Suleri's Voices

Mike Laws, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

Throughout this semester, especially when discussing Tom Wolfe, we have considered what happens when an author adopts the voice of one or more of his characters-- the reasons for doing so, the effects of the technique, the reactions elicited. In the case of Wolfe, the technique served several purposes-- in addition to being fairly humorous, the appropriation of voice acted as a sort of character-tag, enabling the reader to differentiate between the many test pilots, and bringing each one, individually, to life on the page. Moreover, the use of such different voices varied the text, layered it in a way that would be sure to engage attention. Still, we noted, the device can cut both ways: in some of Wolfe's other works, he will use the language of a certain character towards (often vicious) satirical purpose.

Owing to the grandiloquent, highly analytical style of Sara Suleri's Meatless Days, then, such an appropriation of voice inevitably stands out; in such instances, it is almost as if the writer condescends, leaving behind her typical syntax and diction to speak at a lower level of the English tongue. Of course, her reason for so doing might involve the language itself, as in the following passage from the "Papa and Pakistan" chapter:

There were always a few words that his flamboyant English insisted he mispronounce: words, I often imagined, over which his heart took hidden pleasure when he had got them by the gullet and held them there until they empurpled to the color of his own indignant nature. "Another" was one of them-- I cannot count how many times each day we would hear him say, "Anther?" "Anther?" It did not matter whether it was another meal or another government or another baby at issue: all we heard was a voice bristling over with amazement at the thought that anther could exist. ... Something like "beginning" had to become "bigning," a hasty abbreviation that was secretly aware of the comic quality of slapdash, the shorthand through which slapdash begins. He was a journalist, after all. [109]

Later, at the end of this paragraph-- and before delving into her father's background and upbringing-- Suleri will state, "For in the bigning, there was Pip"-- "Pip" being a childish appellation for her father.

What I am wondering is, of course, why Suleri would do this-- why here, in that final, transitory sentence, she would appropriate the voice (or, more accurately, the mispronunciation) of her father. At the outset of the paragraph I've reprinted above, the author quickly and quite cryptically characterizes her father as "indignant" in nature; moreover, her description of his articulation-- the way in which he spoke, or attempted to speak, English -- is rife with violent imagery. The image, to be specific, is of her father choking a word until it conforms to how he wants it to sound, as if he knows how it ought to sound but actively seeks to turn it, by way of articulation, into something meaner, more "indignant." So is Suleri, by invoking his speech patterns, subtly criticizing the man and his malevolence?

Is she poking fun at a journalist whose incapacity with language does not befit his title? Does she have another end in mind?

Or is her appropriation of voice something less deliberate-- an innocuous attempt at humor, perhaps?

Main Screen Pakistan Sara Suleri Meatless Days Leading Questions

Last modified 4 December 2003