Chewing Away at Boundaries

Anna Sussman '04, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2003

Sara Suleri, in Meatless Days and Boys Will be Boys, uses metaphor abundantly, almost incessantly, to weave in and out of the narrative fragments out of which each memoir is composed. The rootless, borderless, structure of her life, which unfolds in pieces across many cities, is reflected in the books' apparent lack of organization. However, a closer inspection reveals an organizational technique built around semantic associations, rather than historical or narrative sequentiality. She centers many of her metaphors on food, which, like language, plays a crucial role in the construction of cultures. Having successfully lived in many cultures, spoken many languages, and digested many kinds of food, Suleri's life and work illustrate the arbitrariness of national and linguistic boundaries.

Metaphor, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is "a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a likeness or analogy between them." In other words, it functions by mentally aligning two disparate concepts, between which a reader formulates a third, synthesized meaning. Suleri's continuous stream of metaphors constantly forces the reader to question the absoluteness of words' assigned meanings. She also uses frequent repetition of her friends' and family members' mispronunciations of English words to this same end. This technique of repeating recognizable words with a critical difference "disrupts the sign/signifier relationship" (Drewal, Yoruba Ritual, 5) and illustrates language's permeability to new meaning.

Why food, though, as such a recurrent trope? Food is a sensuous, material thing. Language is an abstract concept, constructed in the minds of its users. Yet both are symbols of cultural identity. What you eat and which language you speak, and with what accent, are never just that, they are fraught with class and cultural significance. "Taste" is another word for "aesthetic," and taste is also symbolic of social class. Furthermore, both are ways of orally internalizing the external world. Food is ingested, processed, and excreted. Language is the means by which people translate their sensual and material experiences into meaningful concepts. However, to the same degree that they can include, unify and satisfy, they have the power to exclude, divide and frustrate. Suleri's endless use of metaphor highlights the fact that language is not indestructible; each language, like each cuisine, like each culture, has its strengths and weaknesses, and that one cannot, and must not, try to dominate another.

On the first page of Meatless Days, Suleri sets up the relationship between food and language. She describes her friend Anita as the only person who understands that her leaving Pakistan meant giving up the company of women. This complicit sharing of culture allows them to "go perambulating through the grimness of New Haven and feed on the pleasures of our conversational way." Although they are located in an entirely different geographical place now, their conversation, the words exchanged, give them nourishment and sustenance. Suleri then goes on to explain to the reader, whom she equates with "a stranger or an acquaintance," the peculiar situation of women in Pakistan, "a place where the concept of woman was not really part of an available vocabulary: we were too busy for that, just living, and conducting precise negotiations with what it meant to be a sister or a child or a wife or a mother or a servant." Here, language as a tool for conceptualizing becomes an inhibiting obstacle. In Pakistan, there was no "concept of woman" as part of the "available vocabulary." Each woman was relegated more specifically to one of many other roles, which required intricate "negotiations" to make the reality of lives correspond with the linguistic definition of each of those words. But the language used here, English, cannot fulfill its purpose. It does not successfully translate their reality into words.

Suleri directly links food and language again on the first page of the chapter "Meatless Days," calling her conversations with her sister Tillat "meals, delectable" (21). Although Tillat lives in Kuwait, married with three children, Suleri shows how by "speaking over and across the separation of our lives," indulging in these verbal repasts brings them to a common ground. Yet, it is during this conversation that Tillat chooses to debunk Suleri's long-held belief that kapura, a Pakistani dish, are sweetbreads.

"Sara," said Tillat, her voice deep with the promise of surprise, "do you know what kapura are?" I was cooking and a little cross. "Of course I do," I answered with some affront. "They're sweetbreads, and they're cooked with kidneys, and they're very good." Natives should always be natives, exactly what they are, and I felt irked to be so probed around the issue of my own nativity..."Not sweetbread," she gently said. "They're testicles, that's what kapura really are." [22]

This dispute over the true meaning of the word kapura prompts Suleri to question other expatriate Pakistanis as to its definition. "Expatriates are adamant, entirely passionate about such matters as the eating habits of the motherland. Accordingly, even though I was made to feel that it was wrong to strip a food of its sauce and put it back into its bodily belonging, I certainly received an unequivocal response: kapura, as naked meat, equals a testicle" (22). In her effort "strip a food of its sauce and put it back into its bodily meaning," she is questioning the true definition of the word, without its "sauce," or semantic associations. Unable to accept this answer, she insists on its potentiality for other meanings, asking

"But," and here I rummaged for the sweet realm of nomenclature, "couldn't kapura on a lazy occasion also accommodate something like sweetbreads, which is just a nice way of saying that pancreas is not a pleasant word to eat?"

So when we eat food, we are not just eating the substance in our mouth, we are ingesting the word, and its mental connotations, as well.

Contemplating why her mother, the source of the misinformation, had deceived her thus, she decides on two possibilities. Either she was just plain wrong, had mistranslated, or, even more disturbingly, she "knew that sweetbreads are testicles but had cunningly devised a ruse to make me consume as many parts of the world as she could before she set me loose in it" (23). She explains her mother's awareness that "sweetbreads are testicles" as a matter of cultural difference. "For of course, she must have known, in her Welsh way, that sweetbreads could never simply be sweetbreads in Pakistan" (23). She then must question the truth of everything her mother has told her, asking "what else have I eaten on her behalf?" The word did not translate correctly, and she is deeply disillusioned. Her mother had been feeding her mistruths.

Kapura becomes the recurrent theme that links the anecdotes over the next few pages. "To the best of my knowledge I had never seen kapura cooked outside of the company of kidney, and so for Tillat's edification alone I tried to begin with the story of the kidney" (24). She then goes a step further back in time, recounting how Ifat would make fake pan, stuffed with pebbles, to feed to their cook's daughter, who ate them every time. Again, food, like language, deceives and disappoints. The pebbles turn into stones, and "Those stones get linked to kidneys in my head, as part of the chain through which Munni got the better of me and anticipated the story I really intend to tell" (24). Identifying her train of thought -- pebbles are stones are kidneys are this story I'm about to tell -- helps the reader follow along, but it also shows how precariously words are linked to their meanings. If one word can so easily become the other in the mind, what does that say about language?

Kidneys become the centerpiece of her next story, the food she is forced to eat as punishment for nibbling her family's cauliflower.

Qayuum the cook insisted on making me eat kidney. "Kirrnee," he would call it with a glint in his eye, "kirrnee." My mother quite agreed that I should learn such discipline, and the complicated ritual of endurance they imposed did make me teach myself to take a kidney taste without dwelling too long on the peculiarities of kidney texture...One day Qayuum insisted that only kidneys could sit on my plate, mimicking legumes and ignoring their thin and bloody juices. [26]

Kidneys take on multiple meanings in this passage: they are the symbol of penitence and discipline, they are "kirrnee," they are elusive simulations of vegetables, who emit "bloody juices," which are "designed anyway to evade cohesion, being thin and in its nature inexact." Ifat makes the unforgivable move of relocating them in the body, telling her "Kidneys make pee, Sara...That's what they do, they make pee" (26). When the word, kidney, is given back its original meaning, its true function, Sara is once again distraught, "betrayed by food" (26).

Although she feels betrayed by both kapura and her mother, she blames herself for not recognizing truth when it presented itself. Kapura, she decides, are true to their word. "Anyone with discrimination could immediately discern the connection between kapura and their namesake...the taste is altogether too exactly what it is" (27-28). She continues, expanding this to the ability of every person to "know the flavor of each part of the anatomy: that much imagination belongs to everyone's palate" (28). Acquiring this knowledge requires "the ability to take the world on their tongues" (28).

But what happens when the tongue rejects the world? Her infant brother Irfani, born in London, reacts ferociously to "the idea of food" in Pakistan. "He spent most of the next year with his body in violent rebellion" (28), using his "infant's intuition to fear food," especially the food of his country. He would eat only imported baby-food, "though with a look of profound mistrust." Pakistan, as a country, has lost the ability to feed and nourish its people.

To some degree all of us were equally watchful for hidden trickeries in the scheme of nourishment, for the way in which things would always be missing or out of place in Pakistan's erratic emotional market. Items of security -- such as flour or butter or cigarettes or tea -- were always vanishing, or returning in such dubiously shiny attire that we could barely stand to look at them...Our days and our newspapers were equally full of disquieting tales about adulterated foods and the preternaturally keen eye that the nation kept on such promiscuous blendings. [29]

Pakistan has a "fear that food will not stay discrete but will instead defy our categories of expectation in what can only be described as a manner of extreme belligerence," in other words, a fear of miscegenation. Using food as a thinly veiled metaphor for linguistic groups, or political actors, she is describing the repressive situation in Pakistan.

Suleri asserts outright food's significance in her storytelling, asking the reader "Am I wrong, then, to say that my parable has to do with nothing less than the imaginative extravagance of food and all the transmogrifications of which it is capable?" She and her sisters use food as 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." Organizing time in this way gives "a distinctive flavor to a particular anecdote" (34). It is more "nourishing" than "subsist[ing] on the litany that begins, 'After General Ayub came General Yahya; after the Bhutto years..." which is Papa's "yardstick-a word he loved-with which to measure history" (34). Her aside, that his "yardstick" was not actually a yardstick, but a "word he loved," calls extra attention to the fact that all of these methods are merely metaphors themselves.

Yet food is the metaphor she turns to even as communication fails her. Her arguments with her American boyfriend Tom break down as they struggle to speak each other's language. "How those conversations and their manner of amazing question withered me, embattling as they did his forms of information against mine, turning all nourishment to straw upon my palate." Instead of nourishing her, as do her conversations with Anita or Tillat, they "wither" her, their potential for nourishment turns "to straw." Their words mean different things to each other, and in fact go head to head, "embattling...his forms of information against mine." When translation is impossible, language's enriching power becomes deleterious.

Mair, Suleri's Welsh mother, had a particular gift for calibrating people's tastes in language. Her sensitivity, especially in her role as a professor of English literature, stems from the fact that she had so many children, "preferring, of necessity, to configurate her mind around what need not be said, much as she congregated all our fussy eating habits around a meal". Suleri admits she lacks the effort to be this accommodating: "I would not like to be responsible for the way so many people choose to eat and not to eat, for even when I teach I sometimes think I fall into a lazy way of talking as though there were simply a bunch of equally fed bodies in front of me." Mair's patient ways "let her learn the limits of our private tastes, what each of us could and could not eat" (155).

In Boys Will be Boys, she shows how literature can act as a bridge between tastes, between what they "could and could not eat." In one of her "abiding familial memories," her family sits around reading, each indulging in a different kind of literature. Every so often they would read out loud "passages or jokes that really were not relevant to whatever other texts were in our hands. Still, we enjoyed that communal sharing, and then we would return to our books" (119). The promiscuous blending takes place, and the common ground is enjoyable.

Within their home, language can unify. But in Pakistan, it divides the country into warring territories. "Right now the division between provinces in Pakistan is about as rigid as the language differences that tear the land into bitternesses of supremacy" (BWB,110). The problem arises with the creations of hierarchies. Suleri shows that no hierarchy is possible, that no one language is better than the other.

Food, also, sets up cultural barriers. She frequently contrasts the food in Pakistan with the food in America. America, home to people from all over the world, does a miserable job of translating their cultures. Recalling leisurely summer afternoons in Lahore, she describes the snacks on hand: "There were peanuts, cashews, pistachios at hand for our pleasure, as well as pine nuts- not the stubby, stale things that America offers you, but kernels slender, delicate and fresh" (87). What was "slender, delicate and fresh" in Lahore becomes "stubby" and "stale" in America.

Mangoes, too, are a symbol of America's gift for mistranslation. Although Suleri admits she was "never too much a devotee of that potenza fruit," she is nonetheless disgusted at thing America calls mango. Mango, in Pakistan, means "over a hundred varieties of them," which in America is reduced to one "generic, squat, thick-skinned" specimen. She explains this by way of a "hemispheric difference," that makes her "lips curl with scorn" (86).

Summertime in Lahore also means "lassi...a marvelous lunchtime drink...blended to perfection with some ice." This drink, too, is stunted when faced with an electric blender, which"neutralize[s]" and "rob[s] it of the surprising consistency" that makes it "a beverage unchallenged in its succor and delight." America's mishandling of all things culinary is a metaphor for how it impoverishes the cultures of its inhabitants.

The mango and nut metaphors come together in the tale of General Zulu. When he offered a billion dollars of aid money by the U.S., he dismissed their offer as paltry: "But that is peanuts!" he cried, implying that not even a billion dollars could nourish his starving country. As "amusing" as this story is that of how Zulu was blown up over Bahawalpur. "Some wag has it that the bomb was secreted in a case of mangoes, labeled "Man-go." Here the English word, "mango," is split into a sick joke, again illustrating the destructive nature of the colonizer's language. Mango translates in English to the death of a man.

Sometimes food, like language, is simply inadequate. Before the war of 1971, with its "colossal failures, its unutterable consumption of lives," Bangladesh was East Pakistan. Suleri and her friends were obliged to make relief packages to send there, for the victims of meteorological disasters. She calls them "scant care," consisting of "a washcloth, aspirin, uncooked lentils, a small bag of rice." These items alone are inadequate to feed the Bengalis, much as words on their own are inadequate forms of expression. "Where will they find unpolluted water in which to cook these items," Suleri wonders, "or even in that great preponderance of liquid a body pure enough to rinse their cloths" (108). The lentils and rice needs unpolluted water to make it nourishing, just as language needs an unbiased context to make it beneficial. Just as Pakistan could not be repaired with just a gift of peanuts from America, nor could it nourish itself with its own supplies. She bitterly satirizes America's hypocritical penchant for dispensing peanuts on countries it destroys: "Think of the grotesque bounty of similar packages, rained on Afghanistan, rained on Iraq" (108). But she does not exempt her own country from condemnation, asking "Is Pakistan becoming a synonym for death" (108)?

Is the essence of language in its sound or its meaning? Suleri points out that the assignations that link the two are anything but authoritative. She and her siblings conflate "Potenza," the name of one of her father's business partners, with "potent." "The word 'potent' transmuted into "potenza," pronounced with a heavy Urdu accent," is still recognizable by the children and also by the reader. When they use the new word to mean the old word, asking if the green chilis, "a neglected vegetable in the West," are not "too potenza?" (78) they are reinforcing the fact that language is an arbitrary collection of sounds, linked to various mental essences. How, she asks, can something this arbitrary be so politically destructive?

Suleri does not see religion as the cure. In fact, when her father goes on the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, he temporarily loses his elegant aesthetic. "For a man of good taste, he came back with some dubious gifts," including "the inevitable bottle of water from Ab-e-Zam-Zam, that sacred spring in the desert connected with a sweet story concerning a mother and a thirsty infant that I cannot quite remember." The holy water, connected with a mother's nourishment, tastes to her "mustily stale and somehow lackluster" (67). She is not impressed with Islam.

She locates the solution in translation. Translation requires not a fluency in two or more languages, but, rather, the ability and the desire to understand the underlying essence of things. Boys Will Boys is peppered with Arabic poetry by the poet Ghalib,that she attempts to translate. Confronted with a particularly difficult line, she turns to her father Pip for help, who declares "Translation is not in the word; it is in the essence!"

Translation is a challenge few are willing to take on, requiring "a discursive equilibrium hard to acquire, hard to retain." Suleri, in attempting to translate a line of Momin's poetry, winds up complaining: "Language. What a nuisance it is!" Yet her mother seems to have mastered it, "having lived most of her life in translation." Living in various cultures, which are "certainly translated things," has taught her to master the sensitivity to other people's tastes that makes her so indispensable to her students, her children, and her husband.

Suleri acknowledges language's paradoxical combination of power and weakness again and again. Describing her want to see her sister Tillat and her friend Mehreen to meet, she says "I would like to implement that occasion," (79) but quickly flips the word implement into its meaning as a noun, as pieces of jewelry being implements to enhance attractiveness. Her translation of meaning, from verb to noun, within the English language, is reminiscent of her statement "Perhaps without knowing it, we were changing lingoes all the time, even within our selfsame language" (70-71). Although language is unstable, permeable to mutations and manipulations, it is still "our only implement, after all." Within this resignation to language as our only means of translating cultures is the implicit exhortation to translate, successfully, at any cost.

Her and her mother's successful crossing of boundaries, or translation, invite us to question all boundaries. By exploding language's permanent, immutable, nature, she simultaneously explodes the concept of nationhood. As an instrument to help us process and translate the world around us, and all the various cultures it contains, it is essential and unifying. But when it turns from its true function as an implement for translation, to a tool for domination and subjugation, it has lost its nourishing essence.

Cited Works

Drewal, Margaret Thompson. Yoruba Ritual. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992.

Goodyear, Sara Suleri. Boys Will be Boys. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

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

Main Screen Pakistan Sara Suleri Meatless Days

Last modified 17 December 2003