Friday, November 11, 2022

On Reading Sara Suleri's Meatless Days

What a thing it is to discover a good book decades after it has been written! I wonder why nobody told me to read Sara Suleri's Meatless Days before? There were so many South Asian, especially diasporic, novels discussed over the last twenty years but not once did I hear anyone say: if you just want to look at good writing -- experimental writing that defies assumptions of genre -- read Meatless Days. I am both moved and startled by it. Some of the sentences are of such a sensory quality that I find myself wanting to lick them off the page (I don't actually do that. I don't! Really, I don't!). The language is a felt one, communicating itself with such a sharp metaphorical edge at times, it is like a new flavour on the tongue; at other times, it engages my literary senses with a sweet viscosity.

On the other hand, I am glad that I did not read this book before I wrote my own Bread, Cement, Cactus for it may have influenced the style in which I attempted a memoir of belonging and home, and this would not have been a good thing. Suleri's book is, in its own way, a sort of reaching for home but I needed to write a very different kind of memoir. I needed to grasp home as a sociocultural and political concept rather than reach for it within my own heart.

Suleri wrote a memoir that does something other than giving us a story about a well-known person, that opening of social doors and letting secrets spill, or even an account of living in a particular place at a particular time, taking us on a journey with a character with all their trials. Instead, it tells us what an emotional life is constructed of, using emotional tools that must be fashioned with one's own hands and memories so that, in the end, we are left with the author's heart rather than an account of her days. It is a memoir of love, not an account of relationships but a cloudy distillate in memory.

I did get tripped up sometimes by the language of the academic that sits within the writer. She uses 'discourse' instead of conversation or talk but she uses the term precisely, letting it describe an environment. A person can turn into a discourse, within himself or for the people in his life, or on account of a particular way of living and writing, seeing and refusing to see. She uses the word casually, but conscious of its possibilities. It is a pity she didn't write more fiction; I would have liked to see what she did with it but perhaps it is just as well. I think I will look out for her other book, also a personal narrative by the sound of it.

In the meantime, I leave you with these brief bits, where she talks about 'sentences' and her relationship with them from her earliest days, and the way she recalls her late mother and elder sister.

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