by Jamilah Ahmed
27 October, 2019: The Upper Wimpole Street Literary Salon was delighted to welcome Elif Shafak to a packed event and wonderful conversation between Catherine Davidson and Elif, one that was full of laughter, hope and solidarity.
It began with a sombre reminder, however, that when Elif was last at the Salon in 2015, she voiced her fears about the erosion of democracy. Catherine remembered that many thought at that time “it couldn’t happen here.” How wrong we were!
Nevertheless, Elif had our full attention now. She said how pleased she was to be with us in “a community of people who believe in the Arts, with women who inspire and give to each other.” She suggested we “talk together, take the opportunity to discuss everything, and share anxieties.”
The idea for Elif’s latest book, 10 Hours 38 Minutes in This Strange World, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, was partly inspired by a piece of scientific research that revealed the part of the brain in charge of longterm memory is the last part to die. This prompted the question for her, “What do we remember, the good or the bad?”
Around the same time, she read a news article about a transgender sex-worker being murdered, who would likely have a nameless grave, and be marked instead by a number. Elif wanted to write a story that reversed that process, to take a number and conjure the person. Her book aims to give voice to the outcasts, the forgotten and unwanted and to explore those unlikely people buried together in the Cemetery of the Companionless.
This is heavy material but the novel tells an ultimately uplifting story. Elif also spoke about how important humour is when overcoming obstacles and difficult times: “In undemocratic societies, humour disappears from public spaces,” she said, urging us to celebrate humour—the kind that has compassion in it—so that laughing together can be another kind of oxygen to inhale.
The open conversation explored many topics, including politics and countries and ended with a discussion of activism and the accompanying dangers and emotions it gives rise to. For Elif, anger need not be part of activism, as that often becomes a further obstacle in itself. Compassion, connectivity and kindness can be central tenets of activism, as indeed can be writing and novels.
She commented that she had noticed a “Brexit fatigue” in the UK and warned that if public engagement decreases, we allow our civic space to become dominated by hardliners. Perhaps this time, we’ll take better note of her words: “If democracy is under threat,” she cautioned, “we don’t have the luxury of ignoring politics.”