For three years, Preti Taneja taught creative writing in a program overseen by Cambridge University called Learning Together, in which undergraduates travelled to a local high-security prison to study alongside prisoners. On November 29, 2019, Usman Khan, a former prisoner and one of Taneja’s former students, travelled to London to attend an event at Fishmongers’ Hall marking the fifth anniversary of Learning Together. During an intermission, Khan went to the bathroom and emerged with two knives strapped to his wrists. Before he was fatally shot by police, he attacked five people and killed two teachers, both in their early twenties, Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt. Taneja was not present at the event, having declined the invitation as she was busy preparing for an upcoming literary conference; her absence at Fishmongers’ Hall that day is only one source of guilt that haunts her recent work of nonfiction dedicated to the fallout from that day, Aftermath.
Aftermath is, by Taneja’s own admission, a “(postcolonial) fragmented essay.” Its early pages enact the immediate aftermath of trauma, giving us a series of similes and metaphors to try to evoke the initial shock of the news before concluding, “There is no syntax or simile to do justice to this, no metaphor.” As a writer, Taneja feels the failure of language in the face of horrific violence as a particular wound. Her inability to find language commensurate to the horror of the tragedy becomes both the subject and the method of the text. Taneja often slips into the second or third person, noting that “Trauma cannot be written, or survived, in the first person singular.” At times, the text itself is a collage of the words of others, incorporating in italics quotes from a number of feminist thinkers and Black Abolitionists, including Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Sara Ahmed, and Mariame Kaba. Observations about the British response to the War on Terror mingle with theories about the prison industrial complex and literary critique.
Taneja’s debut novel, We That Are Young, was a rewriting of Shakespeare’s King Lear set in India and Kashmir. Taneja recognizes that, as the daughter of Indian immigrants, she is interestingly positioned in her relation to Usman Khan, who was born in the UK of Pakistani descent, a “British Asian” like her who must have faced similar racist microagressions growing up in England. Taneja suggests that her and Khan’s life followed different pathways within the same problematic system, Khan’s funneling him toward radicalization and terrorism, hers toward academic success and Cambridge; she became the teacher in the prison and he became the prisoner. Yet aside from these broad strokes, the reader learns very little here about Khan. Taneja writes that “his greatest skill was passing,” but this claim is unaccompanied by the kind of specific detail that might inform us of what that passing looked like. Taneja seems to have concluded that everything she saw or thought about Khan prior to the attack was a lie—“Meaning everything he seemed was nothing but fiction”—but the reader must take these assertions on faith, without access to the details or memories that would support this conclusion.
Taneja has clearly made a conscious decision not to focus on Khan here, yet Khan’s victims are also strangely absent from Aftermath. Taneja didn’t know Saskia Jones, but she worked alongside and was friends with Jack Merritt, whom Taneja knew well. Each of them is granted a paragraph of description early on before Taneja moves on to systemic racism and the problems of the prison industrial complex. The omission is glaring and, though it may stem from a desire to protect the families of the bereaved, creates a lacuna at the center of Aftermath, in which we deal only with Taneja’s internal landscape after the event.
Much of what Taneja writes in Aftermath may be summed up as a loss of faith, “the fluid, shining faith not in a God or in the edicts of any organized religion or institution, but in the necessary fiction we rest our contingent lives on, which in English we call trust.” After the events of November 29, 2019, the university ran damage control, going so far as to instruct Taneja on how to talk about her own novel in the light of recent events. She voices anger at the institutions, including MI5, who knew that Khan continued to pose a risk, that he remained radicalized, and yet allowed him to attend creative writing courses with undergrads in a prison setting, then allowed him to be released from prison, then allowed him to attend the event at Fishmongers’ Hall. But what is most morally wounding about what happened to Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones is the way that their very idealism opened them up to this kind of violence. Every classroom is built on trust, and prison education programs in particular rest on the assumption that education can make people better. Perhaps this is why Khan’s relative absence from these pages feels so noticeable; he is the unknowable cipher at the center of this atrocity.
Taneja’s writing is strongest when she makes pointed, aphoristic statements: “Writing is living enthrall to radical doubt.” But she is less adept at connecting particulars to the sweeping systemic critiques she wants to make. As every fiction writer knows, the telling detail is the lifeblood of effective writing, and that level of detail is often missing here. Instead, Aftermath seems to hold the reader at a distance. Which may be another way of saying that Taneja does not succeed in transcending her trauma as much as writing from within it, which, in the end, becomes its own form of testimony.
By Preti Taneja
Published November 30, 2021