Surviving the “Atro-city”: On Preti Taneja’s “Aftermath”

January 4, 2022   •   By Arin Keeble

Aftermath

Preti Taneja

WHEN DETAILS ABOUT the Fishmongers’ Hall terror attack emerged on November 29, 2019, I am ashamed to say that my thoughts moved precipitously to the ways this tragedy might be politicized. The proper response would have been to focus on the victims, including the two individuals who were brutally murdered: Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones. Merritt was a course coordinator and Jones a volunteer in the Learning Together program, an acclaimed prison education initiative sponsored by Cambridge University. Learning Together was celebrating five years of achievements at a special event when a course participant, Usman Khan, attacked. This was just days before the UK general election, and I wondered: How might a Conservative party known for entrenched Islamophobia and emboldened by a rising tide of nationalism, instrumentalize this moment for political capital and to advance its “tough on crime” agenda? But it quickly became clear that there would be limits to what the Tories could do on this front. Merritt’s father made a strong statement condemning political opportunism and the use of his son’s name to promote the punitive justice policies Jack had opposed (Merritt’s belief in rehabilitation was well known: his master’s thesis was on the overrepresentation of Black, Asian, and other ethnic minority men in the United Kingdom’s criminal justice system).

Ultimately, the Conservatives didn’t need to harness the emotive power of a terror attack to bolster their campaign, as they swept away a Labour platform built around the progressive politics of a Green New Deal. Brexit played a role, for sure, but there is no avoiding the fact that the Conservatives won with ugly rhetoric, including the promise to create a “hostile environment” for migrants. In any case, because of election fallout, ongoing Brexit discourse, and, in a few short months, the COVID-19 pandemic, the Fishmongers’ Hall attack quickly became old news.

Preti Taneja’s new book, Aftermath, which follows her debut novel, We That Are Young (2017), brings this event vividly back into view. But despite the title, this is not a conventionally “event-centered” narrative of terror and trauma, and it is about much more than the aftermath of a single event. In fact, Taneja’s book questions the extent to which narrative can adequately represent such events. Taneja tells the story from her unique vantage point, as someone for whom Jack Merritt was a colleague and friend, and as someone who had taught creative writing to Usman Khan in the Learning Together program. Aftermath is a book of extraordinary heart and intellectual force that probes the power of trauma and interrogates the ideologically inflected meanings of terrorism. Its achievement lies in its generosity and intimacy, and, crucially, in how it shows the way traumatic rupture can occur amid the less visible but equally pernicious forces of systemic violence. Taneja immerses the reader in what she calls the “atro-city,” probing its painful edges. In Aftermath, the “atro-city” is at once a single event that is all-encompassing and, conversely, a world of structural violence crystalized in a single event. It is “the outside world turned inwards,” a place where endemic poverty, lack of opportunity, entrenched prejudice, and punitive justice violently collide.

Aftermath is highly referential, and while Taneja is a novelist, the book cites theory and poetry more than it does fiction. Yet it is usefully understood in relation to the fiction of terrorism, which has had a particular trajectory in relation to “events” in the early 21st century. Since the much-debated wave of “9/11 novels” published in the 2000s, which (as I have argued elsewhere) reinforced the “exceptionalization” of 9/11, the literature of terrorism has moved steadily away from event-centered narratives. This has been a welcome development. As Bart Schuurman, a research fellow at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs at Leiden University, has observed, event-driven narratives have “served to prioritize particular subjects […] while others, such as state-terrorism or right-wing extremist violence, are by this same logic left un- or under-examined.” Of course, acts of terrorism rely on shock and spectacle, so to move away from event-based narrative means to focus on the contexts in which terror, extremism, and radicalization occur.

Kamila Shamsie’s brilliant 2017 novel, Home Fire, for example, focuses on a contemporary Britain where the public discourses of multiculturalism elide entrenched Islamophobia and structural violence. Anna Burns’s Milkman (2018) depicts an oppressive climate of fear and suspicion, rather than particular flashpoints, in Troubles-era Belfast, and Rachel Kushner, in her 2013 novel, The Flamethrowers, orients her depiction of the Red Brigades in a deeper history of globalization and exploitative labor. Attica Locke’s Heaven, My Home (2019), the second of her “Darren Mathews” thrillers, addresses the Trump-era terrorism of the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas in the context of post-2016 culture wars. Similarly, Ausma Zehanat Khan’s “Rachel Getty and Esa Khattack” mysteries explore various forms of terrorism in the context of crime and policing, as well as historical war crimes, addressing long-running questions of definition.

Percival Everett has depicted Neo-Nazi violence in Wounded (2005) and Telephone (2020), and his most recent novel, The Trees (2021), connects the history of lynching in America — a particularly egregious form of terrorism — to 21st-century police shootings, suggesting these are also a form of lynching. Aftermath’s closest antecedents in fiction are possibly Megha Majumdar’s A Burning (2020) and Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs (2016), which we might see as new kinds of event-based terrorism narratives that do depict the aftermath of events but focus on the wrongfully accused and on government corruption rather than traumatic rupture, domestic upheaval, and eventual recovery.

Aftermath recenters the event while insisting on locating it in the context of systemic racism, incarceration, and the legacies of colonialism. Taneja writes from a position of grief, vulnerability, and trauma, but also from experience and knowledge, and with an urgent desire for accountability and understanding, braiding these emotions, imperatives, and subject positions together over 230 pages. It is a work of precision, unfolding over three parts and 25 chapters, but even in its moments of sharp and robust analysis, it also feels like an urgent uncoiling. Part memoir, part essay, part polemic, it resists easy categorization and might most usefully be thought of as a trauma narrative, though each of these terms is inadequate. That said, it makes two interventions in the literature of terrorism: first, in the way it situates trauma within the context of particular forms of slow violence, and second, as a radical refiguring of Don DeLillo’s famous notion of a “curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists.”

In DeLillo’s 1991 novel, Mao II, a reclusive American novelist, Bill Gray, argues that writers are no longer able to “alter the inner life of the culture,” that they are losing ground to the explosive narratives of terrorists, who “make raids on human consciousness.” For Gray, “novelists and terrorists are playing a zero-sum game” and the power of the novel is losing out to spectacle and crisis. Mao II circles around this notion, suggesting, also, that there are similarities between writers and terrorists, who both rely on plot, symbolism, myth, and rhetoric (in one place, an explosion is described as “well argued”). But ultimately, this “curious knot” represents the kind of binary that would gain even more traction after 9/11 via Samuel P. Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis, which drove the “us against them” mantra of the Bush administration’s War on Terror.

Aftermath is also interested in the relationship between writing and terror, and Taneja discusses Usman Khan’s interest in writing in depth. Khan was originally imprisoned in 2012 for plotting a terrorist attack, and Taneja notes that his interest in writing after release was taken by some as an indication of “deradicalization.” Ultimately, though, she concludes that he simply “valued the form, a conduit for control and self-expression: the art of convincing others.” And Khan used his rhetorical skills in plotting his deadly attack. Indeed, Taneja notes that “his greatest skill was passing: he was a product of the state.” He deceived and manipulated many but was ultimately a product of poverty, discrimination, limited horizons of opportunity, and incarceration. And this is the terrain on which the “curious knot” is recalibrated in Aftermath — not to build connections between Khan’s writing and his violent extremism, or to posit a zero-sum competition between writers and terrorists, or to in any way excuse his awful actions, but to stake a claim for the power of shared or solitary acts of creativity against the overwhelming force of institutional violence, in spite of this single, undermining act of violence. Taneja makes a persuasive case for the impact of a program in which inmates were allowed to feel human, where people could get together and “practice a few hours of creativity against the highest set of odds an advanced late-capitalist society can make, within its own borders.”

The theme of writing and creativity set against institutional violence recurs in numerous contexts in Aftermath. In one affecting episode, the author describes a conversation with a South Asian cab driver in New York City in October 2018; it happens that he, too, is a writer, and he recounts the experience of being detained after 9/11 and having his notebooks — full of children’s stories — seized by the authorities. His life’s work was never returned and he “hadn’t been able to bring himself to write again,” but he promises Taneja that, when she starts her next book, “he would start as well.” This small gesture is one of many acts of creative solidarity positioned against the forces of state violence. These acts offer respite or distraction, or maybe the opportunity “to build incremental moments of self esteem against the state’s efficient machinery.” And this really is the core project of Aftermath, which marshals numerous citations of all kinds of writing — poetry, theory, fiction — toward its call for “a government of heart, mind and tongue, that does not treat lives as contingent.”

In addition to the way Aftermath rethinks DeLillo’s “curious knot,” it also reflects on and responds to the experience of trauma, a phenomenon often associated with terrorism, and with 9/11 and 9/11 novels such as DeLillo’s Falling Man (2007). But as Lucy Bond has noted, in her 2015 book, Frames of Memory After 9/11, “9/11 trauma fiction” is different from other kinds of trauma writing and has mostly been characterized by “uncritical recycling of paradigms inherited from orthodox trauma theory,” usually in service of insular narratives of American victimhood. Aftermath refuses such impulses, continually defining and redefining trauma as the narrative unfolds. It willfully interrogates the circularity or repetitions of trauma — “an event happens and happens and happens: this is a definition of trauma” — and the paradoxical compulsion to narrate the “unspeakable.” “Writing makes me hyper-visible: so much remains unspeakable. This is trauma as definition.” These sentiments are echoed and repeated throughout the book, and it is notable that Taneja is careful to offer a definition, not the definition: “[T]his is a definition of trauma. Not the thing itself, but the repetition of the event.”

Though there is much meta-reflection on trauma here, several formal devices draw out the traumatic realism in Aftermath. There is an unpredictable movement from first to third person, alongside commentary on the empathetic qualities of the second-person address. There are gaps in the text and missing punctuation, suggesting a loss of words or incomplete thought, and there are discursive leaps in some chapters, particularly the earliest ones. Additionally, the precipitous modulations of the narrative are reminiscent of what Roger Luckhurst, in his 2008 book, The Trauma Question, describes as one particular response to trauma: “[T]he manic production of retrospective narratives that seek to explicate.”

While Aftermath refigures DeLillo’s “curious knot” and probes the extent to which traumatic events can be adequately narrated, it also simply wants to better understand what happened at Fishmongers’ Hall. It asks and addresses the question: “[H]ow far must we go back to find a beginning?” And it reframes this question: “[W]hy do we know so little about why and how the algorithm of radicalization works so compellingly in our current systems […]?” Aftermath does exactly what so much of the fiction of terrorism has not done. It insists on context, no matter how unsettling or uncomfortable it might be, and it examines the phenomenon head on, with love, sorrow, intimacy, and honesty.

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Arin Keeble is lecturer in Contemporary Literature and Culture at Edinburgh Napier University in Scotland. His research interests include the literary and cultural representation of terrorism, crisis, neoliberalism, and systemic violence. He is the author of Narratives of Hurricane Katrina in Context (2019), and his writing appears in journals such as Critique, Journal of American Studies, Post45, Parallax, Punk and Post-Punk, and TLS.