A Method to Her Madness: The Style of Sara Suleri
Natasha Bronn '07, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003
Sara Suleri's Meatless Days is an incredible literary work. Part memoirist, part sage writer, Suleri shows us the wonder and the anguish of her childhood and surrounds us with the bold colors and sundry sounds of a volatile postcolonial Pakistan. Her book is a virtuoso act of interpretation of what one can discover and rediscover through one's own past. Her intensely original style and flair for description leave the reader with the sense of having read a complete and utterly true story. Each chapter is brimming with anecdotes from her past and present, interwoven with dialogue, thought, and breathtaking description. The book, which is written in a free flowing form, resembles in many ways the way a mind thinks: constantly drawing upon different musings in order to come a final conclusion.
The most striking aspects of Meatless Days are how credible the story feels and the uniqueness of Suleri's personal ethos. Suleri, who appears to bar nothing from the reader, presents herself as a warm and trusted interpreter. She is unlike any other writer whom I have yet encountered thus, although her credibility is unfaltering and her personal ethos is strikingly well defined, I find that discerning the methods by which she creates them is quite challenging. The works of two other accomplished writers can help us to see how Suleri achieves these effects.
John McPhee, the inquisitive author of The Crofter and the Laird, and Joan Didion, the author of the The White Album, are both brilliant nonfiction writers whose credibility resounds throughout their cherished works. A close analysis of Suleri's style in Meatless Days and works by McPhee and Didion can help us understand the methods of effective creative nonfiction.
Perhaps the most expedient method by which an author can create credibility is to prove that she knows more about a topic than the reader does; more intricate details; more complicated names and histories. Including exhaustive detail about a topic proves to us that our author was truly a part of the event, or that she studied the issue in great depth, either outcome solidifying our faith in her credibility. Suleri, McPhee and Didion all use this method in their work. Throughout Meatless Days, Suleri intermittently updates us about the changing political situation in Pakistan, each time mentioning exact dates, and numerous names which have not made the evening news for many decades:
How different Pakistan would be today if Ayub had held elections at that time, in 1968, instead of holding on until the end and then handing military power over to-of all people! -- Yahya . . . If Ayub had held elections there might still have been a deathly power struggle between Bhutto and Mujib: Mujib, the elected leader of East Pakistan; Bhutto, of West Pakistan. 
Suleri's father was a politic journalist and the political crises of Pakistan became crises in their home. Her substantial knowledge of Pakistaini politics and her strong opinions about their outcome confirm her credibility as an interpreter of the postcolonial nation.
In the The Crofter and The Laird, John McPhee constantly displays his in-depth knowledge of the legends and history of Colonsay in order to establish himself as an expert of the area. The sheer volume of intricate detail he includes is impressive, as he occasionally quotes directly from rare, century-old Scottish history books and biographies. Upon meeting the Laird of Colonsay, McPhee impresses the reader with his extensive knowledge of the Laird's great-great grandfather:
Smith, who would become the First Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal, was, in the words of a biographer, a child of parents "by no means greatly blessed with this world's goods" -- the second son of a village merchant. He grew up in a house that resembled, in its essentials, the houses of the crofters of Colonsay and the Highlands in general. 
It can be questioned whether or not the reader in fact needs, or even desires the amount of information that McPhee gives, but his obvious devotion to the history of Colonsay allows no room to question his credibility.
Like both McPhee and Suleri, Joan Didion also uses detailed knowledge in order to ensure her credibility. In "Quiet Days in Malibu," the last essay in The White Album, she regularly cites exact numbers: that a man's office was "a $190,000 lookout out onto Zuma beach" or that a blaze set "69,000 acres of Los Angles County on fire" (210). Her information could only be gathered by careful listening and research. In the beginning of Quiet Days in Malibu she discusses the industrious lifeguards of Zuma beach and goes so far as to transcribe verbatim the information in their incident logs. The common use of detailed information in the works of Suleri, McPhee, and Didion offers evidence that, although her prose takes an elusive form, Suleri indeed uses similar methods as other great nonfiction writers to create credibility. The unwavering authority of nonfiction and sage writers alike is of paramount importance to the reader. We look to nonfiction writers to give us information, and although we trust them to interpret and shape it for us, we expect to be able to rely on them as indispensable sources of knowledge. If an author's credibility is in doubt the entire piece looses its effectiveness, for if we cease to believe that they are well-informed, we do not value their interpretation. Suleri is a memoirist reminiscing about her life in Pakistan, McPhee a travel writer looking to document life on Colonsay, and Didion a political and social essayist attempting to find California's place in the sixties. Yet, although the three authors are exceptionally different, they each find detailed information to lend them invaluable credibility.
The detailed descriptions, facts, and citations that an author puts in a book help to build her credibility, yet strangely, what the author leaves out can be just as important. Although Meatless Days recounts her own thoughts and history, Suleri admits that there are aspects of her life in Pakistan that she will never fully comprehend and thus can not explain to us. When writing about her brother, Shahid in the section entitled "The Right Path; Or, They Took the Wrong Road," she confesses her imprecise understanding of her brother: "We had always thought of him, having as he did, the greater mobility of the male, as the most Pakistani of us: it never crossed my mind that he would choose to stay away or choose a life that would not allow him to return" (101). Though she confesses that she does not have a full knowledge of the topic on which she writes, we continue to value Suleri's interpretation. Her disclosure of her lack of certain understanding, in fact adds to her credibility. Nonfiction pieces are meant to be loyal to actuality and, as fellow human beings, we understand that when one is writing about certain significance or the inspiration of another it is impossible to possess complete understanding. Thus, admitting a lack of expertise in certain areas helps to confirm the actuality of the story.
Like Suleri and other nonfiction writers, Joan Didion, whose works have become hallmarks of social and political reporting, also confesses a limit to her knowledge. In "Good Citizens," Didion writes about attending a Jaycee conference in Santa Monica. She analyzes beautifully the lifestyle of the members and demonstrates a thorough knowledge of their slogans and community service programs, yet, when they state that it is time to "decry apathy" she is baffled: "The word 'apathy' cropped up again and again, an odd word to use in relation to the past few years, and it was a while before I realized what it meant" (94).
What authors leave out of their stories is just as important as what they leave in. It helps to build credibility when an author admits to us that she will not tell us about something because her lack of understanding will not allow her, but it is also effective when an author tells us that there are some topics about which she chooses not indulge us. Scattered throughout Meatless Days are mentions of a woman named Dale. It is apparent that Suleri cherishes her, yet she never divulges where they met our even the nature of their relationship. The modest amount of information about Dale is a clear choice made by Suleri, who even writes in the closing pages of her book: "I will not mention Dale at any length, although great length occurs to me (be distracted, elsewhere, Dale, as you read through this shortest sentence)" (176). This line adds further to the mystery of Dale and to our frustration about our lack of knowledge. But Suleri's refusal to bestow upon us her entire story creates credibility. Her story is a personal one. Thus, it is expected that there are certain people and memories from her past that she would want to keep for herself. Although we may be frustrated and curious, we expect that if her story is in fact credible she, like the rest of us, holds certain memories sacred and will shield them from the world.
Didion also shrewdly tells us that she will not expose every detail in her work. In a section of her title essay The White Album, she reports about the arrest and trial of Black Panther Huey Newton for the murder of a white police officer. She scrupulously follows the hype around his arrest, and records a conversation with him, yet in the very beginning of her essay, Didion informs us that she will not divulge Newton's entire story: "I am telling you neither that Huey Newton killed John Frey nor that Huey Newton did not kill John Frey, for in the context of revolutionary politics Huey Newton's guilt or innocence was irrelevant" (27). With this statement Didion establishes her faith in her role as an interpreter and in turn heightens the reader's belief in her credibility as an author. When reading the works of a sage or nonfiction writer we see the world through their lens and value this interpretation. Thus, Didion's assertion that she will not tell us of Huey Newton's guilt or innocence because it is irrelevant to the "revolutionary politics" about which she writes, strengthens her credibility as an endowed interpreter of the story. It can also be trusted that Suleri chose not to write in "any length" about Dale because it was not relevant to the story that she desired to tell us.
The powerful and effective nonfiction writer like Suleri is a trusted interpreter of events. The greater the displays of knowledge, prowess in written word, and alluring personal style, the more effectual the author is as a trusted interpreter, yet she must make heed not to inject her writing with too much of her own opinion and judgments. The most beloved and effective fictional narrator of all, Nick Carraway, of F.Scott Fiztgerald's masterpiece The Great Gatsby, bashfully admits to readers in the opening lines of the novel that is "inclined to reserve all judgments" (5). We want to have a sense of our author's personality but including a great deal of personal opinion and reaction can take away from her credibility as an interpreter.
Suleri's seemingly emotionless and judgment-free writing style can at times take readers by surprise because her writing is so extremely personal. Her writing about her father's sudden divorce from his first wife, Baji, after having fallen in love with her mother, is completely free from any judgment of her father's insensitive action toward his daughter Nuz:
Mamma at twenty-five must have been a talking thing-but I would hardly have thought that sufficient for him to pick up his life with Baji and just put it in his pocket. Oh, knowing his makeup I have no doubt he sang with pain, but he went through with it anyway. The divorce was conducted by mail, and in Karachi Nuz at nine was told that her grandparents were her parents, that Baji was her sister. 
Suleri was wise in wringing many of her own judgments out of Meatless Days. The book is already charged with her very personal and very painful stories. Thus if she had included more of her own judgments and emotions, her credibility would have been threatened, and the book would be at risk for appearing too slanted a view.
John McPhee has a similar judgment-free writing style in The Crofter and the Laird. He commonly quotes the biting and humorous opinions of the residents of Colonsay, but true to his mission to represent life in Colonsay as it really was, never interjects his own. Didion, who also rarely gives her opinion or judges the people about whom she writes, instead allows their own actions and words to create a judgment. In her title essay, "The White Album," she writes about Paul Fergusun, a man tried for the murder of Ramon Navorra. Instead of telling us what to think of Ferguson, she simply records what he said in court:
Paul Ferguson, who began working carnivals when he was 12 and described himself at 22 as having had "a fast life and a good one," gave the jury, upon request, his definition of a hustler: "a hustler is someone who can talk—not just to men, to women, too. Who can cook. Can keep company. Wash a car. Lots of things make up a hustler. There are a lot of lonely people in this town, man." 
Didion avoids inserting her own opinion of Ferguson, thus allowing the reader to gather from his own words that he is of questionable character. By means of this method, Didion ensures that the reader receives a proper sense the man while still maintaining her credibility as an interpreter.
In brilliant displays of her writing expertise, Suleri, like Didion, often uses other means then direct statement to convey her emotions or opinions. Much of the uniqueness of her style comes from her ability to substitute other images as metaphors for her emotion. In the chapter "Goodbye to the Greatness of Tom," Suleri hauntingly describes her relationship and its end with a man named Tom by piecing together images of their time together, thoughts about being alone, and scraps of conversations with her sisters. At the conclusion of the chapter when she describes Tom's final words to her, she does not write about her own sadness but instead lets her interpretation of his words portray the emotion for her:
I knew it meant that had I in Bombay -- leaving India in the opposite direction from the gateway that should have heralded me -- visited the Elephanta Caves, I knew already what I would have found. The wind would have whipped its warmth around the caves, emptying them of echo, and wrinkled out of sight across the flatness of the sea: all that would remain for me to hear would be the way one howled to the other, "Goodbye to the greatness of Tom!" 
In these closing words of the chapter, Suleri successfully uses the image of the wind whipping through an empty cave to portray her sadness. Further, her certainty that she would hear Tom's name in the wind clearly conveys that she was affected by the ending of their relationship. Suleri's subtle yet stirring manner of conveying her emotions is unparalleled. This ability enables her to weave her own personality throughout her writing while still maintaining her credibility.
Just as central to the effectiveness of a piece as an author's credibility is her personal ethos. A writer's personal ethos is the lens through which she views the world and the manner in which she projects this view to her reader. The writer's voice is of course extremely significant to the personal ethos of the piece. The words of the people about whom the author writes also help to create its message.
In Meatless Days, Suleri's quotes people in a style that is uniquely her own; so much her own in fact that she often seems to be feeding her own eloquent words right into the characters mouths. In "Goodbye to the Greatness of Tom," she quotes what her former boyfriend supposedly said to her once in sadness: "'I am sick,' he said in self remorse when he last spoke to me. 'It clutches at my heart and does not let me move,' he wailed; 'It puts me out of pulse and frightens me' (89). It can be safely assumed that her boyfriend, in a moment of intense emotion, did not speak so poetically and explain himself in symbols. It is also safe to assume that when her mother expressed her worry about her biracial children she did not wonder to herself, as Suleri tells us: "What will happen to these pieces of yourself—you, and yet not you—when you dispatch them into the world? Have you made sufficient provision for their extraordinary shadows?" (161). Although it is apparent that Suleri gives us her own lyrical interpretation of other people's words, the constant weaving of her own voice throughout every aspect of her story is enormously effective in creating the personal ethos of Meatless Days. The book is a memoir and as such we look to be taken to Suleri's world as she sees it. By shaping the character's words into a voice that is more her own, she creates a world held together with the majesty of her own prose. The fluidity of her voice as narrator is never broken, not even broken in the words of other people.
Didion has also mastered the use of character's words to shape the ethos of a piece. Her writings in The White Album are not memoirs as are Suleri's but rather deal much more in explaining issues and events, such as a racially charged murder trial, or a fire along the California coast. Thus, Didion is much truer to actuality when quoting the words of other people. In her essay "Good Citizens" she mentions a woman's comment about the California state representatives at a civil rights party in the Hollywood Hills: "'Those men are our unsung heroes,' a quiet charming and intelligent woman once said to me at a party in Beverly Hills" (87). The California woman probably did say these exact words to Didion, and the horribly clichéd comment further helps to describe the woman and the people that Didion encountered at the function. The inclusion of the woman's unaltered remark helps to create the ethos of the piece as a true-to-fact account of the character of California at that time.
John McPhee, perhaps the writer most respectful of his characters' right to their own words, also creates ethos through the use of quoting. McPhee dutifully transcribes his characters quoted thoughts and opinions on just about every topic he writes about. If all of the direct quotations from the residents of Colonsay were removed from The Crofter and Laird, the book could be read end to end in under an hour.
His writing style could easily be defined by his plentiful use of commentary, and it also helps to create his very unique personal ethos. The frequent quotes in The Crofter and the Laird from nearly every resident of the island greatly add to the reality of the book, and to its mission to give readers a window into life on the isle of Colonsay. Suleri, like Didion, McPhee and all other effective nonfiction writers, gives great importance to the words of the people about whom she writes, for she understands that it is imperative in creating a fluid personal ethos.
It goes with out saying that Suleri, McPhee, and Didion are all masters of prose. Credibility and personal ethos in the nonfiction piece can be helped by detailed information, subtlety in employing judgment, and well placed quotations, but what ties any great piece together, any piece that makes you quiet with inspiration, twinge with recognition or shiver with emotion, is the writer's ability to create brilliantly crafted words.
Suleri's greatest strength in Meatless Days is her flair for description. Her book focuses a great deal on Pakistan, a land most readers have never seen, thus her ability to create striking visual images is at the heart of the book. When writing about her trip back to Pakistan to run away from pain in her life Suleri silences the reader with the grandeur of her description:
I went in search of another cure from him, back to the Himalayas of my childhood, the winsome gullies that climb up the hills beyond the more standard attractions of Murree-a mere hill station of a place, with its mall, its restaurants, and its jostle. 
In this short description of a hill side, we can truly envision the mountain with "its winsome gullies", a sweet haven from the bustle of the city below. Each of her chapters are infused with awe-inspiring descriptions which make the world of Pakistan come alive to the reader. Upon finishing Meatless Days, a silence immediately came to me. I knew that if I were to once again crack open the now wrinkled pages, I would immediately be taken back to Suleri's intensely visual world, to the colorful streets of Pakistan, the dusty and uncertain roads of her childhood, or to the cold sidewalks of New Haven.
Didion has also earned her place not just as a respected journalist, but also as a skilled writer. Though the pages of The White Album are marked with her sensibilities and keen eye, her powerful descriptions of the places that she has been are woven throughout. In "Good Citizens" using few words, Didion gives the reader a clear and inspiring visual of where she was sitting at a Jaycee conference in Santa Monica: "Late one afternoon I sat in the Miramar lobby, watching the rain fall and steam rise off the heated pool outside and listened to a couple of Jaycees discussing student unrest" (95). Didion places herself in each essay, allowing us to imagine exactly where she was when she heard a conversation, or the look of the day when she interviewed a criminal.
Though his writing style is much more neutral than that of Suleri and Didion, John McPhee brings the gray and sodden isle of Colonsay to life. In describing two brothers who have spent their lives together laying bricks on the island, McPhee places them in the scenery and in our minds: "They always work together. They always seem to be silhouetted, side by side, not particularly in motion, against the background of the hills" (83).
Meatless Days is a jewel of a book, full of emotion and astounding insight. Sara Suleri is a master writer, who creates a warm and effective personal ethos and develops a bond of trust with the reader. Her writing style is unlike any other that I have encountered and as such it is difficult to discern the methods and techniques she uses to shape her words. However, by means of studying great nonfiction, it is clear to see that writing is not deemed "great" or "effective" simply by its own merit. There is clear technique and skill involved in nonfiction writing, and just as a blacksmith must learn the tricks and steps to shaping metal, writers too have steps to follow in their craft.
The parallels between the techniques of John McPhee in The Crofter and the Laird, and Joan Didion in The White Album and those used by Suleri are many. The similarities between the methods the three use to create credibility and personal ethos demonstrate that Suleri, like all other great nonfiction writers, indeed does follow specific formulas in her writing.
To read Meatless Days is exhausting. Not because the book is boring by any stretch of the mind, but because Suleri writes so effectively that the reader feels transported to her world. We are involved in the arguments with her father, emotionally wrenched by the death of her sister, and touched beyond words by the enduring love of a family that cannot be together. Sara Suleri must have tirelessly studied the techniques and methods used by remarkable nonfiction writers, for her implementation of their craft in Meatless Days is breathtaking.
Suleri, Sara. Meatless Days. The University of Chicago Press, 1991.
McPhee, John. The Crofter and the Laird. Farrar,Straus, and Giroux, 1998.
Didion, Joan.The White Album. Farrar,Straus, and Giroux, 1990.
Fitzerald, F.Scott.The Great Gatsby. Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1995.
Last modified 16 December 2003