Suhayl Saadi Course Reflection

Rajiv Menon writes of the course he took with British Council Writer in Residence Suhayl Saadi:

My experience with the first British Council in Residence reading course was overwhelmingly positive, and when I learned of the second opportunity to participate in the class, I had no doubt in my mind that I wanted to take part in it again. The course with Nadeem Aslam exposed me to a wealth of literature I might never again have the opportunity to read, and Suhayl Saadi’s class did the same. The atmosphere of the class with Suhayl’s class was extremely informal and the books we read were clearly very important to Suhayl, and thus the discussion was always very lively and enthusiastic. I cannot recommend this course to students enough as it truly is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

The first day of class, like my first day in Nadeem Aslam’s course, was very informal, and allowed us to interact with Suhayl on a very personal level. While the first British Council class was small, with about ten students, this class was extremely small, and only had five students. As a result, the class felt more like a friendly discussion rather than a strict, formal class. Suhayl discussed each of the books with us on this first day, and since two of the books had not been published in the United States, he provided us with some context about the authors. The discussion then became extremely informal, and we all were given an opportunity to talk about our academic interests, our favorite books, and ourselves. Everyone was clearly very comfortable with the setting and we could clearly tell that we had a lot to look forward to with this class.
During the second class, we read How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman, a Scottish author that I might not have read if it was not for this class. The novel is largely written in Scottish dialect, and deals with a protagonist who has suddenly gone blind. It was extremely interesting to hear the different interpretations of the book and the diversity of perspectives that came through in the class. Suhayl discussed his own background in Scotland and explained some of the slang and cultural concepts that we might not be familiar with. He also explained that when the novel won the Booker Prize, it was extremely controversial as many British critics strongly disliked the book and felt that it was not deserving of the prize. When I read the novel, I strongly associated much of the power dynamics in the Scottish setting with the dynamics I’ve encountered in Postcolonial literature classes, and I felt that the use of dialect was a particularly strong statement against perceived linguistic imperialism. Another student in the class, whose research interests include disability studies, made several excellent points about the way that characters respond to the protagonist’s blindness and the way that he is expected to perform his disability. The reactions to the novel were mixed in the class, but the discussion was extremely productive and I felt that I left that class having learned much more about Scotland and contemporary British society.

The second text we read was This Other Salt, a collection of short stories by Aamer Hussein. The stories varied greatly in content, but many of them dealt with issues involving South Asian characters, which was of great interest to me since my personal research interests are South Asian and South Asian Diasporic literature. This book was not published in the United States, and I likely would not have read it if it was not for this class. While I enjoyed most of the stories, I was able to most thoroughly comment on a story that took place in South India, where my family is from. In addition, the story took place near a town where I have been many times, and dealt with a community I belong to. Even more bizarrely, one of the main characters shared my surname. I had a lot to criticize in this story, as I felt the author greatly exoticized and misrepresented the area and the people it discussed. Suhayl was extremely open to this criticism, and at no point during this discussion was I discouraged from expressing the issues that I had with this book. I really appreciated the dynamic of the class, as I could comfortably express that I did not care for one of the stories and actively discuss my reasoning with people who did.

The final text we read in the class was Patricia Duncker’s Monsieur Shoushana’s Lemon Trees, another collection of short stories. I enjoyed discussing this collection, as the stories were all extremely short, but there was still quite a bit for all of us to say about each story. Most of the stories were set in the South of France, and Suhayl extensively discussed the British expatriate culture that has formed in this region. The stories also fostered quite a bit of discussion on sexuality, as themes concerning sexual orientation frequently appeared through the collection. In addition, Duncker is a feminist theorist, and we discussed the ways in which her academic background was present in the text and the ways in which her characters reflected this theoretical background.

The second British Council Writer in Residence reading course was a great success, and I cannot recommend these courses to my fellow English majors enough. The opportunity to discuss literature with a successful author is truly rare, and is one that is worth taking. I greatly look forward to Edward P. Jones’s reading course next semester, as I hope that much of the same dynamic will carry through to that course as well. I am extremely thankful to GW’s English department for creating this opportunity, and I hope that other students will take advantage of this course in the future.

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