Organization and Structure in Sara Suleri's Meatless Days

Yishane Lee '91 (English 137, 1990)

Suleri's prose paints the lush background of her family and their lives in Pakistan. The use of the word "background" here is intentional, for the way Suleri structures her work encompasses a web of events and happenings in which the people are at once central and effervescent. Ignoring a linear conception or construction of time, the novel mentions characters who then fade away only to reappear again later somewhere else. In other words, Suleri does not merely introduce characters into her novel; they are mentioned in passing or described in detail, but they move and speak on their own. Suleri, who also does not believe in authorial control, prefers to let her novel's bevy of people speak for themselves. As she told me in a recent interview, "I wanted to be democratic in the attention that I gave to all the various bodies that come up in the text, including my own," and she therefore advocates a multiplicity of voices reminiscent of the works of Virginia Woolf.

For this reason most of the nine chapters in the novel each center on one person, but each incluides other matters as well. Other characters, to whom Suleri either has devoted or will devote a chapter, flit in and out of the passages; she uses her relaxed temporality to move from topic to topic, meshing together her anecdotes vis � vis the person in question or herself to create a composite view of her subject. For example, in the space of a few pages in the chapter about her former lover Tom, Suleri details personal beliefs that connect with her family, Tom, and Pakistan. She begins by writing about what she feels is the depressing state of museums and how visiting one is a sort of devotional activity. Her disquieting visits to a museum bothers her with questions about "why such precise expressions of presentation are so hungry with the desire to please" and leads her to appreciate not the museum's artwork but rather its walls (p.79). Then in a short passage Suleri focuses on mosques and her father's grief over her mother's death; that in turn leads to a talk of how she would like her house to be built like a mosque. Finally, the narrative returns again to Tom, because she writes how she and Tom once had talked of visiting mosques and other places in Pakistan together, so that she may see "a traveler's vision" of her country (p. 81).

A motif arises in less than three pages: that the relation of Tom's American background to her Pakistani origins; the incongruity of their relationship parallels the incongruity of the spare, unassuming white museum walls with the demanding artwork it displays. Later in the chapter, Suleri returns to her discussion of Pakistan by including an anecdote about how her sister Nuz avoids getting her car stolen in Pakistan by leaving every door and window ajar, "gaping" and "forlorn." Suleri, returning to Pakistan after a long absence, ``realizes [she] was out of touch with Pakistan when it worked like a dream" (p. 86). The tale is brought full circle: Tom, who she thinks about as a builder, constructor, and creator, inspires in her thoughts about other buildings, museums and mosques, as well as about building her own house. This brings thoughts about her real house, the house she grew up in, which is not a physical building of wood, nails, and concrete but is, rather, her home, Pakistan. She returns to Pakistan as a "cure" from Tom, realizes she is out of touch with her home and attempts to reconcile, as she does so often in this book, her selfhood. Living amid the bustling abundance of Nuz, I finally had time to differentiate between my mind's vestigial sense of Tom and what it meant for me to be standing there, out on a Himalayan bluff or next to the southern murkiness of the Karachi sea. They no longer needed to belong to the same terminology now that my idea of him had been consigned to time zones where I was arriving just at the point when he was taking off. It was that Pakistani balance that came to my thoughts, a sharper word than ever now, with Karachi in a state of civil war, the frontier under siege... So I looked out in the direction of the border lines and tried to picture rewriting, teaching myself to think through and repeat: "Your mind is a metropolis, a legislated thing. The keener your laws the better their breakage, for civilizations will always rise and fall upon your body's steady landscape." (p. 87)

The breakdown of order in Karachi is analogous to the breakdown between her and Tom, and describing these sets of relationshsips thus links public and personal histories. Tom, a builder, a Westerner and part of an Imperialist heritage, appears in opposition to Pakistan, which is Eastern, foreign to Tom -- and built out of civil strife, religious intolerance, and decolonialization by the West. But in the face of such hardships Suleri relies upon herself, upon her "body's steady landscape" that will continue to provide the background for further meditations that gather her friends, family, country together with her own self.

The chapter's motifs are strung together, overlapping with rich metaphors and set pieces: construction and creation of a house and a home, devotion and religion, a mosque, Pakistan, a relationship between a Western man and an Eastern woman. This organization, then, helps to comprise Suleri's multiplicity of voices: the words, though written by her throughout in the first person, are those of her subjects and her own, and her own thoughts serve to embellish and enlighten the reader about the subject at hand. The chapter, then, shows how the personal reflects the public and the autobiography reflects the historical, and vice versa.

Pakistan OV Sara Suleri Meatless Days

Last modified 18 May 2001