Preti Taneja reflects on her astounding new book
Preti Taneja taught creative writing in HMP Whitemoor for three years. Usman Khan, perpetrator of the Fishmongers’ Hall attack on November 29, 2019, was one of her students, and Jack Merritt, one of his victims, was her colleague. Aftermath is not a work of a fiction, but a book of fictions: of those we hold about ourselves and each other, the society we live in, who to trust and how safe we are. The book relinquishes linearity, instead favouring an elliptical movement through the inquests, ‘with asides, insertions, questions and other patterns repeating’ to ask how Khan came to be; through griefs racial, intergenerational and personal; through the works of African American abolitionists and feminists, to insist again and again on the disastrous knowledge gaps at work in Britain today. Taneja’s novel We That Are Young won the Desmond Elliott Prize for best literary debut of 2018. She is professor of world literature and creative writing at Newcastle University.
Which texts and writers did you look to in writing this book?
The terrorist event is placed so much outside of context and history, a distancing which denies pattern and cause. I tried to look for solace in poetry and resistance. I turned to writers and texts who have given me maps all my writing life for ways of looking at racial grief and generational trauma: June Jordan, Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine, Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Tongo Eisen-Martin, or Wendy Trevino – people who know violence in systemic forms, how it pushes some individuals to deeper violence; who know prison in different ways, and know how it sits in society as the endpoint manifestation of the racialised disgrace that humans mete upon ourselves.
But these works are so clearly not for the specific violence and knot of grief that I was reckoning with, and I felt I had lost the right to go to Black women abolitionists talking about civil rights in the US with this event. Ultimately, I’m not a lawyer, journalist or criminologist; I’m a fiction writer. And I taught fiction to this person whose fictions about himself and what he believed, and what others wanted to believe about him and themselves – as doing something good – were all fundamentally important in what was enabled.
From there it became a question of moving in circles through different texts and ways of thinking, including poetry, law, philosophy and politics, testing out where solace, answers and responsibility could be held, to find context for what happened. I was searching for an opening to grieve and understand how it came to be. The first piece of writing that did this for me was Adrienne Rich’s seminal poem on trauma, ‘Diving into the Wreck’. The resulting book is deeply intertextual, which is the political and aesthetic bedrock of my writing; this is the way I choose to voice the nuances and multiplicities of identity: a form of solidarity and resistance to tokenism, or a ‘solitary hero’ narrative, if you like.
You have a term, of your own coinage, which you use throughout the book, of the “atro-city”. What can you tell me about it?
The word ‘atrocity’ was being used a lot to talk about the exclusivity of this event, as if it came from nothing. Because I’m multilingual, aural rhymes have a real significance to me. ‘Atrocity’ calls to mind the word’s etymology: It was brought into English from Greek via the Latin and French for “extreme cruelty”. So the idea of breaking an atrocity down into the atro-city, this coded social place in which atrocities cannot but occur, appealed. It’s a really simple way of saying that the atrocity and the city – ‘civilisation’ – are intimately linked, without having to write a whole book about just that. The broken-down term is a way of showing a place and a system that articulates our collective responsibility. The atro-city is a place that holds ivory towers and high-security prisons in a binary as if they don’t have anything to do with each other. But events like the attack of Fishmongers’ Hall will come from our societies and our cities, which are so very cruel. We need different psychological, social and economic spaces to survive and thrive in, to nurture us all at the roots, before prison is even thought of. That’s what abolitionism is to me, and the book comes up from this kind of rubble of what we think of as a civilised city. This conversation is so much more advanced in the United States, and I’m very grateful for that – in the UK, our way of talking about racism has long been to just say ‘It’s worse over there.’
You delineate the reading room, contained in the citadel at the heart of the atro-city, ‘produced by the culture it protects’. What is your book’s relationship to this space and how it works through and against its ideas of craft?
There’s a polite way of answering that question and then there’s the way I feel about my work and my positionality with it. One can call a woman a deviant or one can celebrate her freedom. I think my book’s relationship to this reading room is a manifestation of that freedom, of that joy – to know it’s possible to look at the world and articulate it absolutely in my own way.
Of course, I’m just as much a product of the English canon I had at school as I am of all the Urdu poetry, the Hindi stories, the oral tradition that I come from at home. That intertextuality is fundamentally who I am. I have absolutely no confusion about which side I’m on, there is no side for me to take. It’s a whole third thing. But this idea of being split somehow is of continual fascination, and is forced on me by the market, which wants me to feel that confusion, to repeatedly explain it – for it to be traumatically written through again and again for consumption by white readers… and I’m tired of it.
Historically, it’s not recognised for Black or brown British women and mixed race women to be experimental writers. We’re instead considered mad or bad writers, because otherwise we are too threatening. But we are ourselves experiments. We’re born experiments. We live as experiments. If you’re born and live as an experiment, then you’re going to write experimentally. There’s a disgust about our work, and its relationship to the canon, which is a basically a fear of miscegenation. I think that fear is hilarious. Because our hybridity is here, and it was begun by them. The writing that I do is in service to an identity which, no matter how much pushback I get, refuses to be confused about itself. And I’d had enough of this attitude that some people can be locked away, that they can be socially deprived, or that these people can be illegible so that our lives are ungrievable, and other lives, white lives, can have better prominence.
I want to talk about the value placed on creative writing and the humanities. In the book, they seem to be held in quite high esteem by probation officers, and various other bodies of authority and agents of the carceral state, when they assess these very high-risk individuals. What do you make of that, and the class culture which surrounds the humanities at present in the UK?
The humanities aren’t a ‘them’. They’re subject categories, and they’re necessarily only as functional as those people who are doing the categorising. A category is harmful by dint of what it excludes in order to exist in a definition. Instead, we have to ask, ‘What do you mean by human who is included in this category of thinking, who gets to be considered worthy as an artist, as a maker, not just as somebody who spends nine pounds to have to go to the cinema?’ The humanities are completely centred around whiteness, so they are harmful. There are courses in this country where not one single book by a British writer of colour is taught in literature. That’s harmful to all students, including white students. It impoverishes generations with the same silences and ignorance, which forces a few of us to keep repeating the same struggle. We can never move on. That is not the revolution I want, and that suits power just fine. Do we really have time for this trauma loop?
There is an idea that creativity is a privilege and not just a fundamental human imperative that can’t be subjugated to any system. But if it’s stymied, as it has been in structural ways, then of course we begin to believe that it’s a privilege to make art. That some people are more deserving of it than others.
At one particularly powerful point you ask yourself, “Am I the non-violent offender, writing about the aftermath of the offence?” You went into a very delicate space, Whitemoor, with two vulnerable groups: those who came in from the outside with you and those who were already on the inside. What were your guiding principles in writing about those two sets of people?
I was thinking about that question of being the non-violent offender in June 2020, which was very soon after the actual event. I was really inside this traumatic reckoning of how to write about someone I knew and taught fiction to, and how he was understood by those whose responsibility it was to keep him safe from his own worst harms, and to keep others safe as well. This very damaged and violent man was released from high security straight into the community. He didn’t just get on a train one day and do this unsurveilled. He was totally surveilled; they just didn’t prohibit this from happening.
At the same time, being in that writing room with those Cambridge University students and the men who are inside Whitemoor was an extraordinarily positive experience for many of them who took part. Some of them found their vocation through that work and, having now graduated, are working in criminal justice. After the attack at Fishmongers’ Hall, I wanted to keep safe the truth that the writers in that room had worked hard while they were there. All of them did. What I saw was a group of people that worked incredibly hard to make each other feel comfortable, to share stories, to share vulnerabilities, to take the risk to write and to use craft to claim authority on the page. They produced writing; they had camaraderie. That mattered.
My own boundaries for writing about that experience were not to appropriate their stories, or present any of them or the prison for voyeuristic purposes. In the book I work with pronouns and tenses to try to respect everyone who was a victim of harm. I could, in the end, only write from my own perspective about this. Lockdown meant there was no way to reach prisoners to ask them about their experiences; and my Cambridge students were still processing what happened. That will take time; they have the right to their own stories.
Finally, I didn’t go into prison as ‘a writer’. I went in there to be a teacher. That means helping them to write. Does it mean that I could use my platform to help them be published? That opens up a whole other set of questions, because of the way society perceives prison, the rights of people who commit violence and get sent there, the criminal ‘justice’ system as a whole. These are questions we need to think about urgently… What it means to have a voice that is heard. Not all violent people are incarcerated. Some are published writers, award-winning. Making art doesn’t predicate moral goodness. Writing from prison has a place in our society, an important one. Until we don’t have prison any more.
Aftermath by Preti Taneja was published by And Other Stories, April 2022
Photography Reece James Morrison
This article is taken from Port issue 30. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here