Tuesday, April 2, 2013


Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak's latest book, Honor, is long-listed for this year's Orange Prize!

Shafak is one of Turkey's most acclaimed modern writers, with eight works of fiction and one memoir. In addition to her literary career, she has earned a PhD in political science and completed an MA in Gender and Women's Studies, for which she wrote a thesis on Islam, women, and mysticism. I fell in love with her book The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi, a double narrative mostly concentrating on Rumi's relationship with his teacher/muse, Shams of Tabriz.

Shafak's latest novel opens with a loud crack; Esma, a member of a Kurdish family that immigrated to England in the 1970s, writes,

My Mother died twice. I promised myself I would not let her story be forgotten, but I could never find the time, or the will, or the courage to write about it. That is, until recently. I don't think I will ever become a real writer and that is quite alright now. I have reached an age at which I am at peace with my limitations and failures. But I had to tell the story, even if only to one person. I had to send it into the universe to float freely, away from us. I owed it to Mum, this freedom. And I had to finish it this year. Before he is released from prison.
Shafak recounts, in whispers and shadows, the honor killing of Esma's mother, Pembe, by Esma's elder brother Iskender, and then flashes back to Kurdish Turkey, 1945, to the birth of  Pembe and her twin sister Jamilla. The sisters show us bright sky and rugged landscape, angry superstitious mothers and enfeebled fathers full of rage. The girls' rebellious playfulness and joy are slowly weighed down by inherited tension about women and their only asset, "honor."

The narrative jumps around in time, drawing circles around the characters like tree rings. That which went before them, while not creating their fates, pushes and pulls them in the  directions toward which they stumble. Adem picks the "wrong sister," was "forced" to because of a set of actions resolving a previous grievance, and so the sister he favors is now paying with her honor. In the scenes that jump ahead to the family's moored immigrant life in England, Adem, broken long ago by his own father's abuses, is addicted to both gambling and a Russian nee Bulgarian exotic dancer. Pembe steadily and with great openness of heart observes her family around her, uncertain about how to help them. Her youngest son is in love with an Irish anarchist twice his age; Iskender, the eldest, handsome and intense, is acutely aware of the racism that follows him; Esma is a word lover and feminist in a conservative house. Then Pembe meets Elias, whose kindness tugs her out of her tight circle, and sadly, the loveliness of their friendship is the sword of Damocles.

This is a book about kindness and unfairness. Hatred and generosity. Tradition and family dysfunction often dictated by addiction or mental illness. Shafak is a master at shining light into shameful places but with a great respect for God and for the beautiful Kurdish and Turkish traditions.

Check out Shafak's Ted Talk on storytelling:

- Hannah

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