A debut novel that asks whether a journey of healing can begin without forgiving your perceived enemy
I accidentally picked up After, a debut novel by Claire Tristram, and am glad I did. It is not an easy or pleasant read, but in difficult times we need to read books that tackle difficult situations. Call it the age of terrorism unleashed upon the world either by the capitalist ruling elite, or by the foot soldiers spawned by this elite who now have turned against their creators; the end result is the senseless loss of countless innocent lives.
In After, Tristram decides to look at the state of mind of one woman who has been grieving her husband’s death at the hands of faceless Muslim terrorists. A year later she begins the process of healing. One of the questions the novel raises is whether a journey of healing can begin without forgiving your perceived enemy. By extension, one may ask whether one can forgive the political or ideological Other, the enemy, if one can’t love one’s enemy?
These and other questions that arise in After do so in a world where our ethnic, national, class, and religious divisions have come to define our modernity on the landscape of a racist ideology.
The female protagonist, white and middle class, remains nameless, though her tragedy has made her somewhat famous. She decides to have an affair with a Muslim man, one who is married and has children, who she meets at a work related program. The Muslim man enters into the sexual encounter knowing her background. He later corrects her assumption that his primary identity is not that of a ‘Muslim man’ or an ‘Arab man’ but that of a ‘Persian man’ who happens to be Muslim; thus showing that he carried his own scars and emotional baggage. This is not the first time he is cheating on his wife whom he otherwise loves.
When they finally meet at a motel on the California coast, things don’t transpire as romantically or as smoothly as readers might have hoped. In fact, given their emotionally charged backgrounds, things start out awkwardly and then take a crude turn when he takes control during their first sexual encounter but she spoils his pleasure, asserting whatever power she is able to display. The second time around, things take a painful turn when he allows her to act upon his body and mind, her dominatrix aspirations. In the end, as they part, they are angry, sad, and humiliated:
"You are angry with me," she said.
"Come sit over here. On the bed."
He didn’t move.
She looked at him, the blankets over her, her knees drawn up to her chin.
"You disgust me," he said.
"You’ll never forgive me, I know," she said. "You’re disgusted with me. Go away now, if you want. I understand."
During their tryst, the protagonist takes a moment to compare the two lovers in her life: her husband and the Muslim man. Whereas the earlier provided protection, dedication, and unconditional love, he was wanting in sexual creativity and excitement, an area where her Muslim lover has surpassed her husband by making her feel alive, by bringing out the repressed animal in her.
By setting up such a paradigm, Tristram explores the soul of American femininity which is caught between American patriarchy in the Puritan mould and orientalism, where the Other, especially the Islamic Other is treated with cruelty and fascination. The Muslim is, or should be, her noble savage.
Tristram also posits that the desire to forgive, forget, and love may not be enough. The actual act of forgiveness requires a passage of time and ability to accept that you may fail at forgiving in your first few attempts. We live in a poisoned world where good, noble intentions are not enough and despite our wish to connect with the Other, our efforts may yield disappointing results, leading to further disorientation and distrust.
What is the novel, then, trying to say? How does one eventually heal? When does one love again? Can a person work towards a peaceful world if one has not yet discovered it within themselves first? Is self-reflection necessary to move past the pain? The lasts few pages of After hint at how the paradox could be untangled as she begins to speak to her dead husband:
"Darling," she wrote.
"My intentions have become a mystery to me. Too much thinking on the subject leads me into treacherous waters. I have become a great sea turtle, plumbing the depths of distant darks but on land barely able to struggle forward . . . I will never be able to forget you . . . You would tell me to move on. I do try . . . I met with a man yesterday. We made love. Now he has moved on . . . I will run to the top of these very stairs, just as I ran through the sand yesterday . . . This time I will wait for myself . . . I will wait for her calmly . . . and when she reaches me, I will embrace her."
The novel offers a very subtle critique of the protagonist’s mother country’s behaviour towards the rest of the world and its own population, the hurt it has caused for such a long time, the interracial, interethnic relationship its policies have damaged. The protagonist’s act of choosing a Muslim lover, despite things ending badly, throws light on the possibility of a beginning to look how things have turned out.
Once we have started a collective process of acknowledging the hurt of the Other, we may be able to dream of a better, peaceful world, even if at the present moment such a thought feels like a foolish dream.
On a certain level, I wish a Pakistani writer had written this novel within a Pakistani setting due to the culture of violence ushered in the last 40 years. I believe the time is ripe for Pakistani authors to create literary landscapes where portraits of forgiveness and love aimed at members of different communities is allowed to be imagined.
After achieves its power by pulling the global and local context into one narrative, not perfectly but vividly. After all, modern fiction requires that our modern writers show such a sensibility and awareness.