Day 2: Edinburgh International Book Festival, Elif Shafak

By Megan Thomas

So I’ve taken my sweet time posting about my second day at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, mainly because I’ve been travelling about quite a bit since going freelance at the beginning of August. Thankfully, I’m a rigorous note-taker – it mainly comes across as studious-looking at events, but the cold, hard truth is that I’m borderline ADD and it keeps me focused. So rest assured – I’m not just pulling this from memory, despite the event taking place on 23 August.

Elif Shafak is a Turkish-British novelist, essayist, academic, public speaker and women’s rights activist – all of these qualities make her an utter delight to listen to, I assure you. While some may be familiar with her novels such as The Forty Rules of Love, The Bastard of Istanbul, Three Daughters of Eve (to name a few, her list is impressively long and all of them have that feel of “I’ve seen/heard people rave about this”), but I was there to hear her speak about her most recent novel, the 2019 Booker Prize shortlisted 30 Minutes and 38 Seconds In This Strange World. I bought a copy and a review will follow – I’m very excited, there’s something so special about a signed copy bought after being convinced of it by the author herself.

The premise is based on what Shafak learnt from studies undertaken on bodies after death. The studies showed that once the blood supply ceases, the brain can continue to function for minutes, begging the question: is there the possibility of a brief spout of post-death consciousness, and what would one think about? The novel is Shafak’s imagining of the selected thoughts of a young Turkish sex worker known as “Tequila Leila” in Istanbul, who is dead and discarded in a dustbin, experiencing the final, fleeting thoughts of her existence. Shafak’s imagining of this last ream of consciousness focuses on memory – long-term memories and influential friendships throughout life, rather than the now in which Leila finds herself.

Inspired by real incidents, the novel (which, I remind you, I haven’t read yet) flips between what Shafak described as the dialects of sorrow and humour, and the need for their interchangeability in a healthy society. She believes this balance is necessary with everything, and thinks countries who have lost their democracies have often lost their sense of humour, too. She believes in the life-affirming literary power of letting sorrow and humour talk to one another.

Her novels have previously resulted in attacks and discontent from the Turkish government, with her work being investigated as “obscenity” as a result of dealing with issues such as gender violence and child abuse. Yet, figures such as the four million refugees in Turkey and an increase in child brides mean that there is zero chance that this incredible individual will ever censor herself, back down or shy away from the truth in favour of a message approved by the tourism board.

She has decided to structure the book around five characters from Leila’s life, her “water family” over her “blood family”, and uses these characters to make poignant, brave statements about diversity. From gentle men whose characters mean they don’t fit into societal structures and abused women, to gender norms and issues of sexuality, her primary motivation is to challenge and question, while offering a voice to the voiceless, censored and forgotten.

Shafak describes herself as a commuter between her two languages, Turkish and English: her emotional connection is to Turkish and her cerebral connection to English. So, to ensure her novels contain both those commuter destinations, she writes her books in English, has them translated for her to Turkish, and then rewrites the Turkish so it’s better aligned to how she wrote it originally. How bloody amazing is that? I’m not sure if you’ve picked up yet that I’m pretty damn enamoured with this woman, her brilliant mind and her solicitous soul.

You can expect that if this was my take-back from the event before I’ve even had a chance to read the book, then this will not be the last you hear from me on the topic. This particular event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival really stood out and reminded me why literature and particularly fiction is so vital for society and our humanity. Well, until the next one did the same again…

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