The peerless chronicler

March 27, 2022

Pakistan’s literary canon in English owes a great debt to Sara Suleri Goodyear

The peerless chronicler

A few weeks ago, I wrote to my editor and asked if she’d be interested in publishing an essay on author and academic Sara Suleri Goodyear’s work. The piece was intended to be a paean of sorts to her second creative memoir Boys Will Be Boys (2003), which I’d rediscovered in early March.

During previous readings of the text, I had been enthralled by the kaleidoscopic range of its anecdotes, which married the political with the personal, the ‘here’ with the ‘there’. This time, I’d approached Boys Will Be Boys from the lens of a grief-addled mind as I had lost my mother in November 2021. In Suleri-Goodyear’s poignant tribute to her father, I subconsciously sought a therapeutic roadmap on how to creatively channel the anguish of losing a parent. In hindsight, I find it strange that I didn’t instinctively turn to Meatless Days (1989), a text that was far more apposite for this purpose as it entails meditative sketches of the author’s deceased mother and sister. The only justification for my choice is that Boys Will Be Boys is steered by a harrowing second-person narrative perspective. It is a light-hearted missive to a parent prodded by a gut-wrenching sadness over an eternal separation. The essay would have been my attempt at unearthing the richness coiled within the text’s compressed narration and understanding its effect on a grief-stricken reader.

Suleri-Goodyear’s death on March 21 led to a shift in focus. I was spared the ignominy of writing a self-serving, sentimental and near-autobiographical account of how a writer’s words can strike a personal chord in a reader’s heart. Instead, I was consumed by the additional responsibility of producing a fact-driven eulogy that could encompass the creative life of a distinguished memoirist, critic and translator.

Reading Suleri-Goodyear’s work is, of course, tantamount to giving up on chronology. Sceptics may wonder if it’s wrong to churn out a chronological account of a writer who seldom allowed her work to become a prisoner to linearity. Unfortunately, I don’t possess the distinct skill with which Suleri Goodyear would tightly package her sinuous recollections into a consummate memoir. Chronology is, therefore, my only recourse.

Born in Karachi on June 12, 1953, Suleri Goodyear was raised in Lahore. She was the daughter of political journalist Ziauddin Ahmed Suleri and his second wife, the Welsh-born Mair Jones. She graduated from Kinnaird College Lahore, earned an MA from Punjab University and pursued a doctorate from Indiana University. After a two-year-long teaching stint at Williams College, Suleri-Goodyear joined the English Department at Yale University, where she taught Romantic and Victorian poetry and became the founding editor of the Yale Journal of Criticism. At the time of her death, she was a professor emeritus at Yale.

Pakistan’s literary canon in English owes a great debt to Suleri-Goodyear. She is known for radically altering the scope of life-writing by pioneering creative non-fiction. Escaping the stranglehold of linearity, Meatless Days defies a clean categorisation as it seems to inhabit an ambiguous terrain between fiction and a traditional autobiography. Meatless Days reconfigured the direction of the creative memoir and various writers, such as Hanif Kureishi, have since expanded on the scope of the genre. Building on a similar motif, Boys Will Be Boys is pedalled by a stronger precision in detail than its predecessor. Even so, her second memoir too deviates from the standards of a conventional autobiography.

Suleri-Goodyear is also recognised for her seminal work of literary criticism, The Rhetoric of English India (1992). Her noble endeavour to translate the work of Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib are embodied in Mirza Ghalib: Epistemologies of Elegance (2009), which she co-wrote with writer Azra Raza. In all these avatars, Suleri-Goodyear emerged as a skilled prose stylist with a keen eye for irony, politics, history and humour.

As a reader, I have always found myself gravitating more towards her creative memoirs. Published fourteen years apart, Meatless Days and Boys Will Be Boys are fuelled by the spirit of reclaiming the past amid the undercurrents of grief. A common thread that runs deep in both memoirs is that the political is juxtaposed with the personal insofar that the loss of loved ones is equated with cataclysms within the country’s violent political stratosphere.

Through the decentralisation of the self – a dominant feature of many autobiographies – the author turns an intimate gaze on the people she enjoys an intimate connection with and those she has lost.

Meatless Days, which evolved from the author’s Pushcart Prize-winning essay, Excellent Things in Women, presents an alternative history of the country through the eyes of women. The author begins her first memoir by highlighting the fact that leaving Pakistan for a life in the US has compelled her to relinquish the “company of women”. This statement sets off a chain of remembrances that situates women at the core of Suleri-Goodyear’s memoir. It confers a historical context to the role of women in the Islamic Republic. Stripped of being passive recipients of history, the women whose lives are evoked in Meatless Days emerge as active participants in the patchwork of the country’s history, politics and identity.

It is tempting to view Boys Will Be Boys as a continuation of Suleri-Goodyear’s previous memoir. The two texts have overlaps and compensate for each other’s silences. As a collective whole, they provide an intimate portrait of a family that witnessed copious tragedies, which ran parallel to the country’s tumultuous history. What’s more, it is the story of a discerning woman who keenly observed these developments and peerlessly chronicled them in rich, eloquent prose.

The writer is a freelance journalist and the author of Typically Tanya.

The peerless chronicler