Originally published in 1989, Meatless Days, Sara Suleri's bewitching memoir about growing up in a newly created country – Pakistan – has just been re-released.
The book is part of the Penguin Women Writers series – which celebrates the centenary of women getting the vote in Britain in 1918 – and has a new introduction by the novelist Kamila Shamsie.
It’s a remarkable work, certainly worthy of recognition, that defies ordinary explanation and/or categorisation.
It’s split into nine parts, but these aren’t so much chapters in the traditional sense but rather essays – written in a conversational, confiding tone – each of which centres on a particular person of importance in Suleri’s life (family members, a boyfriend, her childhood best friend), their intertwined worlds spinning outwards together.
Suleri doesn’t do anything so mundane as introducing her cast of characters though; we’re simply flung in among them, initially left to make connections and surmise the relationships between them without help. Admittedly, the immediate effect is one of disorientation, but keep your wits about you and this doesn’t last long. Soon the hypnotic hyperbole of her prose takes root, and you begin to appreciate the very rare beauty of her descriptions.
It’s an approach that has a couple of distinguishing effects though. Firstly, Suleri as central protagonist isn’t as visible as we might expect. She exists between the lines, glimpsed between freeze-framed images of those nearest and dearest to her, rather than stood centre stage directing the action.
Secondly, chronology has no place here. Suleri doesn’t begin with her own birth and progress from there; instead – and surely in acknowledgement of the mysterious ways in which memory itself works – her story loops and curls, often doubling back on itself, bypassing certain events, sometimes surging forward into the future.
Defining moments in her existence come to be seen through a process of repetition. Her sister Ifat's death, for example, is referred to in the first essay, but there is a time and a place for her story, Suleri explains, and it isn't in the passage that deals with their beloved brother Shahid: "For in this story, Ifat will not die before our eyes: it could not be countenanced. How could I tell Shahid's story and let Ifat die before his eyes?"
Suleri was one of six children born to Mair Jones, a Welsh-English professor who found herself “living in someone else’s history” once she accompanied her new husband – the Pakistani political journalist Z A Suleri – back to his homeland.
Suleri was born in Pakistan, spent a portion of her early years in London, but for most of her childhood and adolescence, the family lived in Lahore. As an adult, she moved to the United States, where she has taught at Yale since 1983.
Geography slips and slides in Meatless Days, the now America-dwelling Suleri's memories of particular cities bound up with her mental images of certain people in her life: "Shahid looks like London now, in the curious pull with which London can remind: 'I, also, was your home.'" Suleri writes. "And it is still difficult to think of Ifat without remembering her peculiar congruence with Lahore, a place that gave her pleasure."
Language and syntax become vessels of remembrance, not least because of Suleri's singular way with prose, something that, as her story progresses, we realise can be traced back to the specifics of her parentage.
“She had to redistribute herself through several new syllables,” she says of her mother’s adoption of the name ‘Surraya Suleri’ on the occasion of her marriage, just the first linguistic element of the union: “She left what she imagined was a brand-new nation, a populace filled with the energy of independence, and arrived to discover an ancient landscape, feudal in its differentiation of tribes, and races, and tongues.”
Suleri and her siblings spoke both English and Urdu as children, and each language offers her something different. “Coming second to me,” she explains, “Urdu opens in my mind a passageway between the sea of possibility and what I cannot say in English: when those waters part, they seem to promise some solidity of surface, but then like speech they glide away to reconfirm the brigandry of utterance.”
Despite how evocatively she conjures up scenes from her youth, or how bright-eyed the portraits of her family and friends, Meatless Days is also a story of loss; that of family members who have passed, but also of the sadness inherent in the diaspora of those still living.
Meatless Days was republished by Penguin Books on February 1