The Selective Autobiographer in Meatless Days

Eric Sedgwick, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

Sarah Suleri's Meatless Days tackles an ambitious number of topics, ranging from gender matters in Pakistan to the history and politics of the country, all within the framework of the author's personal vignettes of her own life. The book's scope is daunting, but Suleri lets us know throughout that she is not telling us the whole story. Unlike many sage and travel writers who try to conceal their selectivity, Suleri is not afraid to alert the reader to the fact that many important events in her life have been intentionally left out of the book. For example, she informs us in parenthesis that she will not write about her sister's death: "For in this story, Ifat will not die before our eyes: it could not be countenanced" (103-4). Her circuitous writing style, her habit of following the tangents of her own thought associations rather than a clear narrative logic, make it evident that this is not a self-contained or conclusive story, but one that will leave many unanswered questions and hidden secrets. In the following passage, Suleri describes her own reluctance at times to reach into her past to retrieve information that might be germane to the topic at hand. By admitting to this conscious aversion to bring back certain memories, Suleri is distinctly outlining the terms of her writing, a writing that will produce a story both enormously selective, and necessarily incomplete.

But to travel back thus far is too enfeebling, too bone-wearying a business for my imagination. It is similar to my new reluctance to visit old Muslim tombs and contemplate again what I know I'll find, that inlay of marble on the walls with their curious flat-faced flowers, so dainty and scornful of their own decoration. And then the dead center of the grave can sit so heavily sometimes, surrounded as it is with tiny writing, words like capillaries to tighten in the head, as you read round and round with them all ninety-nine of Allah's appellations. O light, O clarity, O radiance, you read, until suddenly sequence becomes a vertiginous thing, and your brain is momentarily short of blood or breath. I used to enjoy the spaciousness of those places, the shoes-off of it, which put coolness at my feet. Now, I am not sure I would stop to consult those images, even by accident, in a passing book. [76]

In this passage, Suleri explicitly defines the limitations of her willingness to probe her own past. Do we as readers feel cheated by these limitations? Does her admission weaken the strength of her authority as autobiographer?

Suleri often makes use of extended, detailed metaphors to explain abstract concepts, metaphors that often require a great deal of mental acrobatics to comprehend fully. In this passage, she compares bringing back old memories to walking among Muslim tombs and reading the minute engravings upon them. What additional information about Suleri does this metaphor give us?

The allusion to the writing on the Muslim tombs draws attention to the status of Suleri's own writing, especially when she claims that she would "not stop to consult those images, even by accident, in a passing book." Is this meant to be ironic? How does the act of reading the inscriptions on the tombs, described as "vertiginous," relate to our own reading of Suleri's book?

Main Screen Pakistan Sara Suleri Meatless Days Leading Questions

Last modified 1 December 2003