Content warning: contains mentions of death.
On 29 November 2019, news of a terrorist attack in London made international headlines. A man had injured several people, stabbing five at an educational event for criminal offenders at Fishmongers’ Hall, a building adjacent to London Bridge. Two of the people stabbed died. The attacker was Usman Khan, a British-Pakistani who at the age of 20 was convicted of plotting a terrorist attack. As part of his eventual release, he was banned from being in London but was given a one-day exemption to attend this anniversary event.
That week, we learned the names of his victims; 25-year-old Jack Merritt and 23-year-old Saskia Jones. Just recently Merritt had written his MA dissertation on the Critical Analysis of the Over-Representation of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Males Aged 18-21 in the British Prison System. Merritt, a Law and Criminology graduate, was overseeing the event with Jones, who was also a volunteer. It was an alumni event marking five years of Learning Together, a prison education programme run by Cambridge University teaching university students alongside people incarcerated within prison. Khan was one of the attendees.
It was a tragedy back then and it still is now. The young people helping put together an event to celebrate a prison education programme ended up being Khan’s victims. Khan too died that day, after being restrained by a member of the public and being shot by a police officer.
“In a structure of systemic atrocity, where the narrative set around violence is often left unquestioned, Taneja provides a unique context”
Almost three years later, Preti Taneja’s new book Aftermath offers a personal, more in-depth perspective of that day, pushing beyond an often binary understanding of such tragic events. In a structure of systemic atrocity, where the narrative set around violence is often left unquestioned, Taneja provides a unique context, interrogating the fallout of the terrorist attack.
A colleague to Merritt, Taneja was a fiction writing teacher on the same programme, and Khan was one of the students in her creative writing class. Taneja was due to attend the event at Fishmongers’ Hall but became unavailable due to other work commitments. In a blended genre of memoir and essay, Taneja explores the trauma of survivor’s guilt as well as the language of terror. She also investigates how the dream of police abolition and a politics of hope can survive in the wake of such horrifying violence.
“I have to always be honest to the context that I perceived the event and that comes from my positionality as a South Asian woman inside the system of the University of Cambridge and in the prison system,” Taneja reflects in a sombre tone, in an interview via Zoom from her home. “It’s quite rare to be that person and that writer in those positions. Because the system of the University of Cambridge doesn’t have that many British South Asians in it, whereas prison has a lot.”
Born in England to Indian parents, Preti Taneja is currently an activist and Professor of World Literature and Creative Writing at Newcastle University. Her award-winning debut novel, We That Are Young transported Shakespeare’s King Lear to contemporary India. For three years, Taneja taught writing in prisons, and for nearly twenty years, she worked with arts practitioners and young people from socioeconomically deprived parts of the UK in creative writing workshops.
“The system of the University of Cambridge doesn’t have that many British South Asians in it, whereas prison has a lot”Preti Taneja
Reading the opening chapter of Aftermath, I thought I was reading a different story – a fiction novel, not of a retelling of a real terrorist incident. Taneja compares the news of the attack to “a vision of a nuclear blast in film.” Her use of metaphor and descriptive language immediately distinguishes and humanises the perspective of the attack at Fishmongers’ Hall, as she invites the reader to make sense of this story alongside her in real-time. Taneja writes, “There is no syntax or simile to do justice to this. No metaphor. As if to speak would be more violence…It is the immediate aftermath. I am living / at the centre / of a wound still fresh.”
“I’m not a criminologist, I’m not a lawyer and I don’t believe journalism could do ‘justice’ to this event. I was the writer in the room,” Taneja tells gal-dem. Reading Aftermath, this is clear. The push and pull of Taneja’s positionality and narrative in this painful event was a friction I felt throughout, aided by her use of poetry, journalism, different perspectives and literary criticism. Personally, I was so conditioned to reading about terrorist attacks in the UK through a cold and factual journalistic style that the perspective of a creative writing teacher felt distinct. It didn’t dare to afford me the comfort of distance from such events.
For Taneja too, who considers herself to be a private person, the event asked something different of her as a writer. “I never really wanted to write the personal essay… it wasn’t a form that I ever thought I was going to work in,” she says, of the almost fictitious, narrative quality of the book. “Sometimes it’s easier for people to think about things through the prism of fiction; to think about extrapolating morality, human behaviour and so on by looking at characters.”
Despite the complexity of emotions within Aftermath, Taneja’s style of expression is certain and unwavering. “I don’t feel split in my own mind, and the writing that comes out of me is always hybrid, revelling, multilingual,” she says, referring to the inclusion of Hindi and Punjabi phrases in the book. “These are my experiences of being a South Asian woman, being the token person in the room and then being able to understand the historical, political and legislative contexts that have led to the disproportionate numbers of Black and South Asian people in our prison system. Navigating those two worlds is my responsibility. It is something I can’t not do and I choose not to do.”
“The unfolding of the attack and the aftermath of those affected leaves the reader questioning whether the attack at Fishmongers’ Hall really was an anomaly or if it was actually, a pre-determined tragedy where every system failed”
As a creative writing graduate, I was interested in Taneja’s perspective on the power of writing and how this sat in the context of the prison system. “There is this idea that somehow making art has a luxury attached to it and therefore if you’re doing it — it must be good for your moral progress. That really is a very powerful myth,” Taneja says. “It isn’t necessarily restorative justice, in that it restores a human being to take part in society in a particular way. But it restores instead – for an hour or two whilst you’re doing it with a group of people – a sense of self-esteem around who you are in your own words.”
In the book’s chapter ‘Order, Order’, Taneja not only provides context around the way the attack was retold by journalists but also adds insight into Khan as an individual, his personality, his childhood and the timeline of his convictions. According to her findings, Khan was described as a child who ‘all the teachers liked’ but was bullied at school despite trying to fit in. During his time in the creative writing sessions in prison, he excelled in the programme and was described as an ‘enthusiastic’ member of the group.
Being presented with more facts around Khan, the divisive environment of the prison, the unfolding of the attack and the aftermath of those affected leaves the reader questioning whether the attack at Fishmongers’ Hall really was an anomaly or if it was actually, a pre-determined tragedy where every system failed. Throughout the text, the author takes great care to reference abolitionists, poets, reformists and activists who came before her, presenting Khan’s actions not as an isolated event, but rather a product of multiple systems of oppression.
“I want people to understand that the way this world is organised and how society is organised is completely unsustainable and the most vulnerable people in our communities are some who won’t survive it,” Taneja says, upon asking her what she would like people to take away from reading Aftermath. She is frustrated that the existing government deradicalisation ‘solutions’ simply lead to more marginalised groups surveilled, alienated and pushed into a failing criminal justice system. “I think all I am trying to say with this book is that enough is enough.”
Aftermath is out now in paperback, via And Other Stories Publishing.
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