(Image Credit: Londonreviewbooks.co.uk)
A wistful throwback to uncomplicated times, Elif Shafak’ s cross between a tract and a reflective novella, is a plea for hope, harmony and happiness. All of 90 pages, How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division is a near perfect antidote to a world fueled by a unidirectional, and demanding social media complemented by a binary global polity. We are not just populating an ‘it’s us vs them’ existence, but also remain blissfully unaware of such a dangerous cleave. A clever, compliant and complicit technology masquerading as a ubiquitous friend liberally feeds the necessary grist for an angsty mill. A political theorist, in a professional and professorial sense, Shafak, bemoans the now taken for granted trends such as ‘cancel culture’, trampling upon opposing views and mindless censorship that have spread like vile viruses creating discord and dejection amongst a collective humanity.
When the Booker Prize nominated author Elif Shafak’ s mother married, she had to bid goodbye to university to focus on being a spouse. After an unfortunate, albeit inevitable divorce, the tenacious lady returned to university and finished her studies. After passing her exams, she thanked her mother for helping to raise Elif. “Don’t thank me,” said the elderly woman, “you focus on improving your daughter’s life. We inherit our circumstances; we improve them for the next generation. Now you need to make sure your daughter has more than you had.” Powerful words, sans any doubt.
The book has a little Egyptian girl named “Facebook”, courtesy the premature optimism triggered by the spontaneous Arab spring, and yet another baby named “Like” in Israel just a few months following the Arab spring. These two names symbolize a fond reminder of a time where the world looked all set for a phase of tranquility. “If wanting to be heard is one side of the coin, the other side is being willing to listen,” mulls Shafak “The moment we stop listening to diverse opinions is also when we stop learning.” Empathy and paying a patient ear to stories of less privileged people of earth, forms the corner stone of Elif Shafik’s book. “Whether it’s 5,000 refugees who have died or 10,000, the difference doesn’t and won’t register unless we know the personal stories behind the statistics”, writes Shafak. Acknowledging that we have a darker side of emotions is according to Shafak the first step towards effecting a transformation. Once there is this frank and candid recognition, there will also be room for a conversion of the destructive into the constructive.
Written in the aftermath of the calamitous George Floyd murder, Elif Shafak channelizes her inner John Steinbeck and Elie Wiesel in tackling and overcoming avoidable human suffering. “I am just pain covered with skin” bemoans a character in Steinbeck’s epochal The Grapes of Wrath. But as Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison so admirably put it, “I get angry about things, then go on and work”. We as remnants of a disunited humanity need to go to work. And boy do we need to get to work right now! Our only habitable planet is rife with conflict and chaos, when not punctuated by confusion and conundrums. But redemption is not a choice It is an inevitability.
Elif Shafak was born in Strasbourg in a tower block flat. Her house was a hotbed of intellectual ferment. Unfortunate immigrants, struggling artists and aspiring students read and discussed Jean-Paul Sartre, Guy Debord and Althusser with vigour and verve. The same enthusiasm is brought to bear by Shafak in her slim yet wonderful book. She finishes her book on a note of measured optimism. Arguing that we possess all the necessary tools to reconstruct our societies anew, she takes recourse to the wisdom of T.S. Eliot to infuse positivity. “What we call the beginning is often the end…The end is where we start from”.
How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division – a much needed balm to soothe self-induced pain.