New authors might sit back and consider the undercurrent in their fiction. Despite a variety in the subject matter, authors may unconsciously repeat themes that have marked their lives.
March 2015. Bath Literary Festival offered its usual treats, the most popular being the talk by Kasuo Ishiguro, booked out within minutes of the programme going live. His first novel for ten years, The Buried Giant, has surprised readers by its fantasy genre. Ishiguro suggested that all of his novels had an underflow of unspok
en, part forgotten material. There may be fantastic creatures in his novel but ‘buried’ in his title refers obliquely to the human tendency for suppressing memories about painful matters.
He had given a wonderful one-hour interview on BBC4 covering similar ground, whereas Elif Safak was newer to the Bath audience.
The two authors had ‘burying’ in common. Shafak referred to the ‘collective amnesia’ of Turkey, uncomfortable events in history more easily ignored if historic artefacts were not preserved.
Speaking fluently, extemporaneously and passionately in her third language, Safak also had amnesia on her mind, collective amnesia, for so much has been suppressed. The role of the woman, the existence of minorities. There is little urban memory, so that residents do not know the origin of their street names, for instance, and are not encouraged to ask questions or to care about the past. Shafak mourns the loss of cosmopolitanism in Turkey, which is why she loves London. The variety of cultures, nations, sub-groups is precious and stimulates creativity.
As a lonely child, Shafak found the books she read more real than the Turkish world around her. The questions she asked, the situations she wrote about, caused social bullying. She was spat at in the street, prosecuted for her first book, and her work came to the world in translation.
Shafak gave the listeners an insight into the current Turkish situation that was far more powerful than a description of her latest book (The Architect’s Apprentice, out late April). It was a talk which had the full hall flocking to her queue as soon as her event ended.
‘No,’ she advised a questioner. ‘In the evenings, the streets (in Istanbul) belong to the men.’
There was a parallel with Ishiguro’s talk. Ishiguro had rebelled against being an author who ‘explained Japan’ to other audiences. (He has lived in England since childhood). Safak had ridden the salt water of being a female author in a patriarchal society, so that the ‘wonder’ of her success appeared to be solely that she was a woman. Both authors wanted recognition for the content of their novels, not to be defined by the stereotype.
But the real highlight of this literary festival came in the smaller room, the salon, with a smaller quieter audience, many of whom were deaf. London-based artist and writer Louise Stern grew up in Freemont, California, and is the fourth generation deaf in her family. Her debut novel ‘Ismael and His Sisters’ is set in a Mexican deaf community and is an extraordinary analysis of the way we experience the world and the barriers we build out of language. She hardly talked about her book, but about communication. It was very powerful.
That is the subject of my next post.