and history. Yet, "Men live in places. Women live in bodies." Words, too, can be inscribed onto the body, so that the body carries a message. Suleri writes after her sister's death: "Let us wash the word of murder from her limbs, we said, let us transcribe her into some more seemly idiom. And so with painful labor we placed Ifat's body in a different discourse, words as private and precise as water when water wishes to perform both in and out of light."

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