"I" Versus "They": The Textual and Communal Self in Sara Suleri's Meatless Days

Rachel Aviv '04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

Although Meatless Days is more explicitly personal than Joan Didion's The White Album or Slouching Towards Bethlehem, it nevertheless belies a clean categorization as autobiography. Suleri, like Didion, links her personal story to the narrative of her culture. She conflates her internal landscape with the external landscape so that what is personal is never simply personal -- it is part of a larger question, a more historical assertion. In turn, Suleri begins to "lose the sense of the differentiated identity of history and [her]self" (14). Her mind becomes a "metropolis" (74) "a legislated thing" (87).

Suleri, like Didion, lives amid fragmentation: whereas Didion grapples with the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, America's deepening involvement in Vietnam, the general disillusionment and confusion of the '60s and '70s, Suleri struggles with a feeling of national displacement: her motherland is Pakistan, and yet her own mother -- White, Welsh, representative of the colonizer -- can barely speak the "mother tongue." She is a woman from the third-world, and yet, as she puts it, "There are no women in the third-world" (20), "Pakistan is a place where the concept of woman was not really part of an available vocabulary" (1). In "Joan Didion's Dreampolitics of the Self," Evan Carton writes that "The disintegration of the times, felt in seismic tremors of the self, may after all be held and suspended in solutions of self-consciousness, and precipitated on the page" (39). In Suleri's case, too, it is by means of self-conscious gestures -- "precipitations on the page," the creation of a "vocabulary" -- that her identity is constructed. By rooting her self in language, Suleri addresses her postcolonial identity. She deals with the "the unpronouncability of [her] life" (138) by becoming "engulfed by grammar" (155), by "living in plot" (154).

The manner in which Suleri constructs the identity of her family and friends, sheds light on the way in which she constructs her own identity for, in discussing them, Suleri uses the same techniques as in discussing herself: she fuses somatic discourse with civic and textual discourse. The sister who was once "a house I rented" (4) becomes after her death "the news" (68), and later, a "municipality" (104). Her mother, who "seemed to live increasingly outside the limits of her body" (156), becomes "the land [her father] had helped to make" (140) and later, "the past [Pakistan] sought to forget" (164). Her face is described as "wearing like the binding of a book" (151). Even her friend, Muskatori, is represented as such a convincing piece of "land" that, as Suleri declares, "they could build an airport on [her]" (70). Suleri refers to her own "schizoid trick" of disconnecting the syntax of "life and body" (68) and, again and again, we see the trick, or technique, in action. The book, which is self-consciously intertextual and academic, turns everything in its wake into a construction of language, a piece of text. The body becomes a narrative device, a metaphor for -- but also a way of dealing with -- its fragmented surroundings.

When Suleri leaves Pakistan, she remarks that she "was not a nation anymore" (123). More than a denial of physicality, the statement contains an explicit correlation between her self and her narrative subject. She abstracts history -- nationhood -- into her body, and then reads her body for historical clues. At various points in the book, Suleri describes herself as a "landscape" (87), an "otherness machine" (105), and a "state" (127). In one particularly poignant scene, Suleri and Shahid swim together and get bitten by fireflies. Suleri interprets the bites as "tiny writing on [her] skin" (108). When Shahid attempts to apologize, Suleri tells him it doesn't matter: "It never had any plot to it anyway" (108). In this scene, Suleri, like Didion, dramatically broadens the personal and physical. She turns this scene of physical play into a scene of textual play. She interprets the blemishes on her body as metaphors for the place she holds in the community: she is written upon, Other, colonized.

Throughout Meatless Days , food functions as a link between body and nation. In "Reading Communities and Culinary Communities," Parama Roy writes that "Food in the migrant/diasporic subject's cosmos becomes -- whatever it might be at its place of putative origin -- tenaciously tethered to economics simultaneously and irreducibly national and moral" (472). In Meatless Days , this logic holds: through food -- what the body consumes -- dramas of national identity play out. In the second chapter, Suleri writes that "Food certainly gave us a way not simply of ordering a week or a day but of living inside history, measuring everything we remembered against a chronology of cooks. Just as Papa had his own yardstick -- a world he loved -- with which to measure history and would talk about the Ayub era, or the second martial law, or the Bhutto regime, so my sisters and I would place ourselves in time by remembering and naming cooks" (34). Whereas her father measures history by keeping track of male heads of state, Suleri measures history by keeping track of what enters her body. The passage makes explicit not only the connection between body and history, but it reveals a gendered dichotomy: the males participate directly in history; the women, on the other hand, exist only in metaphorical relation to it. They keep track of history by what they consume, by what enters and fills their bodies. This blurry relation between body and nation/language, is one that structures the novel, and a particularly crucial moment for this issue is Suleri's discussion of the kapura . The kapura are testicles, but for the first forty years of her life Suleri has eaten them believing they are sweet breads -- that is what her mother said, that is the name she gave them. In a sense, Suleri has ingested the food as if it were a word, "sweet breads" -- a linguistic symbol. If called the right thing, she would happily consume them. This moment of cultural and linguistic displacement literalizes the process by which body connects to nation, a process which Suleri has gestured towards throughout the book. The kapura connect what is spoken with what is eaten; the food connects language with one's own flesh.

Like Didion, Suleri complicates the notion of the personal by blurring what is internal with what is external. In an interview I conducted with Sara Suleri this past October, she discussed the public nature of her personal pronoun. "The two books I've written that are designated memoirs," she said, "are not about me at all." She went on: "The personal pronoun is just as academic as if I was to say, 'This Reader believes this about Conrad.' The "I" is just as much a persona" (Suleri interview). Again we see that the "I," like the "I" in The White Album and Slouching Towards Bethlehem , functions largely as a narrative construction -- a means of abstracting cultural issues into a seemingly personalized unit. The personal and autobiographical function less as a subject, than a style: a technique of symbolically crystallizing community and culture.

Other sections of "I" Versus "They": The Textual and Communal Self in Three Female Autobiographical Texts

Cited Works

Belenky, Mary. Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice and Mind . New York: Basic Books, 1997.

Lovesey, Oliver. "'Postcolonial Self-Fashioning,'" in Sara Suleri's Meatless Days ." Journal of Commonwealth Literature . 32.2 (1997): 35-46.

Mair, Nancy. Voice Lessons: On Becoming a (Woman) Writer . Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.

Parama, Roy. "Reading Communities and Culinary Communities: The Gastropoetics of the South Asian Diaspora." Positions . 10.2 (Fall 2002): 471 - 502.

Suleri, Sara. Interview with Rachel Aviv. 15 October, 2003.

Suleri, Sara. Meatless Days . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Woolf, Virginia. "Professions for Women." The Death of the Moth and Other Essays . London: Hogarth Press, 1942.

Main Screen Pakistan Sara Suleri Meatless Days

Last modified December 2003