Novelist Preti Taneja taught fiction-writing for three years in a high-security men’s prison. On the 29th of November, 2019, two of her colleagues in the programme were killed in an attack at Fishmongers’ Hall. The attacker was a former student. Aftermath is Taneja’s lament in response to the attack, but even more so it is an act of social grieving, a lament in shards, in which the myriad complexities that made the attack possible – policies, exclusions, aggressions, indifferences, neglects – are gathered side-by-each, glinting and sorrowful. The work is searing, mournful, echo-laden, fierce. And, as anyone who read Taneja’s extraordinary fiction debut might expect (We That Are Young, 2019), it is also a staggering and devastatingly beautiful piece of writing. If you are in search of unincarcerated language, a work and a writer unafraid to stare down and pull down the legacy of colonialism one bar at a time, for whom equality, freedom, care, and trust are paramount, Aftermath is absolutely essential. I interviewed Preti Taneja by email in November 2021.  – Tara Tobler


TT: Let’s begin at the very beginning. In the months following the attack you’d been fielding racially loaded questions about your role as creative writing teacher in prison, you were trying to support colleagues and your students, you moved cities, the pandemic began, the inquest was looming, as a writer your relationship with language was troubled, and you still had your own very personal grief to process. How on earth was writing born out of all that? Can you describe the moment where you first set words to page? What were the first words  – what were you feeling – how did it begin?

PT: About a week or ten days after the attack took place, I began writing about the nature of the grief I was experiencing and the personal and collective nature of what could feel happening around me. Shock rippled out from those nearest to Jack and Saskia, across the city of Cambridge, through the country, and overseas. I was working to support students and colleagues while dealing with my own sense that somehow those who knew the perpetrator had less right to grieve, or that ours was a different kind of grief – heavier, more silencing –  which I later learned is a phenomenon called ‘disenfranchised grief.’ I was thinking through those complex feelings, and re-evaluating my experience of the perpetrator. I was trying to understand so much of what we didn’t know then. There was media intrusion, there were the beginnings of internal University and College investigations, there was a sense of everything shattered. It was an overwhelming time for many people. I don’t clearly remember sitting down to write. Those first impressions were a draft of what, months later in spring 2020, became the section BEFORE AND AFTER in the book. The sense of exile I felt as lockdown started for me, in a new city where I knew very few people who I couldn’t meet anyway, made me concentrate inwards. I was working in a new job, delivering my teaching online at Newcastle but at the same time there was this need – I had to write this down to make sense of what happened in my own mind.

TT: You once said to me you want the book to be read as a craft manual on narrative form. What did you want to show people with the style of this book? What was it about fragmentation, word-splitting, and shifting narrative points of view that helped retain your integrity as a writer?

PT: The event and my sense of proximity to it felt extremely difficult to write through, though this might have been lessened if I had been treated with care in the aftermath. The difficulty was compounded by the complexity of it, by how many people and institutions were involved, how many things had to go a certain way that day for the attack to take place, how many  attitudes and practices cemented, decisions made months or years before. Because I’m a writer, not a journalist or traditional academic essayist, I had to use the tools I was most familiar with: my craft. And find a form that felt true to that complexity. I  didn’t want to appropriate others’ real pain or perceptions of what happened. This was and remains a hugely traumatic collective event, yet like all such events it has great specificity for every individual involved. Everyone has their own knowledge. So I had to work out my own grief and my own sense of how it could have happened. How could so much have been misread? The only way to do that was through form.

Often when the media try to report on such events they make things linear: but when you create the appearance of a rational context, when you frame ‘terrorism’ as an irrational attack on civilized values, you sever all links between violence and  its roots in national policy, punitive society, or carceral practices that start long before prison, and you stoke fear and hatred between peoples. It was of paramount importance to me to respect the grief felt by Jack and Saskia’s families and friends, and all the others involved. Everything I felt at the time was touched by an overwhelming sense of doubt – trust had been shattered for me in all I thought I knew, and in language itself.That’s where I needed to start, in order to rebuild.

TT: One of the most striking aspects of the book is the sense of terrifying chance that pervades it: the idea that, however much we flatter ourselves that we could never commit horrors like him, if a few things were to shift – a shift of gender, perhaps, or a shift of birthplace or of a parent’s birthplace, a shift of relationship to colonial history, to racism in the UK, to Partition, to a penal system that creates the conditions for violence and yet refuses to take responsibility for it – everything might be different. There’s also a poem by Adrienne Rich that acts as a touchstone for this line of the lament. Could you tell us about the poem or this approach? Did writing in this way change the politics of your work, or your thinking-through of identity and privilege?

PT: I think Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck is one of the most important poems about trauma, about looking for answers as a woman inside a system of power, and about facing up to and recognizing  patriarchal violence, that has been written. There were a few pieces of literature – mostly poetry – I reached for like that, which gave me the first sense that this could be written about at all. The poem takes us down into the seabed, which is a place so laden with grief for any Black or brown body in the UK, a site of horror ongoing, from transatlantic slavery to the death of people fleeing war and deprivation in the English Channel today. What relationship does that have to young British men radicalized into violence, who are sent to high security prison, released into a hostile world afterwards, met with patchy interventions of care or not properly kept occupied when they get out,  and then allowed – by whatever high-level systems process decision, which is what happened in this case – to commit more harm? The state wants us to think – none. The poets know better; language knows better.

About writing this book – it didn’t change my politics. I have been working in education and in cultural and human rights for two decades, as well as being a writer. But I had to reckon, more than ever before, with my own place as a British born woman of Indian (Hindu) origins (this would be the state’s description of my identity). British society carefully controls community life chances through racist and socioeconomic policy that, by embedding austerity and hostile environments, leaves Black and Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslim working class people in the most vulnerable categories for education, health, maternal health, employment and so on. The roots of our origins in the UK are the same: Empire and Partition, which until recently have remained erased in the British cultural and educational mainstream (though that is hopefully beginning to change). I couldn’t understand this event without thinking through my own identity as a citizen, as South Asian, Indian-origin, middle-class British woman and the privilege that’s given me, as well as the harms I’ve experienced through being the only one in the room, that ‘success story’ surrounded by whiteness. My experience brings with it a huge sense of responsibility. I was allowed into the citadel under certain unspoken conditions of silence, under the politics of gratitude, which are ultimately unsustainable. Basic dignity is what is at stake here – for everyone.

TT: Aftermath strongly advocates for the abolition of the prison system, demonstrating again and again that the structures intended to keep people safe do anything but. You also demonstrate that overrepresentation of racialised communities in prison is a significant and worsening problem in the UK (and not, as it’s tempting to imagine, an American issue alone). Were you an abolitionist before you worked in a prison?

PT: I suppose I’ve been an abolitionist since I was young, without the language to express it that way. It is a movement of solidarity based on years of anti-racist struggle and it is finally coming to the fore here, because Black and brown British working-class and what I’ll basically call ‘lower-middle-class’ people have refused over decades to give up. Language is power – it creates transnational solidarities, national linkages, local mutuality – all this gives voice to work people have been doing for a long time. I have worked in education at every level, from youth services and national charities to arts in prison and universities, and always with a focus on Black and brown empowerment and anti-racist education, on projects that center and root those voices and experiences in their own histories, away from whiteness, where they can thrive.

TT: You frequently talk about the atro-city, a play on words that calls to mind the word’s etymology (it was brought into English from Greek via the Latin and French for “extreme cruelty”, and before Greek from Proto-Indo-European “-ater” [fire] + “owk” [to see]; of a fiery, frightful, or blackened appearance; compare the Latin ater, a dull or gloomy black). Can you tell us what this split is doing in your work? What is the atro-city? Is it an event, a place, or both, or neither?

PT: It’s doing all of the above in a very simple way, which appeals to the way the brain unconsciously apprehends language and meaning. Just by breaking down a word we have come to use for events framed as singular, a sense of collective responsibility is articulated. The atro-city is in people’s hearts and minds, and in colonisation where we are imprisoned. It’s the structures that contain us; it’s a place that holds ivory towers and high security prisons in binary. The split is to draw attention to the roots of violence in language and how we think about atrocity as unique; but events like the attack at Fishmongers’ Hall  come from our society, our cities, which are so very cruel, see the hostile environment. We need a different psychological, social and economic space to survive and thrive in; one which recognises race equality and joy, which nurtures mutuality at the roots, way before prison is even thought of. That’s what abolitionist building is to me – and that is where the book ends up.

TT: With Aftermath you’ve written a non-fiction work that is in part about healing, but you make the case throughout that fiction-writing and therapeutic writing are not the same, and that to treat them as if they are is irresponsible. Why do you think fiction-writing and art therapy are so often conflated? What are the dangers of assuming that all writing makes you better as a person?

PT: The links between fiction-writing as art, or as what becomes market product, and what might be called art as therapy go pretty deep. But it is risky to confuse the two. Art in prison is a vital and important form of communication, empathy-building, self-esteem and self-expression. But when people believe that art-making is a privilege and not an essential human impulse, when access to art-making is considered a luxury for the few (with the closure of libraries, and so on) then the narrative becomes more stern. Rationally, we know that people are capable of making beauty, appreciating art, crying at films or theatre, feeling catharsis or building their own sense of self-esteem through creative work, while at the same time dropping bombs via drones on innocent civilians, rounding up millions in concentration camps, or hurting or bullying or abusing people around them. So too can people who harm individuals for power, and are enabled to do so by social structures (ref: Harvey Weinstein) also draw, or write, or make work others value. It’s facile to think otherwise.

What does this mean for those who are incarcerated and go on to write inside? We cannot use art-making to show moral goodness, nor base our ideas of moral goodness on a mode of thinking so completely saturated with salvation narratives. That is not centering the actual incarcerated life of a person who might once have been the child who had no access to dignity at school, or is constantly misrepresented as violent/ stupid/ dumb/ exceptional or simply ignored in mainstream culture and media and instead seeks other forms of self-expression and community – even as dangerous as ideological radicalisation – and then is streamed into the school-to-prison pipeline. That is reading a narrative we want to see because it makes us feel something about ourselves. People make art for all sorts of reasons, and it brings all sorts of benefits. Yet one cannot think for a moment that it means a person might not also then be pushed to harm themselves or others in the worst ways; other kinds of care have to happen around all people within communities from very early on; access to education and making art as pastime, or therapy, or even to put into a market is just one part of that.

That’s what abolition as a practice understands and works towards; that’s what the British state is currently so determined to dismantle, and disenfranchise us of in policy and real terms. That is what I hope the book recognises and calls for alongside others doing this difficult work – making a world without these cages and borders in which citizenship is not contingent. Instead we are looking at more prisons, more state powers to end protest, make arrests, stop and search young Black and brown men, an even more hostile environment in our communities – anyone can see the end point won’t be more safety for any of us. Literary culture has a huge role to play in this. As a writer of colour, with a wide personal experience of the systems that harm us, that gatekeep, and palisade us; this is where I hope I can contribute something towards social change.

Aftermath by Preti Taneja (And Other Stories, April 2022)

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