Toward a Radical Hope and a World-Changing Rage: A Conversation with Preti Taneja
By Gina ApostolJanuary 4, 2022
Preti and I had first met at a festival in Adelaide: I was a great admirer of her 2017 debut novel, We That Are Young, an award-winning epic about Indian oligarchies and Hindu-settler colonialism in modern-day Kashmir that boldly deconstructed Shakespeare’s King Lear. But Preti is also an activist, a political essayist, a minority-rights advocate who has done work on Iraq, Kosovo, Rwanda, and Kenya. When we met, she was also teaching writing at a high-security prison for men, HMP Whitemoor, in Cambridgeshire through Cambridge University’s Learning Together program. In Preti’s classes, university students joined the incarcerated at Whitemoor in writing workshops.
“Did you hear about the incident on London Bridge?” Preti asked me. Of course, I did; it had happened barely two months before — around Thanksgiving, I remembered. I recalled its spectacular details — how audience members at an event honoring the learning program had used a narwhal tusk grabbed from an ancient wall to subdue a knife-wielding attacker. The attacker, Usman Khan, born in England to immigrant parents from Pakistan and a recently released prisoner who had been incarcerated for eight years for trying to set up terrorism schools, ended up killing two young people: Saskia Jones, a participant on the day, and Jack Merritt, the Learning Together program coordinator. Subdued in part by former prisoners who were participating in the Cambridge program, the attacker, with knives attached to his wrists, was shot and killed at London Bridge by British police.
“Usman Khan was my student,” Preti told me, while Jack Merritt was coordinator for Preti’s course. By a fluke, she was not at London Bridge that day: she had stayed home to work on questions for a literary event she was chairing at a festival in two days’ time.
Preti’s new book, Aftermath, is her attempt to grapple with the event — a profound wrestling with her trauma and grief for her fellow teachers, as she seeks to find a way back into the activism she believes in, the dream of abolition. It is a tremendous feat of scholarship, of historical analysis, of contemporary criticism, of literary examination, of ethical clarity and personal interrogation, and, most indelibly, of grieving. Her subject position as a British Indian woman artist rightly centers the book. Thus, Aftermath is also a moving, engrossing meditation on the act of writing — on fiction-making and art — written with an almost organic complexity, with modes of narration as layered as they are lucid.
Two months after we met in New York, the pandemic closed the world down, and Preti finished her book in another aftermath. It was a wonder to read this work. What Preti Taneja achieves in Aftermath is a turn toward radical hope, arrived at from an unspeakable abyss through the regimen of pain and its art. I interviewed her by email.
Author photo by Ben Gold.
GINA APOSTOL: I think one of the most admirable things about the book is your unflinching acceptance of a kind of duality, or multiplicity, which for me informs the book’s dialectical notion of ethics. In my view, that takes a risk. Because the reader at the start might see only one lens, but then you turn it. For instance, you begin with what I see as an outright condemnation of Usman Khan’s act — which made absolute sense: it was an absolutely abhorrent act. But for me, this condemnation immediately also brought up the issue of white supremacy, of the background of imperialism, of a history of oppression that also lies in his act. But you chose to start with the huge horror of the act itself — which then you later turn, not by reversal but by refraction (a word you often use) — and later in the book you see the act in another way: through history, and so on. Why did you choose to start the way you did? Was that chapter your first chapter? Was the book conceived that way from the start?
PRETI TANEJA: It was an absolutely abhorrent act. There were so many layers of violence to it: physical, psychological, and societal. It’s so difficult to talk about it at all without feeling again that sense of disbelief that marked that time, and still does. But there was another disbelief, too. How could someone who was so much inside the system’s most punitive, prohibitive systems, had been so punished by them, was so surveilled, so left to survive on his own devices after the absolute routine and relative community of prison, have got to London that day to do this thing? So there was a sense of “how could this happen,” as in how could it have been able to occur given the amount of security and surveillance — the protections of prison, probation, security tag, and license restrictions, the things some knew about and more that were later disclosed during the inquest.
These details only added to the trauma felt — just how “high risk” the perpetrator was categorized as being; how MI5 had knowledge of his potential to commit an attack; and how he was allowed, or not not allowed, to travel to the capital city. The shock and grief were complex and immense. At the time I began writing, in December 2019 to January 2020, not much of this was in the public domain. So, in a sense all I had was my own emotions — which included a feeling that this was a hugely complex thing that had grown over years of trauma and silencing, dealing with how Britain curates its minorities, how it understands and disseminates its history, what the violence of prison is: what is mournable and what is considered not worthy of mourning. All of these things I’ve been thinking through decades of working at different levels of the UK education system, in prisons and youth services, in the formal and informal sectors.
Then this event happens.
There seemed no other way into writing than to be true to that feeling of inexpressibility such violence causes in the moment that shock was unfolding. It was extremely silencing.
The book began with a handful of pages about the nature of the grief I was feeling, which was deeply riven with a sense of not being able to speak about the perpetrator or prison’s violence in general, the criminal “justice” system’s approach to Black and brown lives because I am also brown; and someone I cared about and worked with — Jack Merritt, who was only 25 then — had been killed. At the same time, there was this national outpouring of grief for Jack and Saskia. But always, at the heart, were the people closest to them — and for me, they had to come first. It was a time marked by a duality of feeling: what was known and what was not; what was allowed feeling, and what was silenced.
I think duality is so deeply important to this history, this event. The only ethical way for me to approach it was to build it into the form of the book; that kind of multiplicity is fundamental to my writing in general: I feel this need to press language to yield its many meanings and think about how that way of using words, or those words themselves, shape our social worlds, what we trust, who we listen to, depending on our bodies in certain spaces. That approach was the only way I could set this atrocity in a context and try to understand it somehow — by examining the atro-city that it happened because of, and within. The sections I wrote first were about the early days after the attack — Before and After. The first chapter came months later when I began to process my own trauma; I realized I had to show how inexpressible this grief felt, somehow, and the opening evolved from there.
Could you tell us about your various modes of narration — the use of the second person, the moves into “we,” your first-person sections? I know you do some meta-work on that in the book. But I’d love for you to underline it — tell us how that came about. What obstacles did your choices interrogate and what did your choices solve?
The switching of pronouns is a way to think through how memory works on us — what felt immediate to me even as I was writing is expressed in the first person — where it was ethically important to claim that phrase or incident: the present-ness of it. The second person is more complicated, of course; it’s asking readers to allow the possibility of their collusion in the artifice of the text, because to keep pointing that up is also about “truthfulness” for me — or, even more deeply, in the anecdote itself or the life it describes. To bring the reader along next to me in the Levinasian sense of recognizing “the Other.” Sometimes the second person is used where I am talking to myself, and this method allows a sense of distance from the heat of the trauma while also igniting a different kind of empathy.
The obstacles being interrogated were always down to the moral or ethical problem of how to write about this incredibly complex event, for which, simply put, no one was willing to take exact responsibility. I was writing while still horrified and grieving, and I wanted to explore the nature of that grief honestly. The pronoun switching came about quite organically, as it felt true to what I was writing about. Where I use the third person, the schism of time widens. In the third section of the book, “Radical Hope,” the criticism is written in the first person because I’m fulfilling that function of thinking about literature now. And the parts that I remember from the prison, the writing room, are in the third person. That’s to do with the psychological schism an event like this creates. There is a sense of before and after, and in that moment, everything changes, including, profoundly, a sense of self.
Moving like this asks a lot of the reader, to trust in the text and its voice. But trust is the heart of the book. I had lost trust in language and narrative; I felt I had no right to take this pain to the places I usually go to for solace — certain poets and writers. I had lost trust in other humans. The switching tries to make sense of that loss while allowing the reader to enter into it. The reader trusts the text will resolve itself, even while the text appears unstable. It’s a paradox of narrative that we expect that resolution, and yet we are making it as we write, as we read.
I think this brings us to the problem of “craft” that you bring up in the book. You state that, in order to teach in HMP Whitemoor, you mainly decided to use the workshop notions of craft. And here I am asking you about craft in that previous question. But you problematize fiction, for instance, in your chapter on the German theorist Jan Philipp Reemtsma. You say: “[F]or the theorist, fiction is the body cut open for thought. But fiction is my problem here.” Can you talk about what you problematize there? Also, how do you see that now that you have finished the book — any reflections on the aftermath of having written Aftermath?
I was teaching craft in the sessions. Learning the techniques of how to do something is absorbing whether you are in school, a refugee camp, a university MFA, or a prison; it makes art feel understandable and brings a creative engagement that is at the heart of our relationship with our own subconscious. The practice in itself can build real self-esteem, however “good” the outcome is judged to be. But teaching how to make fiction in a situation like this became part of the real problem of culpability to me. There was so much here that depended on perception, on creating narrative to fit a narrative. Of passing. I felt my sense of the border between fiction as a maker and a lived experience had been broken. And there were so many people in this case who wanted to believe that because we create or write, we are showing intrinsic potential to be morally good — i.e., not harm others. It was more about their need to believe in their capacity to “save” and see the “saved” through the offering of the possibility to make art, than the person making the art themselves.
It’s a difficult thing for some people to acknowledge that art-making doesn’t naturally demonstrate the capacity for moral goodness, and yet this belief is evidently not “true” at all. Perhaps a deep hunger for narrative certainty is responsible for that — especially narratives structured around archetypes of heroic journeys. Philosophers turn to fiction to think through the complexity of human nature and morality, or demonstrate points, which criticism often does. Before the event, I was fine with that, of course. Writing Aftermath, interrogating fiction’s place in our world not only through thinking about specific books but also about the pervading narratives of our times, and our literary marketplace’s role in perpetrating or interrogating those narratives, has reframed the place of fiction for me. In a sense, I’ve restored my relationship with it on new terms.
Maybe this is connected: How did you construe your own ethics as a writer in doing this book? What advice would you have for those of us who are both traumatized by our current racialized violence in this absurdly horrendous capitalist world as well as being complicit in it? I recognize there is something simplistic in this dichotomy. I also recognize complicity is a charged word, and maybe not the right one. So, forgive me for that. But I am interested in the issue of our interrelationship with the horrors of our world, and how a writer deals with it — which to me is so much at the heart of Aftermath. I guess, maybe, I am asking about the way you moved into radical hope in this book — a move that is so beautiful and energizing. So, my question is in two parts: How do you construe your ethics as a writer? And what advice do you have for others in terms of this ethics?
One of the most difficult things about writing this book, apart from the immensity of doing this work in the conditions it took place in — across the pandemic year of 2020 and in the immediate months after this violence — was finding the form. How to approach this subject matter with respect for those who had lost loved ones; with the knowledge I was not there that day but was involved for years before; with the fact I had students in rooms I had to assume were safe enough to do this difficult work in, when a writing room is such a vulnerable place anyway. With all of that, the only thing I could do was situate the emotion of the text through the lens of my own experience of the world and interrogate that — it was the most ethical approach I could take. Other people have their experiences and knowledge of prison and the criminal justice system or university or the law, or of being there on the day and in relation to those who died. This was mine, and I had to situate it in a sociopolitical context I have lived and experienced as a British Indian woman. How else could I write it? At the same time, I didn’t want to indulge a sense of making my trauma the center of the story — the personal essay about a wider tragedy always risks that. There had to be a form made to hold all of this intention, and I hope this is what it became.
In terms of advice to others, all I can say is I think humility is important in writing like this; it’s the place from which I feel most able to grow a voice that expresses the kind of despair that fuels a world-changing rage — which can only eventually generate hope, and more importantly, lead to action.
I was so struck by the intertextuality of the book — your beautiful interweaving of Adrienne Rich’s poetry, Mariame Kaba’s abolitionism, Audre Lorde’s intersectionality, Kureishi’s fiction, Reemtsma’s questions on the Holocaust and human violence, and so many others. Could you tell us about that process? How you chose, how you read, what it took for you to weave this all together — how intuitive was it? How deliberate? How difficult or easy?
I moved across the country from Cambridge to Newcastle upon Tyne — a long way in UK terms — in February 2020. I had just about unpacked my most precious selection of books, including some of those you mention, when the lockdown came. So they were in reach but also ingrained in my mind. Intertextuality defines my work: if there is a definition of craft or voice to be found, it’s a political act for me in the sense of seeking or forming literary genealogies within a text, taking questions about this moment and seeking answers to these questions of trust and violence.
I have so much respect for the struggle some of these writers engage in and I have learned so much from them. One of the things I felt disenfranchised from because of my relationship to this event was the right to seek solace where I had always found it — with these poets, despite the fact that their specific struggle was so different: feminism, Black American emancipation, Black feminist abolitionism, and so on. They had answers and yet the context was so specific, and I felt, rightly or wrongly, that this event put me outside that history and the freedom they were working for. Yet calling on them helped me reform those bonds that have been so important to my specific political and writerly formation.
I also use intertextuality to express my own hybridity, which I don’t consider to be a schismatic duality but a fully formed articulation of who I am. Taking this to epics like Antigone and other canonical works helped me interrogate some of the questions I was asking myself about trauma and historical grief. It was very intuitive, though often easy — except where I had to seek out theory I didn’t already have on my shelves: Judith Butler’s specific thinking on 9/11, for example, or Arun Kundnani’s invaluable work. Other books happened in the process, and I’ve documented that: Aftermath is a process book — an essay or attempt to work through culture with those tools; taking grief to many different disciplines to seek out answers.
Which of those books or works for you are most important for your readers to read or reread, in terms of Aftermath? What would be your top reading list and why?
This is such a difficult question — there are so many! Sabeena Akhtar’s Cut from the Same Cloth? (2020) is a collection of essays by British Muslim women I think everyone should read, thinking about the nuances of being a contemporary citizen. The Muslims Are Coming! — Arun Kundnani’s 2014 book — is a forerunner in many ways for Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan’s Tangled in Terror, which I recently read in proofs, coming soon from Pluto Press — again just forensic on the way the state has legitimized Islamophobia and baked it into our laws and our society; what impact that’s having, what needs to change. Threads by Nisha Ramayya, Sandeep Parmar, and Bhanu Kapil, from 2018, is a lyrical work I turn to often — three of the most important voices in the UK today thinking about the ties that bind us to each other, to home, and to language itself. Adrienne Rich’s collected works, with a foreword by Claudia Rankine, is an essential book for me, as is Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric (2014). I grew up learning the power of compression in prose writing from close reading of Toni Morrison, and her collected essays, The Source of Self-Regard (2019), is one of the last books Sonny Mehta had sent me before she (and he) died. Tongo Eisen-Martin’s Heaven Is All Goodbyes (2017) is a book I’ve had since 2018 — we corresponded on prison writing for a while, and that loose transnational sense of community brings a lot of strength.
In terms of narrative questions, there are a few writers whose approach to form and theme informed the book even while they might not obviously appear. Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic (2018) and your own Insurrecto (2018), which have this prismatic commitment to exploring our compulsion to make work, almost as a core emotion — the personal subject in the political maelstrom; what we owe to each other as we think about violence, grief, and trust. Judith Butler’s Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004) was an important starting point for me when I was wrestling with the question of who is mournable in Western society and what harm that kind of hierarchy does to everyday people being sorted or born into lives completely circumscribed by the legacies of imperial violence.
I know very well how hard it must have been to do this work. How are you doing right now? What makes things easier for you? What are you reading now? Are you writing fiction again?
Thank you for asking, Gina. These questions, your mind, the way you read and write and approach criticism as care, as mutual feminist support, are so much part of healing. I’m finally doing okay. The publication of any book brings its own emotions. With this one, there’s no desire for “success” in the way there can be for novels. The work is done. There’s only a desire for safety, to get back to a place where I can take part as an activist, actually doing the work in communities that might create better safe spaces, cultural spaces, shared spaces, than our government wants us to have, and keep working toward a different world.
I’m touched by how many people — including people actually hurt by the event, and also my US and UK publishers, the incredible teams they work with who have supported this — believe in the book and have responded so warmly to how I have approached the complexity. I hold on to that. I also appreciate my routine. My loved ones. Walking my puppy Rumi in Northumberland and in the very green parts of Newcastle or the beach keeps me extremely grounded. I’m currently reading a lot of fiction, which is restoring my faith in storytelling. I’m beginning to return to write new hybrid non/fiction, which I didn’t think would happen for a very long time. But there’s an idea, a piece of work that has been waiting for me for years. After all this, it’s still there.
Gina Apostol is the author of Gun Dealers’ Daughter. She is the author most recently of Insurrecto. Her first novel, Bibliolepsy, will be out in a US edition in 2022. She has previously written for LARB about Jorge Luis Borges, Jose Rizal, and Imelda Marcos.
Gina Apostol was born in Manila and lives in New York. She went to college at the University of the Philippines and earned her MA in writing from Johns Hopkins University. Her first novel, Bibliolepsy, won the 1998 Philippine National Book Award for Fiction. Her third novel, The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, is a comic historical novel-in-footnotes about the Philippine war for independence against Spain and America in 1896. Her latest, Gun Dealers’ Daughter, recently won the PEN/Open Book Award and will come out in paperback this fall. She is currently working on a novel about the Philippine-American War, William McKinley’s World.
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