Sara Suleri Goodyear, a scholar who vividly evoked her upbringing in Pakistan in “Meatless Days,” a 1989 memoir often cited as a foundational work of post-colonial literature, died on March 20 at her home in Bellingham, Wash. She was 68.
News of her death was posted on the web page of the Yale English department, where she was an emeritus professor and had taught since 1984. A friend and fellow scholar, Fawzia Mustafa of Fordham University, said the cause was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
“Meatless Days” took its title from the decision by the government of Pakistan, shortly after the country was formed in 1947, to declare two days a week as “meatless” to conserve the country’s supply of cattle and goats. The book is an unconventional memoir, with Professor Suleri Goodyear telling the story of her own life in Pakistan, Britain and the United States through chapters focused on other family members, including her father’s mother, Dadi.
“By the time I knew her,” Professor Suleri Goodyear wrote, “Dadi with her flair for drama had allowed life to sit so heavily upon her back that her spine wilted and froze into a perfect curve, and so it was in the posture of a shrimp that she went scuttling through the day.”
The author Kamila Shamsie, who, like Professor Suleri Goodyear, was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and who first read “Meatless Days” as a teenager, described her reaction to it in a 2005 essay in the British newspaper The Independent.
“What dazzled me most was the book’s structure and style,” she wrote. “It was like nothing I had ever encountered: a memoir that proceeds through metaphor rather than linear narrative, in prose so tightly coiled you must prod certain sentences repeatedly to allow meaning to spring forth.”
The book is full of loss, including the deaths of the author’s mother and sister Ifat, killed when she was hit by a car under mysterious circumstances. It also ponders the search for identity that comes with being born in such a young country, and with being the child of a Pakistani father and Welsh mother, as Ms. Suleri Goodyear was.
And it considers these matters from the perspective of a woman. At one point she wrote of teaching a class at Yale on “third world literature” and being quizzed by a student on why the course didn’t include more women writers.
“Against all my own odds I know what I must say,” she wrote. “Because, I’ll answer slowly, there are no women in the third world” — a line that has been cited and dissected ever since.
“‘Meatless Days’ was unusual in a couple of ways,” Professor Mustafa, an emeritus professor of English and African American and African studies, said by email. “It was, I think, the first first-person account that consciously incorporated and internalized the literary theory that was emerging with the new academic field of postcolonial studies. It declared that ‘there are no women in the third world’ even as it effectively destabilized such categories as ‘woman’ and ‘third world woman’ while offering powerful elegies to her mother and her sister.”
“It was also remarkable,” she added, “that a memoir, rather than a work of fiction, could straddle the reading worlds of the general public and the academy, both at home and abroad.”
If “Meatless Days” took a lyrical approach to the colonial era and its lingering effects, Professor Suleri Goodyear brought a more academic treatment to her 1992 book, “The Rhetoric of English India.” Anita Sokolsky, an English professor at Williams College, invoking Edward W. Said’s influential 1978 book, “Orientalism,” said that Professor Suleri Goodyear’s volume “extended the project of Said’s ‘Orientalism’ into Anglo-India by assessing the idiosyncratic rhetorical strategies through which the British exerted power over the Indian subcontinent from the 18th through the 20th centuries.”
“The book,” Professor Sokolsky said by email, “helped to redefine the terms of postcolonial critique by evoking the often volatile rhetorical dynamics that emerged in parliamentary debates; in the use of photography not only to racialize but to criminalize ethnicity; in the gendering of landscape in the ‘picturesque’; and in the sexualization of colonial oversight in an array of British novels.”
Sara Suleri was born on June 12, 1953. Her mother, Mair (Jones) Suleri, taught English at Punjab University in Lahore. Her father, Z.A. Suleri, was a prominent journalist who was often critical of Pakistan’s government; there were suggestions that the hit-and-run death of Ifat was ordered by her father’s enemies.
Professor Suleri Goodyear earned a bachelor’s degree at Kinnaird College in Lahore in 1974 and a master’s degree at Punjab University two years later. She earned a Ph.D. at Indiana University in 1983 and taught at Williams College briefly before joining the Yale faculty.
She married Austin Goodyear, who owned a building supply company, in 1993. He died in 2005. She recently moved to Bellingham to be closer to her sister Tillat Khalid, who survives her along with a brother, Irfan Suleri.
Professor Suleri Goodyear’s other writings included a 2003 book about her father, “Boys Will Be Boys: A Daughter’s Elegy.” She also wrote numerous scholarly articles. Her memoir, though, is her most enduring work.
“‘Meatless Days’ remains the most extraordinary book I’ve read of/from Pakistan,” Ms. Shamsie wrote on Twitter last week. “It blew the top of my head off when I read it at 17. Still does the same to me now.”