Public and Private History in Sara Suleri's Meatless Days
Yishane Lee 91 (English 137, 1990)
Suleri constantly reminds the reader that she is writing a public history. Even the death of her sister Ifat connects to chaotic politics in Pakistan, for her family fears Ifat was murdered as a result of her father's political leanings. The "alternative history" that Suleri calls Meatless Days is an attempt to deal with private history in a public sphere, setting the two "in dialogue." According to Suleri, she tried to create "a new kind of historical writing, whereby I give no introductions whatsoever. I use the names, the places, but I won't stop to describe them" (Interview, December 1990). In contrast to other third world histories, which she criticizes as too "explanatory," Meatless Days simply presents Pakistan as it appeared to her. Using names and places without much definition, description, or explanation was her "attempt to make them register as immediately to the reader as it would to me."
Some might argue with her assertion, however, that she does not interpret. The New York Times Book Review claimed, for example, that Suleri takes "one step back for analysis with every two it takes toward description." Indeed, some amount of reflection and interpretation is to be expected when one writes from the present looking back on the past. At one point she writes as she recounts a memory in the book, "Could that be it?" (p. 134) Here she is wondering, as she reflects back. Indeed, Suleri readily admits, "How does one maintain a sense of privacy when you construct a text like this?" and she acknowledges, "I'm sure I did reveal a lot" and that Meatless Days is "a very private book" (Interview, December 1990).
Suleri, like Anglo-Pakistani author Salman Rushdie, weaves her own personal history into that of Pakistan because the two entities are, as she says, "inextricably connected to one another." Thus entwined, the food feeding her book Pakistan, her siblings, her parents, relatives and friends, the West and her professorship of English at Yale are intertwined while Suleri's own personal history acts as a woven bag holding and linking the content together. However, at the same time, Suleri hesitates to characterize Meatless Days as a memoir or autobiography and asserts instead its status as an "alternative history" of Pakistan. For this reason, those critics who accuse her of writing a distant, cold autobiography may have missed the point: Suleri set out to write a historical novel, but one that is not based solely on facts and figures but rather is based on the facts in interconnected public and private histories. The deeply intimate aspect of the work, then, is not subjugated to the history of Pakistan but, combined with her remarkable use of syntax and diction, works instead to complement and redefine the country itself.
Last modified 18 May 2001