Preti Taneja

Aftermath

Winner of the 2022 Gordon Burn Prize

Shortlisted for 2023 British Book Awards Book of the Year  in the Discover category

Usman Khan was convicted of terrorism-related offences at age 20, and sent to high-security prison. He was released eight years later, and allowed to travel to London for one day, to attend an event marking the fifth anniversary of a prison education programme he participated in. On 29 November 2019, he sat with others at Fishmongers’ Hall, some of whom he knew. Then he went to the bathroom to retrieve the things he had hidden there: a fake bomb vest and two knives, which he taped to his wrists. That day, he killed two people: Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt.

Preti Taneja taught fiction writing in prison for three years. Merritt oversaw her program; Khan was one of her students. ‘It is the immediate aftermath,’ Taneja writes. ‘“I am living at the centre of a wound still fresh.” The I is not only mine. It belongs to many.’

In this searching lament by the award-winning author of We That Are Young, Taneja interrogates the language of terror, trauma and grief; the fictions we believe and the voices we exclude. Contending with the pain of unspeakable loss set against public tragedy, she draws on history, memory, and powerful poetic predecessors to reckon with the systemic nature of atrocity. Blurring genre and form, Aftermath is a profound attempt to regain trust after violence and to recapture a politics of hope through a determined dream of abolition.

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On receiving the 2022 Gordon Burn Prize for Aftermath, Taneja said:

‘As a writer of fiction and nonfiction, Gordon Burn never shied away from the most difficult subjects. He was dedicated to finding the best form for his work, experimenting not only to achieve affect, but to explore the ethics of writing about those subjects through the writing itself. Aftermath is the hardest book I hope I’ll ever write. For some, it’s a controversial book. For others, it’s simply about the obvious harms of the endemic racism of a UK education system that does not teach colonial history properly; the biases in the school-to-prison pipeline and in the criminal justice system; and the corresponding narratives of policing, safety, and educational saviourism we cling to, but which fail to keep anyone safe. To have the book, which was written in the immediate aftermath of terrible violence, recognised as the winner in the tradition of Gordon Burn, among a set of writers whose work I so admire, means a great deal to me. I feel very grateful to my publishers, the readers, booksellers, New Writing North, the Prize and its judges for coming on this journey with me, and for not looking away.’

Author: Preti Taneja
Original language: English
Format: B-format paperback
Publication date: 7 April 2022
ISBN: 9781913505462
Ebook ISBN: 9781913505479

Reviews

Polly Barton

‘Taneja manages to set out the shattering of her psyche on the page in a way that is both an accurate map of trauma and a scalding and comprehensive critique of the system in which such trauma is permitted to occur.’

Gordon Burn Prize judges

2022 Gordon Burn Prize judges on Aftermath:

Denise Mina, chair of the judges, said: ‘Aftermath is an extraordinary story of fractured narratives and lives that takes us into a world barely glimpsed in headlines and outrage.’

Jonathan Liew: ‘Aftermath stood out right from the start of the process: a book that knocks the breath out of you, and not always in a good way. It’s harrowing in parts; heartbreaking in others; humane throughout. But what impressed me above all was its artistic courage: the blurring of form and genre, the refusal to hold the reader’s hand or offer simple moral nostrums, the admission that while writing can expand our world, there are limits to what it can achieve.’

Chitra Ramaswamy: ‘I’m blown away by Preti Taneja’s writing: both the moral integrity of her approach and her fractured, minimalist prose. She has written a radical, profound, profoundly fractured and completely unique work of narrative non-fiction that has stayed with me. I haven’t read anything quite like it, and I can’t think of a more deserving winner of the Gordon Burn Prize.’

Heather Phillipson: ‘Aftermath is a brutal and bewildering attempt to think through the unthinkable. Preti Taneja sets out the highest possible stakes for herself as a writer and, by implication, for you as a reader. Incandescent and unnerving.’

Stuart Maconie: ‘A raw, highly personal perspective on a brutal and shocking event.’

Max Porter

‘Aftermath is a major landmark in British narrative non-fiction. It’s a beautiful and profound account of creative writing teaching as a radical act of trust and interrogation of power; its anti-racist and abolitionist stance makes it a vitally important and deeply moving book to read now in these dismal days for the British political project. It is fearless in the way it shows its agonised workings as it unfolds into a complex map of grief.’

Nikesh Shukla

‘Astonishing. Radical, beautiful, broken, intimate. A surge. A yearning. A tribute. An indictment. You won't read another book like this ever. Taneja's attempt to wrestle with so much, with radical empathy, survivor's guilt, politics – is a masterclass work of literary brilliance.’

Olivia Sudjic

‘This is a remarkable book: generous, searching, insightful and searingly intelligent as it draws out the complex relationship between writing and terror, language and the unspeakable, trauma and event.’

David Merritt, father of Jack Merritt

‘Aftermath is written from the heart. I am both impressed by it and so grateful that someone has tried to make some sense of the many issues surrounding what happened at Fishmongers’ Hall. There is so much truth in this slim volume.’

Mona Arshi

Aftermath is a book that’s almost impossible to categorise: it sits in a tradition of bereavement literature; it sits with poetry. There is no fake moralising in its pages, just Taneja patiently walking us through the wreckage of unimaginable grief, noticing everything, lifting up the rubble, she makes us question everything we know and hold fast – a courageous and brilliant book.’

Eley Williams

‘A study, a song, a calling — Taneja's work offers a crucial and radical account of control, conviction, complicity and trauma.’

Anthony Anaxagorou

‘Aftermath is not just a personal reckoning with tragedy, it’s a piercing inquiry into the ways criminality is perceived, and yet what Taneja does so skilfully is carefully unpack the complex systems violence emerges from. This is an inspired book fortified with acute contemplation and courage, a book born out of a love for the world and the people in it.’

Clare Fisher

‘Aftermath is one of the most profound, urgent and thought-provoking books I've read in years. Taneja makes of the already capacious creative non-fiction form one that is all her own, and which enquires, with devastating and poetic precision, into the connections between language, violence, structural racism, the purposes of reading and writing fiction, and so much more. She invites the reader to share in her enquiry to narrate the unnarratable, and, through doing so, to locate a genuinely radical form of hope.’

Tessa McWatt

‘In this stunning book, light bleeds into darkness. An astute indictment of our carceral system and the violence it perpetuates, it is also a compassionate meditation on our interconnected lives. Taneja blurs the lines between literary genres so that the divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ also blur. She invites us to grieve and yet still be angry enough to demand change – to ask deep structural questions and to imagine new possibilities for justice. I was challenged, inspired and grateful for every word.’

Daniel Trilling

‘It takes a rare talent to respond to a shattering act of violence by reassembling the pieces in a way that refuses easy explanations or platitudes, but is illuminating, daring, world-expanding. Essential, in the truest sense of the word.’

Maria Tumarkin

‘This searing abolitionist work sees, and refuses, other prisons too – of narrative-for-hire, racial shame, the trauma industrial complex, cause and effect. It tries to convince no one of nothing, to confess nothing to no one. Instead it breaks sentences and pages open, makes language rush into you (you are an estuary, the dam is gone). Its shape is unmappable. It lives on as a drumming in your head.’

Gina Apostol

‘A tremendous feat of scholarship, of historical interlacing, of contemporary criticism, of literary examination, of ethical clarity and personal interrogation and, most indelibly, of grieving.’


Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

Stunning... [Taneja] turns a critical lens toward the way language shapes violence, suggesting that “power tells a story to sustain itself, it has no empathy for those it harms.” This poetic, urgent, and self-reflective work will delight fans of Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.’

Maureen Freely

‘With We That Are Young, Preti Taneja established herself as one of the most courageous and lyrically gifted writers of her generation.  Here again she offers living proof that great literature does not rise fully formed from the canon. It begins, rather, with the anguished sifting of its fragments in the aftermath of tragedy, and a grasping in the dark for voices worthy of trust, until its urgent call for equality and dignity comes true – first on the page, and then in the hearts and minds of all who read it.’  

Jeff Deutsch, Seminary Co-op

‘A masterpiece of nuance, vulnerability, truth, conviction, and near-sacred prose – a profound accomplishment.’