Book Review: Aftermath by Preti Taneja

This review was first published on the Abolitionist Futures website in April 2022. It can be accessed here:

Aftermath by Preti Taneja is published by And Other Stories, £12.

‘This is not about one person, but many, not one evil, but hundreds, let us call them the planners, the architects, the waiting abusers and preachers, manipulated, metaphor for the laws, the police, the elite institutions of the atro-city’ (p.91).

On November 29, 2019 at a conference in London celebrating Cambridge University’s Learning Together programme, a former prisoner student, Usman Khan attacked and killed Saskia Jones, a university student who volunteered on the programme, and Jack Merritt, who worked on the programme. Minutes later, Khan was killed by the police. Preti Taneja, novelist and academic, had taught creative writing on the programme, Merritt had been her colleague and Khan her student. Taneja did not attend the conference but heard of the three deaths the following day and Aftermath is a record of her responses. 

Aftermath is not an easy read, its structure is disjointed and broken, reflecting Taneja’s own responses as she seeks to make sense of what happened. As the book unfolds these responses develop. The early part is dominated by her grief, disbelief and a search for explanation that borders on a need to find someone to blame. Why was Khan allowed to participate in the programme? Why was not his “risk” better understood? Why was he allowed to attend the conference?  But as the book moves on these questions seem less important as the focus moves from the single act of individual violence to consider the wider, structural, violence that characterises our society and provides the context for this incident.  

In delivering the programme Taneja was acutely aware of the lack of information provided to her about her prisoner students’ convictions. Despite repeated requests all she was offered was a suggestion she searched on Google (p. 65). Although understandable I found this problematic, knowing someone’s convictions and the assessment of them by state agents is not a good way to know them. In past jobs I have worked in housing projects that, in one case, refused any information on the ex-prisoners it housed and, in another, required previous convictions alongside the full disclosure of the state’s assessment of the person and their “risk”. I much preferred the former, it allowed us as workers to get to know people as people in our projects rather than through the state’s assessment of them as prisoners. Of course, this doesn’t mean there were no risks, but it does allow for a more objective process of risk assessment. Later when “risk” emerged as a dominant paradigm in “offender” management, people leaving prison became “risks” to be assessed, monitored and managed. But the concern of the new models of risk assessment was not primarily about the risk of harm people posed to the community, or indeed to themselves, but the reputational risk they potentially posed to institutions. Risk management became a tool of power. It was not really concerned with avoiding harm, it was a tool to ensure that when harm occurred, agencies were allowed to claim that their hands were clean. The reality of risk management is illustrated by the way Cambridge University closed down Leaning Together. Although the university had previously exploited the programme in its public relations, the events at Fishmongers’ Hall saw them swiftly seek to distance themselves. As Taneja observes ‘the institution has five centuries of experience in self preservation’ and what it once saw as an asset to be proud rapidly became a liability to be jettisoned. Institutional risk management contingency plans kicked in: ‘silence is the demand, the punishment and the reward. There are things we think we cannot risk to say.‘ (p. 71).

Whilst Taneja is careful to point out in Aftermath that it ‘is not the purpose or place of this book to speculate on what motivated Khan to commit this attack’ (p. 210), in trying to make sense of what happened she inevitably focuses on the environment from which he emerges. The inequalities, racism, educational exclusion – all common experiences for a brown working-class Muslim boy – are the structural violence that characterise his, and many others, life experiences. However, ‘lawmakers and ministers all reject their involvement, hide what they knew, accept no responsibility’ (p. 113), thereby continuing the very structures ultimately responsible for most of the violence we experience. To find an alternative paradigm to ‘the rules we live by (that) keep them safe’ (p. 113), Taneja draws on Black feminist and abolitionist writers to search for something better. Her conclusion is that: ‘None of us will survive this. Our only chance is to dismantle it’ (p. 121). 

As abolitionists we are repeatedly challenged about what we would do about the worse of the worse, the murders, rapists and terrorists (but never the corporations, the states, the powerful). We are urged to be realistic, prison, policing, security services are necessary to protect us from the risk of serious harm. But, such an analysis refuses to recognise how most of the harm we experience is not caused by deviant individuals but the structural inequalities of our society. Prison can disappear a few individuals, a minority of whom might actually be dangerous, but much more significantly it, alongside policing and other agencies of the security state, seeks to maintain the very social structure which causes us the greatest harm. As Taneja points out: ‘Power tells a story to sustain itself, it has no empathy for those it harms, it washes its hands of them’ (p. 199). Aftermath starts with grief and shock, a violent act that has left many calling for an intensification of the punitive state. Taneja has resisted this and has instead recommitted herself to abolition which for her, ‘in the widest sense and at the cellular level is a word, a world, a choice to make. A resonance to action’ (p. 201). If we want a less violent world, we need to understand it cannot be built by responding punitively to individual acts, it requires a collective response to transform society. ‘Somewhere, an equal city is being written;’ Taneja concludes, ‘it will spread’ (p. 203).

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