Adam: I have chosen the following passage because it seems to exemplify the connection between death, time spent in Pakistan, and eventual memory loss. The landscape the text provides is often overcome with quick, jarring, unexpected transitions between everyday life and horrifying accidents. Additionally, the mindsets of the characters seem far from detail-oriented (Dadi fails to learn the names of the foreign countries her sons have gone to, Sara's father forgets details about her mother's life upon her death). This passage sets up a perfect balance between the lack of focus and the inherent connection to death in Pakistan that the work deals with:

Bhutto's hanging had the effect of making Pakistan feel unreliable, particularly to itself. Its landscape learned a new secretiveness, unusual for a formerly loquacious people. This may account for the fact that I have never seen my grandmother's grave and neither have my sisters. I think we would have tried, had we been together, despite the free-floating anarchy in the air that- like the heroin trade- made the world suspicious and afraid. There was no longer any need to wait for change, because change was all there was, and we had quite forgotten the flavor of an era that stayed in place long enough to gain a name. One morning I awoke to find that, during the course of the night, my mind had completely ejected the names of all the streets in Pakistan, as though to assure that I could not return, or that if I did, it would be returning to a loss. Overnight, the country had grown absentminded, and patches of amnesia hung over the hollows of the land like fog (18).

Kate: Thinking about Adam’s observation of the “inherent connection between death and Pakistan,” Suleri’s memoir seems to emphasize the connection between the deaths of women in Sara’s family, more so than the brutal nature of the Pakistani state. Her “jarring, unexpected transitions between everyday life and horrifying accidents,” become Suleri’s way of expounding her memories — mimicking the nonlinear movement of remembering, and, through writing, expressing the ways in which past events can reshape themselves in the present. Like the “sweetbread” ingested for years as something other than testicles, like the dream of her mother’s “hunks” of body meat “wrapped in cellophane,” memory for Sara is dismembered and then remembered, hidden “under her tongue,” dissolved, and then resolved (44).

In this way, memory works metaphorically for Suleri. While “Bhutto's hanging had the effect of making Pakistan feel unreliable,” it also becomes symbolic of the disarray in Suleri’s family. Metaphorically, it is Suleri’s family landscape that “learned a new secretiveness;” she would have gone to visit her grandmother’s grave if her family, subject to movement and change like the Pakistani government, “had been together.”

As far as Adam’s comment on the “lack of focus” or forgetfulness present in Meatless Days, I wonder what the end of our passage — about forgetting the street names in Pakistan — says about Suleri’s identity. Is this “amnesia” intentional? Is she trying to let go of her Pakistani self? Having lived in England, Pakistan, and the U.S. does she have a definable identity?

Adam: Yes, by "inherent connection between death and Pakistan", I definitely meant the connection between deaths in her family, and her time spent in Pakistan. She goes out of her way to connect these personal tales of woe to the time spent under the tumultuous Bhutto regime, and (potentially) intentionally learns to forget them.

Anne: Thinking about Adam's passage and Kate’s response makes me wonder about Suleri's identity and the role remembering and forgetting play in that. Clearly they are two practices that consume her, either consciously or subconsciously. For instance, in the second chapter, hardly a paragraph passes in which she does not use some derivative of the words "remember," "remind," or "forget." But she also becomes obsessed by things she never knew in the first place. After she finds out her mother fibbed about the true nature of kapura, she tries to compile a list of all the other things she thinks her mother might have lied about. The anecdote about the kapura demonstrates the connection between her identity construction and knowledge and forgetting. When her sister questions her knowledge of kapura, a traditional Pakistani food, she wants to retort: "yes, of course, who do you think I am. . ." (27). The implication that she lacks authenticity as a Pakistani obviously stings. But this was knowledge she never possessed, knowledge withheld by her Welsh mother. Is it fair to infer that being half-Welsh has destined her never to be a true Pakistani? Or is reading anything to her mother's race in this situation unfair?

In thinking about Kate's question about forgetting street names in Pakistan, I was struck by an opposite passage later in the book. Suleri is describing a walk she took with Shahid in London when they shared memories, and the story "made us laugh from Connaught Court to Edgware Road" (41). Not only does this show she can remember London street names, but she remembers the specific ones that marked the dimensions of their laughter. This was a pleasant memory of siblings reconnecting, one that Suleri has apparently preserved the details of in her mind. So I wonder if she has purposefully forgotten painful memories, while retaining the pleasant ones, to construct her identity. Perhaps, as Kathleen wondered, her amnesia is intentional. But I am wondering if her forgetting is less about trying to leave behind her Pakistani identity and more about leaving behind the pain and crisis associated with her time in Pakistan. As Adam pointed out, pain in her personal life and turmoil in Pakistan are closely linked. Perhaps when she distances herself from pain, it necessarily means distancing herself from Pakistan.

Erica: The passage Adam selected also evokes the role of time and chronology in Suleri’s narrative. Caroline Ang, B’97 writes: “Suleri is much more concerned with communicating the actual happenings of an event and hinting at their significance, as opposed to their placement in a conventional chronological sequence.” Suleri’s indifference to time appears in the structure of her narrative. She presents her autobiography not in a chronological form, but rather as a series of chapters which each focus on a different female character. Ang continues: “When she does place events in a chronology, she uses her own markers of time, such as the series of cooks her family employed over the years and a friend’s craze for lingerie.” Suleri also includes conceptions of time by paralleling her own family record with the simultaneous events of Pakistan’s shared history. Adam’s passage begins with a reference to Bhutto’s hanging, which is the culmination of a sequence of historical events Suleri presents in conjunction personal family memories. She places defining moments in her own life in the context of what was happening in Pakistan at the time, first describing the decision she and Tillat made to move to America and Kuwait, respectively. She explains: “we left, and Islam predictably took to the streets, shaking Bhutto’s empire” (16). At the time of her mother’s death, Suleri writes “By this time Bhutto was in prison and awaiting trial, and General Zulu was presiding over Pakistan” (17). Finally, when Dadi dies six months later, Suleri mentions that “it happened the same week that Bhutto finally was hanged” (17).

In addition to providing historical context and a sense of chronology, these references to political developments in Pakistan emphasize Suleri’s own sense of identity and place. She describes her relationship to this sequence of historical and personal memories as distant and removed, implying her own helplessness and emphasizing both a perceived and actual lack of control. In the selected passage, she portrays her memory as a phenomenon beyond her control, explaining that her mind has “ejected all the names of streets in Pakistan, as though to assure that I could not return, or that if I did, it would be returning to a loss.” This characterization emphasizes a sense of paralyzing passivity, almost bordering on apathy, which typifies this section of Suleri’s narration. She emphasizes her distance from the events, describing how she heard her siblings recall her mother’s death. She writes: “Dadi behaved abysmally at my mother’s funeral, they told me,” (17) reflecting her passivity as she relies on other people to communicate details and attitudes to her:

So I was angry with Dadi at that time and didn’t stop back to see her. I saw my mother’s grave and then came back to America, hardly noticing when, six months later, my father called from London and mentioned Dadi was now dead. It happened in the same week that Bhutto was finally hanged, and our imaginations were consumed by that public and historical dying. Pakistan made rapid provisions not to talk about the thing that had been done, and somehow, accidently, Dadi must have been mislaid into that larger decision, because she too ceased being a mentioned thing. My father tried to get back in time for the funeral, but he was so busy talking Bhutto-talk from England that he missed his flight and thus did not return. Luckily, Irfani was at home, and he saw Dadi to her grave. (17)

As in the passage Adam selected, here Suleri emphasizes not only her apathy towards Dadi’s death and the collective passivity of Pakistan’s attitude towards the death of Bhutto. Although she describes that their imaginations are consumed with the event, most deny the opportunity to actively discuss it. Suleri illustrates a version of Pakistan that becomes lost to her, a place and part of her identity that subsumes her active will. She further develops the image of her helplessness in regard to the change associated with her native country in her description of Ifat’s murder, when she remarks: “In Pakistan someone had different ideas for my sister and thwarted all my plans” (18). Suleri shows how “worn by repetition,” she feels at the complete mercy of change and grief. It was this overwhelming, “farcical” grief that she explains “cut away, of course our intimacy of Pakistan, where history is synonymous with grief and always at home in the attitudes of grieving” (19). Ultimately Suleri’s feelings of helplessness and passivity in the face of familial and cultural change lead her to the conclusion that she is “lost.”

Panpan: I agree with Adam in that an “inherent connection between death and Pakistan” underlines Suleri’s work, but I wouldn’t attribute the characters’ forgetfulness as much to a lack of attention to detail as to what Suleri terms a national “absentmindedness,” these “patches of amnesia” that hang like fog “over the hollows of the land.” I think that throughout her narrative, Suleri draws other more specific and concrete connections between death and change, grief and forgetting to illuminate her portrait of “deadly” life in Pakistan.

Change (read: death) is tragically common in Suleri’s Pakistan. “Change was all there was,” Suleri writes; it made Pakistan “unreliable,” “suspicious and afraid.” Death, then, as an altogether irreversible change, “change taken to points of mocking extremity,” was the absolute and continual human realization of change. Death constitutes life’s ephemerality its vicissitudes, its volatility. As a country whose history is littered with death and so “synonymous with grief,” Suleri’s Pakistan as well as her account of it necessarily preoccupies itself with its peoples’ frequent encounters with and reactions to death and loss.

To Suleri and her characters, the dead quickly become “obsolete” (Bhutto, Mamma, Ifat), all “archaisms, quaintnesses on our lips.” Death is not something over which to grieve in fact, for Suleri “there is nothing so farcical as grief”; “it had to be eliminated from our diets for good.” Hence Dadi’s “loud and unnecessary lamentations” at her daughter-in-law’s funeral are seen as “abysmal” behavior, and “made them all annoyed.” In Suleri’s world, the dead are soon forgotten to die is to be forgotten, to fade into a nationwide amnesia and are not to be talked about, much less mourned with Dadi’s histrionics. Accordingly then, when Dadi dies, she simply ceases “being a mentioned thing.” “Somehow it seems apt and heartening” to Suleri for Dadi never to suffer “the pomposities that enter the most well-meaning of farewells,” to seep instead “into the nooks and crannies of our forgetfulness.” “When Dadi died,” Suleri writes, “we all forgot to grieve.”

As Kathleen and Anne have touched on, this widespread, general amnesia toward Pakistan, toward identity, toward tragedy I believe is very much intentional, even if only subconsciously so. In the face of tragic, unalterable change, Suleri and her characters take on a decidedly lighthearted, pragmatic, escapist (call it what you will) approach to death. They do not grieve they forget.

Adam: I entirely agree that the forgetfulness is entirely intentional, and a coping mechanism. I just meant to highlight the continual process of death, followed by a lack of grieving, followed by ultimately blocking out any awareness of the situation, except what continues to unconsciously pervade dreams (like Suleri carrying pieces of her mother).

Anne: I think we could expand this discussion of Suleri's amnesia to how that amnesia shapes the work as a whole. In class we discussed various terms that could be applied to the book. Is it an autobiography? a memoir? a cultural and personal history? Although we struggled to choose the term that would be most appropriate, any of them require the author to remember.

We have discussed how the details a writer chooses to include or omit shape the reader's impression of a life, a place, a situation, and that we can only hope they are being fair in their representation. But in Suleri's book the omissions become more important. She brings attention not to the omissions all writers make in crafting their stories, but to the omissions her brain has made. She mentions facts she cannot remember ("I have forgotten where Mamma could possibly be on such an occasion" (38)), sometimes blaming the lost detail on her mind itself ("my mind had completely ejected the names of all the streets in Pakistan" (18)).

Suleri is admirably frank about some of what she has forgotten, but is her inability or choice not to remember many of the details of her life problematic for the type of text she is writing? I am more inclined to label her work a memoir, which seems more forgiving to excerpting from a life to make a narrative than does an autobiography. The memoir label also seems to accord better with the structure of the book with respect to chronology, which Erica discussed. Thoughts? Or perhaps we should not get hung up on the term to describe the book. The publisher couldn't decide — the book is labeled "Literature/Autobiography" on the back. How should we take that?

Victorian Web Victorian courses

Last modified 21 April 2011